AGAT, Guam — Walter Denton wanted to grow up to be just like Father Tony Apuron, until the night he says the parish priest raped him in a church rectory. The pastor sent the sobbing 13-year-old altar boy away with a warning: “If you say anything to anybody, no one will believe you.”

Denton told his mother, but says she accused him of making it up. He told another priest, but that man did nothing and later turned out to be an abuser himself. And Denton watched helplessly as Pope John Paul II named his alleged rapist Archbishop of Agaña, the voice of divine authority in the small, overwhelmingly Catholic U.S. territory of Guam.

For decades, Apuron oversaw a culture of impunity where abusers went unpunished. Long after it erupted into scandal on the mainland, clergy sexual abuse remained a secret on Guam. On this island where four out of five people are Catholic, the abusers held the power.

RELATED: Guam clergy sex abuse victims tell their stories

Now, thousands of pages of court documents reviewed by The Associated Press, along with extensive interviews, tell a story of systemic abuse dating from the 1950s to as recently as 2013. They show a pattern of repeated collusion by predator priests, with abuse that spanned generations and reached all the way to the very top of the church hierarchy.

The archbishop used his power to stymie a lawmaker’s efforts to allow victims to sue the Church, which could have exposed his past. It wasn’t until Denton and other victims spoke out in 2016 that the Vatican finally suspended Apuron, nearly 40 years after Denton first reported his rape. Apuron still denies the allegations.

“I knew how powerful this guy was,” said Denton, a former U.S. Army sergeant. “He believed he was untouchable, more powerful than the governor. But it was me against him, and I had nothing to lose. I knew I wasn’t the only one.”

Restrictions on suing the Church were eased only after Apuron was suspended. Since then at least 223 lawsuits have been filed alleging abuse by 35 clergymen, teachers and Boy Scout leaders tied to the Catholic Church. In response, the Guam archdiocese filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this year, estimating at least $45 million in liabilities, and survivors have until Aug. 15 to file for a financial settlement.

Seven men have accused Apuron in lawsuits of sexual assaults they endured as boys, including his own nephew. The archbishop, now 73, insists all his accusers are liars. But in a secret church trial last year, the Vatican found Apuron guilty of sex crimes against children, removing him from public ministry and effectively exiling him from Guam. He remains a bishop and receives a monthly $1,500 stipend from the Church.

The AP confirmed someone used Apuron’s name, birthdate and Social Security number to register to vote late last year in New Jersey, but residents living at the address listed said they don’t know him. The Catholic archdioceses of both Newark and Guam said they don’t know where he is.

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 U.S. mainland, Guam has yet to issue a list of priests whom the Church deems credibly accused of sexual assault.

Despite church law that requires bishops and archbishops to maintain records on sex abuse allegations, the new archbishop, Michael Jude Byrnes, said his predecessor left him nothing. Byrnes couldn’t explain why, except to say he had heard there was “a big bonfire” outside the chancery before Apuron left.

“It’s horrific,” Byrnes conceded. “The sins of the fathers are left to the children. … It’s important for the Church of Guam to confront, in a good way, the evil that we found, and to acknowledge it, and to own it.”

Nearly four centuries after the arrival of the first Jesuit missionaries, Catholicism is deeply ingrained in the culture of Guam’s indigenous people, known as Chamorros.

Many streets on this former Spanish colony of 165,000 are named for bishops and priests — including some now accused of sexual abuse. Survivors say they were raised to see members of the clergy as God’s infallible emissaries, addressing priests as “Pale,” the Chamorro word for father. Guamanian children are still taught to sniff a priest’s hand for a blessing, in an ancient gesture of reverence.

Even before Apuron, survivors — and a frequent abuser — reported sexual assaults to the Church, only to have their cases ignored.

When Leo Tudela reported abuse to the Capuchin monks in 1956, they just moved him to another church and Catholic school. There, a teacher, Father Louis Brouillard, took a special interest in the thin 13-year-old with the tuft of dark hair.

A wiry, red-headed Minnesotan, Brouillard came to Guam in 1948 after being expelled from the Catholic seminary on the mainland over accusations of making sexual advances toward boys. Popular for being a lax disciplinarian and easy grader, Brouillard often kept a camera strapped around his neck. Behind his back, some of the boys called him “Louis Leklok” — the Chamorro word for masturbation.

Brouillard asked Tudela to live with him and four or five other boys in the rectory of Santa Teresita Catholic Church, where Tudela, now 76, says he was regularly raped and molested. The Associated Press typically does not identify sexual assault survivors, but those in this story agreed to interviews or were named in public court filings.

In his three decades on the island, Brouillard appears to have been Guam’s most frequent abuser, with at least 132 accusers — both men and women — coming forward over the last four years. Multiple survivors recount other priests and adults present during the abuse, including on Boy Scout excursions organized by Brouillard. He also volunteered as a swimming instructor, they say, filming boys nude and sexually assaulting them at a jungle swimming hole.

In 1981, Brouillard was transferred back to Minnesota after, according to lawsuits, a complaint was made against him to Guam police. He paid for at least three Guamanian boys to visit him and abused them, the lawsuits allege. Brouillard was finally removed from public ministry in 1985, but continued to receive a stipend from the Church.

After survivors began coming forward in 2016, Brouillard signed a sworn statement admitting to sexually abusing at least 20 children, including Tudela. The elderly priest said during his decades on Guam, he had repeatedly confessed what he was doing to his superiors, including Guam’s then bishop, and was just advised to pray for God’s guidance and absolution.

“At that time, I did believe that the boys enjoyed the sexual contact and I also had gratification as well,” Brouillard said in his affidavit. “I pray for all the boys I may have harmed and ask for their forgiveness and for forgiveness from God.”

He died in October 2018 at the age of 97, still a priest.

The same lack of accountability served one of Brouillard’s closest collaborators, Father Antonio C. Cruz, and his protégé — a young Tony Apuron.

Brothers Ramon and Tomas De Plata are among 15 men who have filed lawsuits accusing Cruz, now dead, of sexual assaults. Ramon says his family complained to the village commissioner but heard nothing.

Tomas says the abuse started in the summer of 1963. When he was 11, he says, Cruz performed sex acts while Brouillard took photos.

The following March, Apuron — then a seminarian in his late teens — was at a sleepover in the rectory, the brothers say. Around midnight, Ramon says, he walked into the priest’s bedroom looking for the bathroom and saw Cruz and Apuron engaged in sex acts with a boy from his school. Ramon says the future archbishop got up from the bed and placed a hand on his shoulder.

“He was calling me to join them,” recounted Ramon De Plata, now 65 and retired from the U.S. Army. “I said, ‘Don’t touch me!'”

Shaken, Ramon, then 10, asked his brother to take him home.

Tomas and other survivors also remember seeing black-and-white pornographic photos of Cruz, Brouillard and others having sex with boys, secretly developed in a makeshift darkroom on church property. Tomas says he burned the photos he found in Cruz’s desk— including pictures of himself — and never went back to the Church.

Apuron was ordained as a priest in 1972, and his Sunday sermons packed the pews at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church.

“He was a natural,” remembers Denton, who dreamed of becoming a priest too. “I guess you could say I literally worshipped the ground he walked on.”

So Denton felt privileged when in the spring of 1977, Father Tony invited him to spend the night before Sunday mass in the squat concrete block rectory. He ate supper and then got intensely drowsy, he remembers.

“I woke up and I was lying face down on the bed with my legs spread apart and my arms up, and I couldn’t move,” Denton, now 55, recounted. “It felt like forever. And I yelled, I screamed, and I begged Father Tony, ‘Please stop! Please stop!'” He didn’t.

Denton confided in an older altar boy, who said Apuron had abused him too. Together, Denton recalls, they reported their rapes to another priest, Father Jack Niland, who just looked at them and said, “Well, boys, the priesthood is a lonely life.” Niland was later accused in lawsuits of multiple sexual assaults on children, and has since died.

When Pope John Paul II said Mass outside the island’s cathedral in 1981, Apuron was selected to stand by his side with a white umbrella to shade him. Soon after, the charismatic young priest was named auxiliary bishop for Guam.

In a 1985 visit to San Dimas and Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church in Merizo, Apuron told a teenager stacking bibles on a shelf in a back room to kiss his ring, according to a lawsuit filed in February. When the teen bent over, Apuron grabbed his head and forced him to perform oral sex. The victim, who is identified only by his initials, said Apuron told him no one would take his word over that of a bishop.

That same year, Denton reported his rape to a priest in Maryland, where he was then stationed. He says the priest advised him to pray.

When Guam’s archbishop died later that year, Apuron, then just 40, was quickly named as his successor. His consecration was a great source of pride among his extended family, who were regularly invited to social gatherings at the chancery, a cluster of white concrete buildings on a hilltop with a commanding view of the capital Hagåtña.

Mark Apuron grew up knowing his Uncle Tony was a big deal. After his parents moved from the mainland back to Guam when he was 15, Mark looked forward to spending more time with him.

While at a party at the archbishop’s residence in 1989, Mark mixed cocktails for the guests. Discreetly taking a glass for himself, the teen headed to the archbishop’s bathroom to sneak a cigarette.

“I was a good kid, so if I was going to be naughty I did it in private,” Mark Apuron, now 45, told AP.

Inside, the vanity was lined end to end with bottles of pricey designer colognes, which Mark Apuron sprayed and sniffed as he smoked and drank. Without knocking, his Uncle Tony suddenly opened the locked door, his face flush with anger.

Mark says he froze in fear as his uncle grabbed him, pushed him down over the counter and yanked down his pants. He thought he was about to get a whipping, he says, but instead there was a sharp wave of pain as he felt something penetrate him.

Using the countertop for leverage, Mark jammed himself back hard, forcing his uncle off. He remembers seeing the archbishop’s surprised face as he pushed past him and out of the bathroom.

“Everything happened so fast,” recalls Mark, who has since sued. “But that one second, for me, it never stops.”

When forced to go to future family events, he says, he would see his uncle staring at him intensely. He never found the right words to tell his parents what happened.

“I didn’t think I would be believed,” he said, tearing up. “I thought I was the only one.”

Over time, Mark Apuron and his parents drifted apart — a rift he says began the day his father’s brother raped him.

With Tony Apuron as archbishop, pedophile priests were protected from the top.

Fourteen men say in court papers that they were sexually assaulted by Father Raymond Cepeda, a parish priest at Santa Barbara Catholic Church and School. One, identified by the initials P.P., says when he was 15 he sought Cepeda’s help to become a priest. Instead, he says, he was repeatedly preyed upon for sex starting in 1992.

The teen reported Cepeda to Monsignor Zoilo Camacho, a senior pastor who recommended he take his complaint to the archbishop. Camacho himself was later accused of molesting at least three young altar boys, earning their trust by giving them Matchbox cars and Tonka trucks, and sexually abusing a school girl.

When P.P. recounted years of abuse to Apuron, the archbishop advised the aspiring priest to “pray about these types of evils in the world” and told him he would get over it, according to a 2017 lawsuit.

P.P. then sought the advice of Father Adrian Cristobal, only to be “shunned.” Cristobal, one of Apuron’s top deputies, has been accused in five lawsuits of sexually assaulting boys and young men between 1979 and 2013 and paying victims to keep quiet with cash stolen from the church collection box.

Now 56, Cristobal moved to Arizona in 2017 for a “sabbatical” under the supervision of the Phoenix diocese. He has since disappeared from public view and did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Despite P.P.’s complaints, Cepeda remained a parish priest on Guam for another decade. In response to a 2010 query by the advocacy group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, Apuron’s office announced that Cepeda had been suspended a few months earlier after “an investigation of serious allegations of abuse.”

However, there was no indication evidence was handed over to police. And although Cepeda, now dead, was removed from the priesthood, Apuron still allowed him to teach catechism classes to children.

Among those who had raised concerns about Cepeda’s conduct early on was B.J. Cruz, then the vice speaker of the Guam Senate. He had gone to the archdiocese in 2005 after suspecting his godson was being abused.

A clergy sexual assault survivor himself, Cruz introduced a bill in 2010 to lift the statute of limitations on child sex abuse lawsuits, opening a two-year window to seek compensation. Apuron immediately used his influence to lobby against it. During debate on the Senate floor, Cruz said, other legislators snickered as they showed him mobile phones with texts and calls from the archbishop.

Cruz’s bill eventually passed, but senators aligned with the Church amended it to include “poison pill” language. Plaintiffs had to submit to a mental health evaluation shared with the court. And if they failed to prove abuse, they had to pay the Church’s legal fees, while their attorneys risked losing their law licenses.

In the two years the law was in effect, no survivors came forward. But in November 2014, a former altar boy publicly accused Apuron of molesting the man’s young cousin in the early 1980s. Apuron threatened to sue for defamation.

In August 2015, Denton reported his rape to Apuron’s superior, the apostolic nuncio for the Pacific. At the nuncio’s request, Denton wrote a notarized four-page letter to Pope Francis. The Vatican opened an investigation.

Months ticked by.

In May 2016, a man from Guam publicly accused Apuron of molesting him as an altar boy at the Mt. Carmel rectory. A few days later, a mother disclosed that before her son died, he told family members Apuron had sexually assaulted him during a church sleepover.

Tired of waiting, Denton informed the Church he was returning to Guam and going public. On June 6, the day before his scheduled press conference, Francis suspended Apuron. Denton and Tudela later testified before Guam’s Senate, spurring passage of a law allowing survivors to sue without the onerous provisions.

Apuron has stayed out of the public eye since his suspension. Phone numbers listed for Apuron are disconnected and his lawyer on Guam did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In a written statement issued in April after Francis rejected his final appeal, Apuron maintained his innocence.

“This sentence exiles me from my beloved Guam: a penalty analogous to a death sentence for me,” Apuron said. “I lose my homeland, my family, my church, my people, even my language, and I remain alone in complete humiliation, old and in failing health.”

When Byrnes moved into the chancery in late 2016, he performed a ritual to cleanse the archbishop’s residence of evil, especially the bathroom.

“It was an exorcism,” Byrnes told AP.

Priests on Guam are now forbidden from being alone with children. A committee is reviewing claims of sexual assault, and Byrnes said the archdiocese is close to a formal finding on Cristobal, Apuron’s former deputy.

But for most of the priests accused thus far, there will never be an earthly reckoning. The criminal statute of limitations for their assaults has long expired. Camacho, Cruz, Cepeda and several other accused priests rest together in a quiet corner of Pigo Catholic Cemetery, their stones etched with the cross and adorned with plastic flowers.

Of the accused still living, Father David Kenneth Anderson left Guam to teach for 17 years at Chaminade University, a Catholic college in Hawaii. Two former altar boys have accused Anderson of sexual abuse.

One of them, Robby Perez, now a 48-year-old elementary school teacher in Louisiana, told AP Anderson asked him to spend the night at St. Jude Thadeus Catholic Church in 1982, when he was 11. As he dozed off, Perez says, he felt a hand on his crotch. Perez says he endured five years of sexual abuse, never telling anyone. Toward the end, Perez says, he fell in love with the priest. But when he professed his feelings, Anderson ended their relationship, saying he had to put God first.

Perez was heartbroken. He underwent years of therapy to stop blaming himself.

“It’s part of being a good Catholic, protecting the Church,” Perez said. “It’s like you’re in the Mafia. You know there’s all kinds of unsavory things going on, but you don’t turn on your family.”

Six months after Perez filed his lawsuit in 2017, Anderson was fired from his teaching job, according to Chaminade. When a reporter knocked on the door of Anderson’s condominium near Pearl Harbor in May, a younger woman answered and called for him. Children could be heard playing inside.

Anderson, now 72, quickly shut the door behind him and placed a finger to his lips, shushing the reporter. He said he remembered Perez.

“I was young, the person was young,” said Anderson, who was in his 30s at the time the abuse is alleged. He said it wasn’t a problem for him to live with children now, and that those in the house didn’t need to know about the allegations.

“It’s a long, long time ago,” he said.

Guam archdiocese spokesman Tony Diaz said there appear to be no records explaining when Anderson left the island or his current status within the priesthood. He was never charged with a sex crime.

Walter Denton is one of the few survivors who got an opportunity to face his abuser as an adult.

In the 1990s, Denton was invited to a party in Tacoma, Washington, where an Army buddy’s family would be hosting an honored guest — the archbishop of Agana.

On the day of the party, Denton was the first guest. Apuron greeted those lined up for his blessings, working his way around to Denton.

“I looked him in the eye and I said, ‘Father, do you remember me? Do you know who I am?'”

Denton said Apuron’s eyes grew wide, like he had just seen a ghost. He quickly excused himself to the hosts, and then the priest and his former altar boy walked outside.

“The first question I asked is, ‘Why did you rape me? Why?'” Denton recalled. “I said, ‘You ruined my life.'”

Denton said the archbishop began to cry and asked for forgiveness. The soldier replied that what he did was unforgivable.

“I didn’t believe a single thing he told me,” Denton recounted. “He wasn’t sorry.”

When the father of four received news that Francis had upheld Apuron’s guilty verdict in spring, he wept. He still thinks about what happened almost every day, but after decades away from the Church, he is once again attending Sunday Mass.

“People ask me, ‘Walter, how are you doing?'” Denton said. “And I say, ‘I’m blessed. God has blessed me.'”

Associated Press reporter Grace Garces Bordallo, photographer David Goldman and video journalist Manuel Valdes in Hagåtña, Guam, and reporter Matt Sedensky in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, contributed.

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