VATICAN CITY — A Vatican tribunal found Guam Archbishop Anthony Apuron guilty of sexually abusing minors and decreed he should be removed him from his clerical office and exiled from the island.
The Vatican said in a statement issued Friday that the tribunal had found Apuron "guilty of certain accusations." The tribunal dismissed some of the charges against him.
Apuron is the highest ranking church figure to have been convicted of sexual misconduct. Other high-ranking church officials, such as Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law, were accused of covering up, not participating, in such misconduct.
Apuron, 72, vowed Friday to appeal the sentence.
“God is my witness; I am innocent and I look forward to proving my innocence in the appeals process,” Apuron said in a statement released by his lawyer.
The sentence would be suspended until such an appeal ends, according to Giorgio Giovanelli, an expert on canonical law with Rome’s Pontifical Lateran University.
The church suspended Apuron as archbishop in June 2016 amid allegations that he had sexually abused altar boys as a parish priest in Agat, Guam, in the 1970s. He denied the accusations and threatened to sue his accusers.
Months after the suspension, the Vatican formed a five-member secret tribunal to look into the charges. The only member known to the public is Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, a Wisconsin native.
The tribunal had been scheduled to announce its verdict in August and then again October. But it was delayed as new evidence emerged.
An investigation by the USA TODAY Network's Pacific Daily News unearthed allegations of decades of assault, manipulation and intimidation by several priests of children reared on this remote, predominantly Catholic U.S. territory. The investigation identified more than 150 lawsuits that describe rampant child sexual abuse by some of Guam’s most revered men.
'The Vatican tribunal believed us'
One accuser was Roland Paul L. Sondia, who said Apuron molested him when he was a 15-year-old altar boy in 1977. The verdict, he said, gives him a sense of relief and justice.
“We’ve waited for so long for this day to come,” Sondia said late Friday night on Guam when he learned of the verdict. “The Vatican tribunal believed us, believed what was done to us. I’m still trying to take it all in.”
Sondia, now 56, was with his wife when he heard the news.
“We hugged each other, we were in tears. They’re tears of joy,” said Sondia, who still lives in Agat with his family.
'So glad we stopped being silent'
Roy Quintanilla said he was a 12-year-old altar boy in Agat when he was molested by Apuron about 40 years ago.
“I always believed that the Vatican would find Apuron guilty. How could they not, after our written and personal testimony? This verdict was a long time coming,” said Quintanilla, who now lives in Hawaii.
Quintanilla said Apuron enjoyed the respectable life of an archbishop of Guam for three decades “when he really should never have been bishop in the first place.”
“Lucky for him, we remained silent all that time," Quintanilla said. "I am so glad we stopped being silent.
"The Vatican’s verdict was made possible because Guam’s faithful stood together against an injustice. Although it took me 40 years to come forward, I’m glad I did, and I am glad for everyone that came forward to tell their story,” he said.
'But it's not over'
Tim Rohr, who blogs about Catholic issues, said that while the Apuron verdict brings a sense of relief, it is not over. He predicted an appeal that could drag on for at least two years.
There is no set timetable for how long an appeal would last, according to Joshua McElwee, Vatican correspondent for National Catholic Reporter.
“It’s not a transparent process,” McElwee said. “We probably won’t know when it starts, or what is happening in an appeal. We will probably only find out what happens when a statement is suddenly released, the way it was for the tribunal’s ruling” on Friday.
The Vatican said the decision of the tribunal would become “final and effective” if the tribunal’s decision is upheld on appeal. Giovanelli, the canonical law expert, said Pope Francis could choose to intervene.
Apuron, in a wheel chair because of health issues, met with Francis a month ago in Paul VI Hall in the Vatican City. Italian media reports said Francis embraced Apuron and whispered a few words into the archbishop’s ear, but Francis made no public statement about Apuron.
Francis, who celebrated his fifth anniversary as pontiff March 13, has said repeatedly that the church should take more responsibility for sexual abuse scandals in its past.
Apuron also faces additional lawsuits. Apuron's nephew Mark Apuron accused him of sexual abuse in a lawsuit filed in January.
Apuron denied the allegations then in a statement: "As I lay sick after another surgery and I face the final judgment approaching evermore close, having lost interest in this world, God is my witness: I deny all allegations of sexual abuse made against me, including this last one."
The Archdiocese of Agana, now led by Archbishop Michael Jude Byrnes, did not offer a comment immediately after the announcement of the verdict. Communications director Tony Diaz said the archdiocese would issue a statement Saturday morning.
David Sablan, president of the grassroots group Concerned Catholics of Guam (CCOG), whose actions helped expose abuses by Apuron, said Catholics on Guam can now "begin the healing process of our wounded church on Guam.”
Sablan said the organization would work with the new archbishop "to strengthen our Church in being true to the teaching of Jesus Christ faithfully. This is now the mission of CCOG and all Catholics on Guam.”
Swift rise to power, rapid fall from grace
Apuron, a former altar boy, rose from priest to archbishop in 14 years. He was installed as the leader of the island's faithful in 1986. His descent from power was also swift.
Initially, the archbishop came under scrutiny after a multimillion-dollar transfer of church property. Then, Apuron became the target of public protests following the removal of two popular priests.
As critics worked to unseat the archbishop, their efforts uncovered a massive child sex abuse scandal.
Early abuse allegation
In late 2014, former Agat altar boy John Toves accused Apuron of sexually abusing a cousin. When the cousin did not come forward, Apuron and the archdiocese threatened to sue Toves.
Then in August 2015, former Agat altar boy Walter Denton wrote in a letter to Vatican officials that he had been raped by Apuron as a child. A few months later, after speaking with Denton and former altar boys Quintanilla and Sondia, blogger Rohr put out a call for anyone who had been abused by a priest to contact him.
Rohr, who has lived on Guam since 1985, said he knew of the swirl of rumors around Apuron.
“I already heard about Apuron and the Agat boys," Rohr said in a 2017 interview. "There are always snickers when people talked about Apuron in Agat. There were no names of the boys, but I knew something was going on.”
In early May 2016, full-page ads sponsored by Concerned Catholics of Guam appeared in local newspapers, urging anyone who had been sexually abused by clergy to come forward.
Quintanilla stood in front of the chancery office to tell his story. He recounted abuse that began in 1976, when he was 12, and Apuron molested him during a sleepover at the rectory in Agat. Hearing his story on the news, Arizona resident Doris Concepcion came forward with her son Joseph A. Quinata's accusation. In 2005, Quinata, as he was being wheeled into surgery, told her he was also molested by Apuron. Quinata did not survive the surgery.
At the time, the former Agat altar boys could not sue Apuron or the church because the statute of limitations had expired on the sexual abuse charges. Instead, after the archbishop called them liars, they sued the archbishop and the church for defamation.
Apuron struck back, declaring the Concerned Catholics of Guam a prohibited society, banning the faithful from associating with the group and threatening lawsuits against his accusers.
Changes in Guam law
The scandal prompted lawmakers to remove the statute of limitations for civil suits involving child victims.The law passed in 2016.
The archdiocese is now named in 159 sex abuse lawsuits.
Eugenio and Williams reported from Guam.