The Guam problem, a diocese rocked by financial and sexual scandal
Vatican Insider reconstructs the story leading up to the trial of Archbishop Anthony Apuron, now awaiting his verdict by the Tribunal presided by Cardinal Burke in the coming days. An island in the midst of corruption, intrigues, abuses, and power plays
Corruption, revenge, lobbies, financial scandals, and sexual abuses. Everything seems to intertwine in Guam, the largest island of the Mariana Archipelago in the Western Pacific Ocean, most recently under the international spotlight because of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s threats to bomb the island’s US military bases. The threat of nuclear annihilation is one more worry to be laid on the faithful of Guam, a flock already deeply disturbed by the scandals engulfing the Archdiocese of Agaña—scandals which have paralyzed a church which in the landscape of the Pacific distinguished itself for its liveliness, making up about 85% of the island’s 160,000 inhabitants: a data not irrelevant in a part of the world where every trace of Catholicism is gradually disappearing.
Right now, the island is awaiting the verdict of the canonical trial of their archbishop, seventy-two year old Capuchin Anthony Apuron, who has suspended himself from any office after being charged with sexual abuses of minors following allegations relating to his time as a priest over forty years ago.
But what might seem at first glance like another sad story of a pedophile priest on closer inspection becomes a much more complex account of rivalries, plotting, power games, and sex scandals (real or invented) and media campaigns. All this played out on a tiny island where most of the population is related by blood. It is, in short, a feuilleton much darker than what up to now has emerged on the media, which Vatican Insider has sought to reconstruct in details through statements gathered by local witnesses, records, and documents which we have been granted access to.
Guam and the project to transform it into the "Las Vegas of the Pacific"
Everything began in 2002, when a group of Chinese entrepreneurs first laid eyes on the Accion Hotel in Yona, built as a Japanese resort in 2000 but soon ended up in bankruptcy and set among 20 hectares of seaside property. When it first opened, the property was valued at between $60-80 million. David Lujan, their local lawyer, was authorized to offer $5 million for the site. The idea was to transform the hotel into a grand casino; this was part of a larger strategical project aiming at turning the island of Guam into a “Las Vegas of the Pacific” which would attract gamblers from China, Russia, Japan and Korea. It was an ambitious project, one which came to involve Mark Anthony Brown, the former Chairman of Trump Hotels & Casinos Inc., which would have produced millionaires earnings but also would have imported into the island crime, prostitution, and drugs, as Archbishop Apuron said and who always opposed the project because casinos “don’t bring money but moral misery.”
The Japanese owners refused Lujan’s offer. Meanwhile Archbishop Apuron, under advice of close collaborators, bid $2 million (raised from donations) for it, to turn the bankrupt Hotel into a Redemptoris Mater seminary, whose vocations and formators would come from the Neocatechumenal Way, an ecclesial reality widely present on the island since 1996 and of which Apuron was a strong supporter. The Archbishop’s hope was to offer a point of reference for the formation of young future priests for the area of the Pacific to solve the crisis of the religious orders traditionally present in the different and serve as a bulwark against the increasing investments of people and resources being poured into the Pacific by the Church of Latter-day Saints and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The Birth of the Redemptoris Mater and the Theological Institute
Apuron’s offer for the property was accepted. After signing a contract establishing the restriction of usage of the premises for a educational purposes, the new Redemptoris Mater Seminary formally opened in 2004. One year later, the “Blessed Diego Luis de San Vitores S.J.” Theological Institute was born. It was sponsored by 31 bishops of the Pacific and affiliated with to he Pontifical Lateran University by the decision of its former rector, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, and its dean of the Faculty of Theology, Ignazio Sanna. The birth of the Institute—which houses a library with over 30,000 books, was greeted with enthusiasm by many Australian, Filipino and American prelates who visited it over the years. The seminary was home to more than forty students who came from all over the world to train for service in the Pacific. Seventeen of these men were ordained to the priesthood and entered ministry in Guam or served as missionaries on the nearby island of Saipan, China, and the mainland United States. But today, both the seminary and the theological institute are going to be shut down by Archbishop Michael J. Byrnes, who has been serving as coadjutor archbishop of Guam.
A Very Powerful Monsignor
But to understand the decisions taken in recent months, it’s necessary to take a step back and consider the figure of the influential Msgr. James Benavente, known in Guam for his threefold role as rector of the Cathedral in Agaña, chief administrator of the archdiocesan cemeteries, and director of the prominent St. Thomas Catholic School. Benavente, who boasts a close friendship with Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, has been the subject of considerable criticism (and more than a little speculation) for some of his behaviors and especially for the luxury with which he surrounds himself, including cars, houses (three acquired for himself) and a whole compound for his family, first-class air travel, expensive restaurants and exclusive parties. Among the official archdiocesan documents shown to Vatican Insider, invoices and receipts are kept ranging from $9,000 to $17,000 for accommodations in five-star resorts and hotels like the Saipan World Center and the Makati Shangri-La in Manila.
Benavente is also head of the Finance Council of the Archdiocese of Agaña, which in 2002 was overwhelmed by a super-typhoon causing millions of dollars in damages. Under Apuron’s management, the debts incurred by the Archdiocese following the disaster had been reduced to a manageable level. However, several financial holes emerged in three archdiocesan entities: the cathedral, the archdiocesan cemeteries, and St. Thomas Catholic School. These three institutions accounted for outstanding debts of $7 million and a half, as documented by the Agaña Archdiocese’s Finance Council report.
In 2011, these issues were submitted to the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the Vatican department responsible for Guam. The Congregation’s prefect, Cardinal Fernando Filoni, asked for a full audit to clarify the matter but the audit was blocked. There were “significant accounting deficiencies” and difficulty detecting income and expenditures in the entities managed by Monsignor Benavente.
Apuron Reforms the Archdiocesan Finance Council
Following the unsuccessful audit, Apuron summoned the six members of the Archdiocesan Finance Council, asking them for an explanation and solutions. Benavente—regarded as a “godson” of lawyer David Lujan—submitted a proposal to sell the Redemptoris Mater Seminary and use the proceeds to cover the financial holes and thus avoid public scandal. “Over my dead body,” Apuron replied, dismissing the plan from further consideration. Despite the decision of the archdiocese ‘s head, members of the council attempted to pass the plan. In response, Apuron dismissed the Council already out of term, ousting member such as Richard Untalan—whose presence on the council was expressly requested by Benavente—a lawyer disbarred in the late 1980s for “moral turpitude” after he was condemned by the Washington DC Court of Appeals for “criminal facilitation of a felony of second degree, theft by deception.” One of Apuron’s collaborators—present at the time of the events and a direct witness—reported that the archbishop, his vicar general and his chancellor received threats following this decision by Msgr. Benavente, who claimed to have important friendships within the FBI and powerful figures in the Vatican.
Deloitte & Touche fail to produce a financial report
In 2012, a blog called “Jungle Watch” was created online, attacking Archbishop Apuron and the Neocatechumenal Way, accusing them of manipulating the prelate and “colonizing” the entire Agaña diocese. The site is managed by Tim Rohr, a real estate agent employed by Msgr. Benavente and involved in the projected sale of the seminary. The online attacks became more and more violent; Apuron again appealed for help to the Congregation to the Evangelization of Peoples, which commissioned well-known independent auditing service Deloitte & Touche to conduct a review of the disarrayed finances of the Guamenian church. Also this time it is practically impossible to conclude the audit, as stated in a document from Deloitte & Touche dated January 8, 2014, declaring it was impossible to draw “satisfactory results” from the financial statements that were analyzed. Some documents have disappeared. According to witness testimonies collected by Vatican Insider, the documents relating to Benavente’s financial administration were promptly destroyed to avoid any verifications or findings.
Heavy accusations against Monsignor Benavente
Some details are still emerging, of which civil lawyer, Jacque Terlaje, former secretary of the Finance Council of Guam Catholic Cemeteries tells Vatican Insider: “As an official member of a non-profit company, I have seen countless abuses of cemetery funds that have led to great injustices against the dead and their families,” she says. “For example, in cemetery funds there was no presence of ‘perpetual care’, responsibility in the long term to finance the care of niches sold. During the change of administration, it was discovered that there were undue appropriations and thefts that occurred within the Catholic Cemeteries. For example, unauthorized donation of 380 thousand dollar lands of cemeteries for families and friends of Monsignor James Benavente. One of them is back to repay the amount received. Benavente also used 13,000 dollars of the institution's own funds to pay for the celebrations of its 20th anniversary as a priest in July 2014.”
Not only, “The review of funding from the period of 2009 to 2014 - again emphasizes the lawyer – showed that a credit card was issued to the Board of Cemeteries but intended solely for the use of Monsignor Benavente for expenses of meals in luxury restaurants, first class airfares, overnight stays in 5-star hotels. A further $23,000 expense was tracked onto another credit card, always using cemetery funds. In a period of five years, Benavente also paid himself sums of $326,913.61, mixing and transferring funds between the Cemeteries and the Basilica "Dulce Nombre de Maria" (the entities of which he was director) without complying with restrictions; in the sense that cemetery funds were used to pay salary employees of the Cathedral or to pay Basilica loans, or, worse, to repay personal credit card payments. This made it impossible for Deloitte & Touche to conclude the audit. "
The accusations of the legal - immediately removed from the Financial Council and has ended up in the midst of threats and complaints - have been made public on the website of the Archdiocese also www.aganaarch.org (currently, the page was obscured).
Benavente is then dismissed from his post and Archbishop Apuron forms a new board for the management of the funds of the Cathedral and Cemetery (the school has since gone bankrupt).
Propaganda Fide intervenes again
To avoid the worsening of tensions, Cardinal Filoni intervened again by sending the secretary of the Dicastery, Salesian archbishop and Hong Kong native Savio Hon Tai-Fai on an “information-gathering visit” in January 2015. The prelate remained on the island for fifteen days. In these two weeks, he made several changes in the Church of Guam and carried out interrogations on his own initiative in collaboration with the Apostolic Administrator of the Pacific and nuncio Martin Krebs, a German from Essen.
In the meantime, while the online accusations against Monsignor Apuron continued, Deacon Steven Martinez, a member of the Financial Council, created together with other fellow members a group called Concerned Catholics of Guam whose main goal—among other things—was to “monitor the corruption” of the Archbishop. To this end sit-ins were organized in front of the Cathedral through a website updated in real time, where signs were shown asking for Apuron’s resignation or his dismissal from the clerical state. The leaders of the group were Gregory Perez, president, and David Sablan, vice president, whose name has recently made headlines for an embezzlement case currently being investigated by the US Federal Government.
After a brief respite of a few months, in May 2016 an ad by Tim Rohr appeared in every newspaper on the island inviting anyone who had been a victim or had knowledge of abuse perpetrated by Apuron in the years 1976-77, when he was pastor of Our Lady of Mount sCarmel parish to “come forward”. The ad appeared over the course of a month in every newspaper. After a few days, four people came forward, among them Roy Taitague Quintanilla, who alleged having been abused forty years earlier when, at the age of 12, he was an altar boy for Father Apuron who, according to his allegations, had taken him by night in his own home to rape him. However, Vatican Insider has learned that statements were made by multiple former altar boys to the tribunal who maintain that they had never seen Quintanilla in the parish and that the parish activities were always carried out in groups and never alone.
Together with Quintanilla other people came forward who, crying in front of the cameras, claimed to have been molested. Tim Rohr, as heard in the recording of an interview by Patti Arroyo on the K57 Newstalk radio, publicly boasted, “it took me four days to publish an ad to find Roy and to pay a ticket for him from Hawaii” and to coordinate the group of victims and relatives suggesting to them “what to say and when to cry”, as well as encouraging them to hire David Lujan as their lawyer.
“Your Holiness, I am innocent”
Not even five hours after the release of the accusations, Nuncio Krebs called Apuron from abroad—as he kept doing for the entire following week—to ask him to tender his immediate resignation at the behest of the Pope. However, it is precisely to the Pope to whom Apuron wanted to turn to in order to discuss the situation. He left for Rome to ask an audience to the Pontiff and met him in St. Peter’s Square at the end of the General Audience of May 24th, 2016. During the kissing of the hand, Apuron told Pope Francis: “Your Holiness, I am innocent; I would like a private audience with you.” Bergoglio called an aide asking to set a date. That audience though, would never take place.
The archdiocese tries to defend its bishop
In the meantime, the archdiocese tried to intervene in defense of its bishop and contacted the Denver based law firm “Lewis Roca”, one of the most important in the US in the field of sexual abuses related to the Catholic Church, often consulted by the US Bishop’s Conference. The firm “Lewis Roca” accepted to represent the archdiocese and Apuron for free, agreeing on a potential percentage of the damages just in the case of a judicial victory. At the same time Mr. David Lujan, Esq. filed suit against the bishop and the archdiocese for slander because they declared that the abuse accusations were false.
Apuron suspends himself, Hon Tai-Fai arrives as apostolic administrator “sede plena”
At this point Apuron decided to suspend himself from all his duties and asked the Holy See to name an apostolic administrator to bring back peace and order on the island and give him the possibility to defend himself from the accusations. The Vatican granted the request and on June 6, 2016 a bulletin of the Vatican Press Room announced the appointment of the secretary of Propaganda Fide, Monsignor Savio Hon Tai-Fai, as apostolic administrator sede plena of Guam. For the moment Apuron has been kept in his post as archbishop, although deprived of any authority. He sent a video message to the faithful in which he reaffirmed his innocence and announced the imminent changing of the guard by inviting them to receive “with open arms” the new apostolic administrator representing a sign on the part of the Pope of his will to “reestablish the truth” and which would “allow me to defend myself from the false allegations made against me.”
The general restructuring
Monsignor Hon arrived in the Marianas a few weeks after his appointment and in his first move asked that all priests, especially those formed in the Redemptoris Mater seminary, to resign as “proof of loyalty to me and to the Church.” Some accepted, others resisted. Accusations began to be thrown against those who didn’t give in immediately, some even of sexual nature, or else they were sent back to their countries of origin. Two Samoan bishops were forced to recall the seminarians they had sent to study in Guam. David Quitugua, the vicar general who was appointed by Apuron rector of the cathedral in place of Benavente, was removed. The same fate befell then-chancellor Adrian Cristobal (a Chamorro, native of Guam) and his deputy Alberto Rodriguez. The pastors of the four biggest and most populous parishes of the archdiocese of Agana lost their posts. Among them was Monsignor Brigido Arroyo, old and already near retirement, much loved by the parish community of St. Anthony which knew him as “Father Bibi.” Hon also altered the board charged with sorting out the cemetery funds and in place of Quitugua, entrusted the cathedral to Fr. Paul Gofigan, who had been removed two years earlier.
Father Gofigan and the convicted felon
At this point we need to take a step back and recall that Archbishop Apuron had dismissed Father Gofigan after having received complaints and pressure regarding the fact that the priest was living in the parish together with a former convict, Joseph Lastimoza, 54, who had been sentenced to life for raping and killing a 25-year-old flight attendant from New York in 1981 and to have tried to do the same with other women. Released on parole in 2002, Lastimoza had the keys of the neighboring kindergarten “Santa Barbara Catholic School” where he was head of maintenance. Several parents had voiced to Apuron, in person, by letter or email, their objections to the fact that a convicted felon had such freedom of movement in a place attended by women and children. Moreover, it is the same law of Guam that states that any person convicted of serious sexual crimes “cannot be employed, directly or through an independent contractor” in a sector such as “a school or an education institution while children are present.”
In 2004 Lastimoza’s name had been entered for life in the first level of the Sex Offenders Register of Guam’s judicial system, following an impassioned letter written to the local press by military veteran David Mills, now living in New York, who had followed the case at the time. At that point Apuron, after having given a warning already two years earlier, asked Gofigan repeatedly to send off Lastimoza, given that his presence was in violation of current laws. The priest did not comply with the bishop’s indication and hence, under counsel of Archdiocese’s lawyer Edward Terlaje, decided to remove him.
The removal of this priest, who was also the founder of the movement “Rainbow Mercy” for young gay Catholics, has often been characterized by “Jungle Watch” commentators as an outcome of the Neocatechumenal Way manipulations.
Meanwhile, even before the trial was set in motion, Hon granted interviews and issued declarations in press conferences declaring Apuron guilty even before trial began(insert link), and accusing the archbishop of being a “liar” for denying the abuses. Then he publicly rehabilitated Benavente and reinstated him as pastor of the most populous parish in Guam, member of the Financial Council (with him also Richard Untalan is reappointed) and as member of the committee for cemetery funds. Furthermore, the Apostolic Administrator sede plena rescinded the contract with the Lewis Roca and in its place hired “Swanson & McNamara”, a very expensive law firm from San Francisco. He also started a series of interrogations of priests and seminarians from the Redemptoris Mater during which seminarians were placed before a crossroads: to obey Apuron or “an archbishop invested by the powers of God.” As a consequence, the Redemptoris Mater underwent a dramatic reduction in numbers: from 40 to little less of 15 seminarians.
Hon Recalled to Rome, Replaced by New Coadjutor, USA Byrnes
During Hon’s five month stay in Guam, Pope Francis received three letters updating him on the situation. They never received a direct response. But on October 31st of 2016—after having asked Filoni to quickly find a candidate to replace him—Francis recalled Savio Hon to Rome and appoints an archbishop coadjutor, American prelate Michael Jude Byrnes, then auxiliary bishop of Detroit, to guide the diocese, which was by now falling apart. Before departing, Hon gave a lengthy interview to Pacific Daily News suggesting the course of action his successor should take. Four days before Byrnes’ arrival on the island, he also submitted a packet containing a series of documents on the island’s finances and a letter insisting that the Redemptoris Mater’s statutes be modified and that the restriction of use be eliminated. This choice, which was taken to safeguard a diocesan good, but which instead, according to its detractors, would take away any right Apuron had over the property (accusations disproved by the fact that with a simple signature, Byrnes has eliminated the restriction of use).
The Redemptoris Mater is going to be closed, the Theological Institute affiliated to the Lateran suspended
In Rome monsignor Savio Hon went to the Congregation for Catholic Education – according to the Congregation’s officials account – to ask for the suspension of the renewal of the affiliation of the Theological Institute with the Pontifical Lateran University, which had been already renewed for another ten years. Last news report that on August 29, 2017, Byrnes announced the closure of the Seminary and the Institute. Again, in the last few weeks Byrnes has removed four priests from the diocesan Presbyteral Council accusing them of insubordination for having written a letter to cardinal Filoni informing him of the intention to sell the building in Yona, an information requested by the same cardinal. Monsignor Benavente instead was given all previoiusly held assignments with an added appointment as delegate for the Archdiocese Patrimony.
Cardinal Burke’s Investigation
Regarding the sex abuse allegations against Apuron, the world awaits the verdict from the “First Instance Tribunal” presided by Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke— an outspoken critic of Pope Francis and one of those who signed the so-called “dubia” published in the wake of Amoris Laetitia. When on February 17 of this year Francis sent the cardinal to the Marianas to investigate the Guam case, many read the move as a “punishment” or “exile.” But in light of the facts, it seems more likely that the Pope’s pick was actually rooted more in the cardinal’s remarkable competence shown over the years as Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Segnatura. In about two weeks’ time, the American prelate gathered the documents and statements to be submitted to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, personally travelling not only to Guam but to Hawaii, San Francisco, Phoenix and the East Coast to listen to alleged victims, many of whom—as reported by local media at the time—refused to meet the cardinal if not in the presence of their lawyer David Lujan.
Waiting For The Verdict
Burke and four other judges—all bishops—are expected to issue the verdict on Msgr. Apuron’s innocence or guilt soon—a decision which should have been issued last August 4th but which appears to have been delayed. Maybe because of the outside pressures on the cardinal himself, who is said to have privately expressed surprise at the influence of external lobbies on the island. If Apuron were declared guilty, the decision will have canonical—not civil—consequences. “The fact that the Pope granted this process to a bishop indicates that the Church wants to reestablish due process,” explains one canon lawyer to Vatican Insider. If he is declared innocent, it won’t be easy for him to return to the head of Guam’s archdiocese, given the damage to his public image. Nevertheless the archbishop has privately confided his willingness to do so, albeit with the help of an auxiliary bishop. In any case, it’s hard to imagine the words “The End” marking any kind of conclusion to this turbulent story.