'Look what he's taken from me': the deadly toll of Catholic church sex abuse on Guam

Anita Hofschneider in Agat, photographs Ken D'Souza

Roosters crow in the distance as Walter Denton gestures toward a white one-storey concrete building behind a church in Agat, a village in southern Guam.

“You know, just standing here, right behind you, that is where I was raped,” says Denton, 56.

It has been more than three years since Denton first went public with accusations that Guam’s former archbishop Anthony Apuron assaulted him, and even though he has told the story many times his voice is still heavy with emotion.

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Denton says he was 12 or 13 years old and had fallen asleep in the church rectory, where Apuron had asked him to spend the night, and then “woke up screaming,” laying on his stomach with his hands pinned down and Apuron on top of him.

Denton says when the priest finally stopped, he offered to give Denton straight A’s in theology class.

A photo of former Archbishop Anthony Apuron lays among discarded items on the floor of the former Accion Hotel which was a seminary but is now vacant and for sale by the Catholic Church, in Yona, Guam Photograph: David Goldman/AP

The next day, Denton was in shock. He didn’t want to tell his dad what happened. It took him months to tell a friend, a fellow altar server.

Together they confided in a priest named Jack Niland.

“Well boys,” the priest allegedly replied. “Priesthood is a lonely life.” (Niland is now the subject of multiple sexual abuse lawsuits. He died in 2009.)

It wasn’t until 2015 that Denton realised his childhood trauma wasn’t an isolated incident. Back on Guam, he overheard a cousin talking with a friend about how Apuron had sexual relations with seminarians. Denton says hearing that made him so angry, and he blurted out that Apuron had raped him.

Later that year, he wrote a letter to the Vatican detailing his alleged rape. In 2016, he described his trauma at a press conference on Guam. His was among a series of public announcements organised by local critics of the archbishop who had convinced Denton and others to speak up against Apuron, then one of the most powerful people on Guam.

Though Denton didn’t realise it at the time, his allegation would help set off a chain of events that has revealed hundreds of sexual abuse cases across multiple decades on Guam and forced the church there to declare bankruptcy, shaking the foundations of a community deeply rooted in the Catholic religion.

At the time Denton went public, levying such accusations against a priest on Guam was almost unthinkable. But in the four years since, these allegations have formed a steady drumbeat in the backdrop of everyday life on the western Pacific island. Nearly 300 sexual abuse lawsuits have been filed against nearly two dozen priests on the island, and while local newspapers still regularly publish stories detailing new accusations they’re now so familiar they no longer make the front page.

After Denton and others came forward in 2016, Apuron forcefully denied the allegations and left the island. Guam’s legislature removed the statute of limitations for child sex abuse cases, just a few years after rejecting similar legislation.

No criminal charges have been brought against Apuron, but the Vatican held a canonical trail and ultimately exiled Apuron from Guam, stripping him of his title as archbishop. Pope Francis denied the priest’s appeal of that decision, securing Apuron’s banishment.

Apuron, who still receives a $1,500 monthly stipend from the church, is now the subject of multiple civil lawsuits alleging sex abuse and has not returned to Guam. His attorney declined to comment for this story.

Roy Quintanilla, who spoke out with Denton against Apuron in 2016, says he never imagined the settlement talks would drag out for so long. “I know that this is taking a toll on the people of Guam and it’s just so sad,” says Quintanilla, who now lives in Las Vegas but follows the news developments closely.

“Sometimes I think —” he pauses, and then continues slowly. “I don’t doubt that I did the right thing, that’s for sure, because I think it needed to be said. I just didn’t realise the impact on the community.”

Brouillard, the predator

More than half of the total cases against the church related to one priest: Louis Brouillard, a priest from Minnesota who served from 1948 until 1981, teaching at an all-boys Catholic school and working as a Boy Scouts of America scout leader.

He is now the target of more than 150 sexual abuse lawsuits on Guam. After settling several lawsuits related to Brouillard, the Boy Scouts declared bankruptcy last month.

The cases against Brouillard describe how he lured and cajoled children, threatening, photographing and molesting them. One case filed against the priest as recently as mid-February describes how he victimised a child who was left homeless after a typhoon.

“At that time, when I was that age, I got the impression that kids liked it, so I went ahead,” Brouillard told the Associated Press in 2016. He didn’t know how many children he abused.

“I have no idea,” he said. “Maybe 20.”

Brouillard, who died in 2018, was never prosecuted for his offences, because the statute of limitations for child molestation was two years. He said that other members of the church knew about his abuse but did not tell him to stop, instead telling him to pray.

Emmanuel Cruz was a teenager living in the village of Mangilao when he says the priest came to his house and asked his parents if he could take Cruz to his office and talk about religion. Instead, Cruz alleges Brouillard asked him about his dating life and asked Cruz to take off his clothes and allow Brouillard to photograph the boy naked. That’s when the priest measured his penis, Cruz says.

Cruz hasn’t filed a lawsuit; compared with the other allegations against the priest, he says he feels his experience wasn’t so bad. Still, the shame made him keep it a secret for decades.

At age 71, he’s only now talking about his experience because he wants people to know that the people filing lawsuits are telling the truth. He suspects there are a lot of people like him who aren’t going to court.

Cruz still goes to church, and says now that Brouillard is dead, God will be the ultimate judge. “What do they say? God rest his soul,” he says.

A devout community

Benjamin Cruz, no relation to Emmanuel, understands why it took sexual abuse survivors on Guam so long to speak up.

The former Guam lawmaker was behind an unsuccessful effort to temporarily lift the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse on Guam back in 2011. He remembers how Apuron persuaded his colleagues to dilute the bill until it was essentially meaningless.

Cruz also understands the shame associated with sexual abuse — he says he himself was victimised by a priest in California when he was growing up, although he never filed a lawsuit.

But it wasn’t only shame that kept sexual abuse survivors on Guam from speaking out. Many feared their parents and grandparents were so devoted to the church that they wouldn’t believe them.

The western Pacific island is a US territory home to the indigenous CHamoru people, most of whom are Catholic. Jesuit missionaries started converting the native people in the 17th century, and the Spanish fought a 26-year war that decimated the community. Today, many CHamorus practice a brand of Catholicism that, for some, has been woven into the fabric of their indigenous identity.

Cruz’s mother was part of a generation of CHamorus on Guam who survived nearly three years of an oppressive occupation by imperial Japan during World War II.

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As the occupation dragged on and food grew scarce, parents prayed for their children to survive malnutrition and women prayed they would not get raped. The head of Guam’s Catholic church, Father Jesus Duenas, was tortured and beheaded for protecting an American serviceman.

Religion, already central force in Guam’s CHamoru community, became even more vital to many as the world that they knew fell apart.

“Many of them felt that [God] was the only thing that kept them alive,” Cruz says. “Somebody kept them safe and for that they’re forever grateful.”

Cruz says his mother never told him whether or not she had been raped during the war. Cruz never told her what happened to him either. He didn’t want to tarnish the memory of an institution that meant so much to her.

‘Helicoptered into a live-fire zone’

On a recent Friday, Guam’s current archbishop Byrnes sits at his office in the chancery on San Ramon Hill. The property has a sweeping view of the village and the shimmering ocean. It is also one of the properties that could potentially be up for sale to resolve the lawsuits, for an estimated $2.5m. Faced with mounting lawsuits, the Archdiocese of Agaña declared bankruptcy last year.

When Byrnes arrived on Guam, the church was in turmoil. Apuron had recently left the island and the finances were a mess.

“I felt like I was being helicoptered into a live-fire zone because everyone was trying to find a centre,” Byrnes says.

He watched the sex abuse allegations against priests multiply from six when he first arrived to nearly 300.

Byrnes presided over one accused priest’s trial, moving to defrock him last month, and implemented training about reporting sexual abuse. By now, the church has trained about 3,100 people, including the priests, teachers and catechists, about child abuse and their responsibility to report abuse if they suspect it.

He’s also sought to fix the church’s finances and records, a challenge hampered by missing documents.

“We’re very close to being audit-able,” he says. Still, he says it was necessary to declare bankruptcy in the face of the onslaught of lawsuits, a move that will hopefully bring the “greatest amount of justice to the greatest number of people.”

The archbishop wants Guam to follow the example of other states and release the names of credibly accused priests but says that’s up to a separate local group in the archdiocese. Still, he is optimistic about the reforms.

“We’ve broken the culture —” he catches himself, adding a caveat. “Hopefully, we’ve broken the culture of silence.”

‘He should be nothing’

The fact that Apuron has been exiled from Guam isn’t enough for Denton. He wants an apology, and to see Apuron in person.

“If there’s a lawsuit and it means going to court and him being there, I want that so bad,” Denton says. “I’m ready to face him.”

Denton believes the former archbishop deserves to be defrocked.

“Look what he’s taken away from me and all these other kids. He doesn’t deserve to wear the cloth of God, he doesn’t deserve that,” Denton says. “Especially someone who rapes children? … He should be nothing.”

Quintanilla also wants an apology. But he has mixed feelings about speaking out.

“I’m having to talk about it over and over and over again,” he says. Sometimes he’ll find himself tearing up as he talks to strangers who recognise him and bring up the abuse. “Although they’ve been very supportive, I am reminded that this is my life now.”

Still, he is glad to help spread awareness. He hopes people on Guam don’t ever forget.

“For the longest time, I thought it was just me,” he says.