Fall of an archbishop; Byrnes set to arrive, steps in for Apuron

By Haidee V Eugenio And Dana M Williams
Pacific Daily News
November 27, 2016

Monsignor Michael Jude Byrnes

When Archbishop Michael Jude Byrnes arrives today, he will step into a fractured community of the faith.

Officially, he is coming to assist Archbishop Anthony Apuron in running the Archdiocese of Agana, and to serve as Apuron’s successor. But Apuron has been out of the public eye since June, when the Vatican suspended him and sent Archbishop Savio Hon Tai Fai to temporarily oversee the Guam church. Apuron faces what an archdiocese spokesman described as “credible accusations of child sexual abuse against him,” and a canonical trial is being prepared in Rome.

Prior to his departure, Apuron led the Catholic faithful here for 30 years. He positioned himself as a fierce defender of morality, local culture and tradition, and used his power as a spiritual leader to influence political decisions. He also argued against a law that would remove the statute of limitations for civil suits in child sex abuse cases, and he once wrote a letter to a judge urging leniency for a former altar boy who confessed to sexually abusing a 2-year-old.

Apuron still has loyal supporters. Many are, like Apuron, followers of the Neocatechumenal Way, an organization within the Catholic church that has been at odds with traditional Catholics on the island. The rift in the church began before the sex abuse allegations were made, and involved the Yona seminary, financial transparency and the removal of two popular priests. On an island where, by some estimates, 85 percent of the population is Catholic, the conflict has shaken religious traditions.

Son of Guam

In the 14 years since the Catholic priest sex abuse scandal was uncovered in Boston and spread to parishes across the country and around the world, abuse allegations on Guam remained secret. Until now.

Joelle Casteix, the western regional director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the situation on Guam is unique for a couple of reasons. Based in Chicago, the group is the world’s oldest and largest network of clergy abuse survivors.

“What makes Guam different is that it’s the first place where lay Catholics have taken the lead to blow the lid off the scandal and demand change,” she said. Another difference is that the accused grew up in the community.

“Apuron is a hometown boy,” Casteix said. “It’s very hard for any faith community to think that one of their own — born and bred — could do such horrible things.”

Apuron was born in 1945, the eighth of 10 children, and served as an altar boy. In a 1978 interview, he said he knew as a child he always wanted to become a priest, and he was particularly attracted to the order of Capuchin Franciscans. Members of the order take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, giving up rights to own personal property or belongings.

“I knew the priesthood would be a lonely life,” Apuron said at the time. “But I’m personally happy and satisfied with what I am doing. The satisfaction I get from helping people is very fulfilling.”

After studying in the states, Apuron returned and eventually become the pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Agat. That was 1976, soon after Typhoon Pamela devastated the island.

“I put my heart and soul into repairing the parish church, convent, rectory and school from the typhoon damages,” he later wrote.

When “Father Tony” was the pastor, families considered it a source of pride and a symbol of deep Catholic faith to have their sons serve as altar boys.

But even then, there were rumors.

“There were no details, but some of the stories were about boys not wanting to stay at the rectory by themselves. We’re always in groups, like five to 10, when we had sleepovers,” said former altar boy Johnny Q. Aquiningoc, 51.

Former altar boy Roy Quintanilla said he was 12 in 1976 when Apuron molested him during a sleepover at the rectory. In May of this year, Quintanilla stood in front of the chancery office and read a statement describing the encounter.

In Prescott, Arizona, Doris Concepcion read about Quintanilla’s accusation. For 11 years she had been haunted by what her son, former altar boy Joseph A. Quinata, told her as he was being wheeled into a surgery he would not survive.

“There was Roy, and it’s like, I have to do something. I have to step up and let them know what’s going on here,” Concepcion said. She said in 2005, in the last conversation they ever had, her son told her he was molested by Apuron.

In June, former altar boy Walter Denton appeared at a press conference and said he was raped by Apuron in 1977.

The following week, former altar boy Roland Sondia appeared at a press conference. He described being selected from a group of altar boys during a sleepover and being molested by Apuron.

Apuron proclaimed his innocence, and responded to his accusers with threats of lawsuits.

Quintanilla, Concepcion, Denton and Sondia have filed a defamation lawsuit against the church, saying they have been falsely portrayed as liars by Apuron and the archdiocese.

Since the Legislature recently removed the statute of limitations for civil claims against perpetrators of child sex crimes, former altar boys have filed civil lawsuits against the archdiocese and Apuron.

Because the criminal statute of limitations has passed, Apuron cannot be arrested or charged with any crimes relating to the accusations against him.

‘Immense power’

After two years in Agat, Apuron was transferred. In 1986, just 14 years after becoming a priest, he was named archbishop of Guam.

He was outspoken in his opposition to gambling, abortion and homosexuality. He frequently became embroiled in debates about public policy.

Legislative Vice Speaker Benjamin Cruz, a former judge and Guam Supreme Court justice, who is gay, often clashed with Apuron. Cruz remembered a breakfast he attended where the archbishop addressed lawmakers.

“He read a very vitriolic statement, which was very anti-gay and I took great umbrage at it,” Cruz said. “I thanked him for breakfast and I told him he was a sanctimonious hypocrite.”

“One time, I have to admit, he and I both appeared in an anti-gambling hearing at the old Legislature where he was in full regalia with his mitre and I came in my robe,” Cruz said. “We both used our office term to try to fight against gambling in the ‘80s. Then he was very instrumental and pushed his power to see to it that the abortion law was passed, which eventually went up to the Supreme Court and got struck.”

“Before his fall from grace, until just recently, he as archbishop had immense power,” Cruz said.

Like church officials in other places, Apuron campaigned against laws lifting the statute of limitations against civil claims for child sex abuse victims. Hon similarly argued against the law, saying it could lead to massive lawsuits against the church.

In 1987, Apuron wrote a letter asking a judge for leniency for a former Agat altar boy who had pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a 2-year-old. A Pacific Daily News article at the time said the man told the judge he took the girl to the beach and committed the crime, and police later found her blood-stained underwear at his workplace.

But the archbishop said the evidence in the case was weak.

“Apparently, he seemed to be tied in coincidentally based on the fact that he was accused to have been the last person to have been with her that particular day,” Apuron wrote. He described the man as “one of the faithful altar boys” from the village.

Because of his rank, Apuron is no longer beholden to the vow of poverty.

In 1990, Apuron bought a $243,000 two-story, three-bedroom single family residence in Santa Ana, Calif., according to property records. He sold it in March 2001 for $298,000.

After selling his California property, Apuron purchased a one-story, four-bedroom single-family residence in Las Vegas for $237,711. In late 2013, Apuron sold the property for $290,000.

His personal attorney, Jacqueline Terlaje, said the properties were occupied by a family member.

“Archbishop Apuron does not own any vacation homes, nor does he own any rentals,” Terlaje said. “The homes were in his name, but were in fact lived in by his now deceased brother.”

Apuron has released three music albums. In 1997, to mark Apuron’s 25th year as an ordained priest, he and the Archdiocese of Agana released a musical CD of traditional Christmas carols and religious hymns, some of which he translated into Chamorro and performed. The CD is still available for sale at the cathedral gift shop for $5.

Neocatechumenal Way

The archbishop met the Rev. Pius Sammut in 1996 and became a follower of the Neocatechumenal Way, Sammut said.

The Rev. Monsignor Brigido Arroyo, 83, has been a Neocatechumenal Way follower since the late 1990s. He said for those hoping to deepen their connection to Catholicism, “the Neocatechumenal Way is an opportunity to know their faith, know the doctrine of the church, to celebrate the Eucharist, and to come together as a community."

Apuron signed a decree in 1999 establishing the Redemptoris Mater Seminary, which was affiliated with Neocatechumenal Way.

Initially, seminarians were housed with private families, then at the Father Duenas Minor Seminary.

In 2002, the archdiocese used a $1.9 million loan to purchase the former 100-room Accion Hotel on 19 acres in Yona. In a donation that was supposed to be anonymous, a group of Carmelite nuns raised $2 million to pay off the loan, giving the archdiocese full title to the property, the building and its contents. It is currently valued at up to $75 million.

In 2011, seminary representatives asked the archdiocese finance council to transfer the title of the property to the seminary itself. After the finance council denied the request, Apuron signed a deed restriction allowing the property to be held by the seminary indefinitely.

Then Apuron dissolved the finance council.

Hon, who has reinstated a finance council, said the pope ordered Apuron to rescind the deed restriction more than once, but Apuron refused.

According to Mother Superior Dawn Marie, who arranged the donation, Apuron asked the nuns to lie about the intended use of the property. She said Apuron wanted them to say the donation was specifically earmarked for the Redemptoris Mater Seminary. The Carmelites left the island earlier this year because of what she described as a "toxic environment" on Guam.

Dr. Ricardo Eusebio, president of a group that supports Apuron and a follower of the Neocatechumenal Way, said the cloistered nun was fueling the toxic environment “by her own desire to seek public attention and provide her rendition of the truth in regards to the seminary.”

On Nov. 9, Byrnes used his authority to cancel the deed restriction and return the property to the archdiocese. He also cut ties between the seminary and the Neocatechumenal Way.

As the seminary controversy was evolving, Apuron removed two popular priests. The Rev. Paul Gofigan lost his job at Santa Barbara Church in Dededo in 2013, and Monsignor James Benavente was removed as rector of the cathedral in 2014. Both were later reinstated by Hon.

Around that time, civic leaders banded together to form Concerned Catholics of Guam. They called for greater financial transparency in the archdiocese and were critical of Apuron’s affiliation with the Neocatechumenal Way.

According to Casteix, of the Survivor’s Network, the Concerned Catholics group and others have been instrumental in bringing allegations of sexual abuse to light. Usually, survivors of sexual abuse are the ones who make the call for change, she said.

Casteix said she got a phone call in 2009 about abuse on Guam, and after some research, decided to visit the island.

“When I came to Guam, survivors were afraid to call me for fear that their phones were tapped. They wouldn’t meet me for fear they would be seen. That has all changed because of the amazing work of ordinary Catholics who have made it safe for survivors,” she said.

“From the very beginning, I heard rumors that Apuron was a predator. But without survivors or documents, there was little I could do or say,” she said.

Call for removal

Hon has traveled to Rome to ask for Apuron’s removal. The archdiocese spokesman, the Rev. Jeff San Nicolas, said Apuron’s connections with the Neocatechumenal Way have helped shield him from scrutiny. He mentioned the seminary deed and the dissolution of the finance council.

“As these issues have come to light, rather than apologizing and seeking to create avenues of reconciliation, Archbishop Apuron has been supported by the Neocatechumenal Way locally, nationally and internationally to deny all charges and obfuscate the issue. This arrogant attitude of denial and obfuscation continued when he was faced with credible accusations of child sexual abuse against him,” San Nicolas said.

Before arriving here, Byrnes rescinded some of Apuron’s work. A statement issued by the archdiocese Wednesday said the religious sisters of Guam wrote letters of gratitude to the pope, Hon and Byrnes.

“Our suffering local church is beginning to heal from the deep divisions and lack of trust experienced by the faithful,” the letters stated.

David Sablan, president of Concerned Catholics of Guam, said even if Apuron were to return as archbishop, he would not be respected by many of the faithful.

“Apuron could be the most powerful man on Guam because he is the moral compass of the community. He sets examples of how one must live as a good Christian. We look to him for guidance,” Sablan said. “But because of the sex abuse allegations and the failures of his leadership, he violated the trust and confidence we have placed on him. We can’t listen to him now. He failed us.”


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