Archbishop Anthony Apuron stands in front of the Dulce Nombre de Maria Cathedral Basilica in Hagatna, Guam. Apuron is among the highest-ranking church officials to be tried by the Vatican for sexual wrongdoings.
(Photo: Grace Garces Bordallo, AP)

Editor’s note: Some details in this report, while important to the understanding of the story, are graphic. Also, the USA TODAY Network does not identify alleged sexual abuse victims who do not wish to come forward.

It started off innocently: a 15-year-old boy helping out at San Miguel, a local church named for Archangel Michael, the leader of all angels.

There was yardwork and cleaning, followed by invitations to the rectory to eat and watch TV. Soon, there were offers to drink sacramental wine and watch X-rated movies. Then sexual assault.

More than 50 times over three years.

By the parish priest.

Those jarring allegations come from a recent lawsuit claiming assault from 1985 to 1988. It is one of nearly 100 lawsuits that describe rampant child sexual abuse by some of Guam’s most revered men: the Catholic clergy.

An investigation by the USA TODAY Network’s Pacific Daily News unearthed allegations of decades of assault, manipulation and intimidation of children reared on this remote, predominantly Catholic U.S. territory.  Among the accusations: a boy fondled on the way to his grandmother’s burial, and another molested for the first time on his seventh birthday, then raped or assaulted 100 more times.

The children’s steadfast faith in the island’s priests made them vulnerable, the lawsuits say.  Accuser William Payne’s parents “had raised him to honor and respect the priest, and told him that he had to do what the priest told him to do,” according to his lawsuit.  He had “been instilled with the belief that clergy are never wrong, and that the clergy were like Jesus.”

The lawsuits and other public statements collectively claim that priests preyed on children for nearly four decades, with allegations of wrongdoing reaching the highest levels of the Guam Catholic hierarchy.

Archbishop Anthony Apuron, 13 Guam priests and others, including a Catholic schoolteacher, a Catholic school janitor and a Boy Scout leader, are alleged to be sexual predators. Guam’s Archdiocese of Agana is a defendant in 96 lawsuits. The complaints detail alleged attacks from 1955 through 1994 and claim some religious leaders knew of the exploitation and ignored it. One retired priest, who admitted in an affidavit that he sexually abused 20 or more boys, still receives a monthly stipend from the archdiocese. The accusations also ensnare the Boy Scouts of America, where that priest also served as a scoutmaster. The scouting group is named as a co-defendant in 52 lawsuits.

While clergy abuse is well documented elsewhere in the U.S. and in cities around the world — even as the subject of the Academy Award-winning movie Spotlight — a similar pattern of allegations in Guam has gone largely unnoticed outside this tiny island. The accusations only recently caught the attention of the Vatican.

In June 2016, Pope Francis suspended Apuron, who has since been accused in four lawsuits of sexually abusing four altar boys in the 1970s. The Vatican is now trying him in a secret procedure that could lead to him being dismissed from the clergy, also known as being laicized. Apuron is among the highest-ranking church officials to be tried by the Vatican for sexual wrongdoings.

Apuron has denied the abuse charges via statements on video and through written statements issued by the archdiocese. His attorney has filed motions to dismiss lawsuits against him.

Apuron’s Vatican trial is “very, very rare, and the reason it’s rare is because the Vatican or the popes have protected the bishops,” says Dominican priest Tom Doyle, a specialist in canon, or church, law who advocates for abuse victims. “They consider them to be the most important part of the church, so they protect them, no matter what they’ve done.”

Complaints against the Boy Scouts say the group ignored the priest abuse and enabled clergy to prey on young boys. At times the church required Guam altar boys join the Boy Scouts, and Boy Scouts were encouraged to serve in the church, according to lawsuits.

The Guam lawsuits join a steady stream of accusations against Catholic clergy. In June, Pope Francis aide Cardinal George Pell was charged with “historical sexual offenses” by authorities in his native Australia. Pell denied the charges in a Vatican news conference.

The Boston scandal is one of the most high-profile examples of clergy abuse. In 2003, there was a $85 million settlement of 552 lawsuits against the Boston Archdiocese involving more than 150 priests. Yet, Guam’s sexual abuse controversy appears to have seeped more deeply into its smaller community. There are more than 4.7 million people in the greater Boston area, while the population of Guam — an island about 3,800 miles west of Hawaii — is fewer than 163,000 people. Per capita, that’s 12 lawsuits per 100,000 in Boston, compared with 59 lawsuits per 100,000 in Guam.

Scandal runs deep

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SOURCE: USA Today / Pacific Daily News – Haidee V Eugenio, Steve Limtiaco and Dana M Williams

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