The Archdiocese of Agana did what was inevitable in January 2019 as it faced mounting claims of sexual abuse of children that allegedly occurred decades ago.
The island’s largest and most established church institution went to the U.S. District Court to file for bankruptcy reorganization under federal law.
The bankruptcy reorganization essentially buys the church some time to sell some of its real estate assets with, the exception of the churches, Catholic schools and cemeteries.
By the time the church filed for bankruptcy, more than 220 cases had been filed by plaintiffs who claimed in court papers filed by attorneys they were sexually abused as children, mostly by members of the clergy or, in some instances, people entrusted with educating children in Catholic schools.
Over $1B in claims, but only $45M in declared assets
“Our motivation has been, and still is, our desire to bring the greatest measure of justice and consolation to those who suffered at the hands of clergy,” Archbishop Michael Byrnes said the day the archdiocese filed for bankruptcy reorganization.
The archbishop added, “we take responsibility for the sins of the past” and “we hope that we bring some amount of justice to these victims.”
A deadline was established for the filing of sex abuse claims against the archdiocese by Aug. 15, 2019. By that time, the claims had topped $1 billion.
In its bankruptcy filing, the church declared assets of $45 million. One of the largest real estate assets it was willing to sell – the 100-room former Accion Hotel-turned seminary, with ocean access in Yona – was sold at an auction for $6 million. The church had asked for $7.5 million. But, just as the year was ending, the buyer backed out. A day later a second buyer – this time willing to pay cash – made an offer for $5.7 million and the church accepted.
The archdiocese had racked up more than $1 million in legal fees and costs.
Court encourages plaintiffs to settle without trial
Plaintiffs in the sex abuse cases have been given time to negotiate a deal to settle the cases out of court. As of early December 2019, the court had given the parties one more time to settle.
Even in the midst of its legal and financial turmoil, Guam’s Catholic church has carried on.
Archbishop Byrnes received the blessing from Pope Francis during a ceremony in the Vatican in June 2019 for his role as leader of the Guam Catholic church.
The pope gave Byrnes the pallium, a woolen vestment conferred by the Pope on an archbishop, during a Mass inside St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.
“The role of the shepherd is to carry the most vulnerable of the sheep on his shoulders and, in a particular way, our attempts to bring a measure of justice and consolation to those who have suffered abuse at the hands of clergy in the past,” Byrnes said.
Church found former Archbishop Apuron guilty
Byrnes filled the official role of Guam’s archbishop after a canonical trial led to a guilty verdict against Anthony Apuron, who was Guam’s archbishop for nearly three decades. Apuron had been accused of sexually assaulting underage boys, including one of his nephews, when he was a priest. He appealed the verdict but it was upheld in April 2019.
It was a year that put the Guam Catholic church under continued strain, but its leaders carried on with their responsibilities, celebrating Mass in joyous occasions and in death, and offering the faithful a place – and solace – in their prayers.