20 Sep 2017

Guam's Catholic Church abuse scandal widens

1:41 pm on 20 September 2017

Warning: This article deals with sensitive material involving sexual assault.

In 1985, a 15-year-old boy was invited to do yard work at the local church, that soon led to invitations to watch TV, and then to drink seminary wine with the priest. One day, according to a lawsuit, the priest assaulted him - then dozens of times after that.

In another case, a 7-year-old was first abused on his 7th birthday, and then more than 100 times after that. Another claims he was assaulted in the car on his way to his grandmother's funeral.

Dulce Nombre de Maria Cathedral Basilica in Guam

Guam's Catholic church has come under scrutiny Photo: 123rf

These are just some of the allegations detailed in more than 100 lawsuits filed against the Catholic Church on Guam in the past year. New allegations continue to surface, along with signs of a systematic, decades-long cover-up.

So far, 16 priests, two archbishops and a bishop have been implicated in alleged abuse that spans from the mid-1950s to the early 1990s.

"It will continue getting bigger," said David Lujan, the lawyer representing a majority of the plaintiffs. "I still have another probably 15 more cases that I have yet to file and I keep getting phone calls from new clients. I suspect it's going to grow to at least 150, if not more."

The north Pacific island of 160,000 is one of the most Catholic places in the world - about 85 percent of the population identifies as Catholic.

The lawsuits unearth allegations of assault, manipulation and intimidation of children reaching the highest levels of the island's Catholic hierarchy. In them, the plaintiffs say a steadfast faith made them vulnerable. Some claim they were raised to respect priests, and a belief was instilled that they could do no wrong.

"The church was very, very powerful and everyone knew it," said Mr Lujan. "You know, the island was 98 percent Catholic then, and so the culture was to shut the kids up. You don't talk that way about a priest."

Of the 106 lawsuits filed so far, 55 of them are against a former priest named Louis Brouillard, who lived on Guam from the 1940s until he eventually left in 1981.

Mr Brouillard, who is now 96 and lives in Minnesota, last year singed an affidavit admitting he abused dozens of boys during his nearly 40 years as a priest and Boy Scouts leader on the island.

In a statement released last year, Mr Brouillard, who still receives a monthly stipend from the church, said he had confessed to abusing children and the church knew for years, but nobody told him to stop. Instead, he claimed, his only punishment was to say prayers.

"Before he was finally removed from Guam in 1981, he was constantly transferred from one parish to another, which is traditionally what the church has done [in similar cases] throughout the United States," said Mr Lujan.

"There is no question about it. It's been a huge cover-up."

According to Mr Lujan and four of the lawsuits, the allegations go to the very top of the Catholic Church hierarchy in Guam, Archbishop Anthony Apuron, who is accused of assaulting altar boys as a parish priest in the 1970s.

Archbishop Apuron denies the allegations, as do a number of other accused priests, and motions have been filed to dismiss the lawsuits. There have also been motions filed arguing that the law passed by the territory's legislature lifting the statute of limitations for historical abuse cases goes against the United States Constitution, which applies in Guam.

Guam Archbishop Anthony Apuron

Guam Archbishop Anthony Apuron Photo: Pacific Daily News

Still, in June last year, Pope Francis suspended Archbishop Apuron, and he is currently being tried in a secretive Vatican procedure that could see him stripped of all his priestly functions. However, he technically remains Guam's Archbishop.

The Archdiocese of Agaña, too, has said it takes "all allegations of abuse very seriously." After Archbishop Apruon's suspension, Pope Francis sent an Archbishop from Detroit, Michael Byrnes, to take over operations on Guam.

Archbishop Byrnes was unable to be reached for comment, but in a statement on its website, the Archdiocese said: "Sexual abuse is a matter of the gravest concern … we take the protection of children very seriously. Our Archdiocese pledges to correct the wrongs and mistakes of the past."

Since the abuse has come to light, the Archdiocese have promised to review the church's procedures and pay for counselling, among other measures. It has also been trying to sell most of its assets - including land and real estate - in anticipation of a hefty payout. So far, the sum of the lawsuits is $US600 million.

Mr Lujan said discussions were underway with the church and the Boy Scouts of America to kick off an out-of-court settlement process, which he said would be preferable to a lengthy court process for many of the victims.

Mr Lujan said he expected an agreement on how to go forward with mediation would be reached within the next couple of weeks, ready for the settlement process to begin early next year.

"It's a process that's been utilised in the United States, so all it is is tweaking some of these protocols so it fits the Guam experience," he said. "I believe the potential is all there so it can be done and all settled by, say, April."

However, for many of Guam's faithful, the need for cleansing goes beyond an apology and settlement. A few years ago, Dave Sablan and a group of civic leaders formed the non-profit group Concerned Catholics of Guam.

Mr Sablan said it was in response to the church's questionable handling of finances and real estate, but that has since branched out to supporting those who have come forward with allegations of abuse.

"It has basically shaken the entire church knowing … clergy members were sexually abusing children and prepubescent teens over the past 50 years or so," said Mr Sablan. "Everybody has basically held back a lot of their contributions and donations to the church until the trust factor has been reinstated."

"The Archdiocese has made a good move," he said. "[But] there's a lot of cleansing that they have to go through."

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs