AGAT, Guam: Long after clergy sex abuse erupted into scandal in the United States, it remained a secret on the American island of Guam, spanning generations and reaching to the very top of the Catholic hierarchy.
For decades, abusers held the power in a culture of impunity led by an archbishop, who was among those accused. Anthony Sablan Apuron was convicted in a secret Vatican trial and suspended in 2016, after which restrictions he supported on the reporting of abuse were eased.
More than 220 former altar boys, students and boy scouts are now suing the US territory’s Catholic archdiocese over sexual assaults by 35 clergy, teachers and scoutmasters, hoping to finally see justice. The archdiocese filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this year, estimating at least $45 million in liabilities, and survivors have until August 15 to file for a financial settlement.
Thousands of pages of court documents reviewed by The Associated Press (AP), along with extensive interviews, tell a story of systemic abuse going back to the 1950s and of repeated collusion by predator priests. Seven men have publicly accused Apuron of sexual assaults they endured as children, including his own nephew.
The archbishop, now 73, denies the allegations, but in April the Vatican revealed that Pope Francis had upheld the findings of a secret church trial that he was guilty of sex crimes against children.
“He believed he was untouchable, more powerful than the governor,” said Water Denton, a former US Army sergeant, who alleges he was raped by Apuron 40 years ago as an altar boy. “But it was me against him, and I had nothing to lose.”
Though Apuron has been removed from public ministry and effectively exiled from Guam, he remains a bishop and receives a monthly $1,500 stipend from the church. The Guam archdiocese said it did not know where Apuron was, and his lawyer declined repeated requests for comment.
The AP found he recently registered to vote in New Jersey, but residents at the address he listed said he doesn’t live there and they don’t know him. To this day, no member of the Catholic clergy on Guam has ever been prosecuted for a sex crime, including Apuron.
Secret church files that could have helped provide evidence for prosecutions are alleged to have been burned. And unlike dozens of archdioceses on the US mainland, Guam has yet to issue a list of priests whom the church deems credibly accused of sexual assault.