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  • By Johanna Salinas

Shaken Faith

Some Guam parishes are struggling to recruit altar servers

Earthquakes are familiar phenomena on Guam, but the sweeping scandal that has swept the Church and exposed sexual abuse of the most vulnerable of that community by long serving priests, often over many years, has presented burning questions about an institution painstakingly built over centuries.

Much as after an actual earthquake, leaders of the church and its parishioners are assessing the damage, probing the foundation and looking toward rebuilding. And that may be a very long process, as negotiated settlements chip away at long established property that underlies the institution.

More than 180 people — among them many former altar servers — have so far said they were sexually abused by more than 20 members of the Guam clergy or others associated with the church since the statute of limitation on sexual abuse against minors was lifted in 2016, though not all have filed lawsuits. Lurid details about how they were abused by priests when they were of pubescent age are recounted in court documents filed by others.

Formal legal mediation of the cases is set to begin in September.

The essential immediate question that arises: Has trust in the church eroded to the degree that its basic operations are impaired? Will there be the patience and trust required to allow announced reforms to go forward?

Archbishop Michael J. Byrnes, who replaced Anthony Apuron as the head of Archdiocese of Agana, acknowledged that the torrent of sexual abuse allegations against some members of the clergy has affected all aspects of the Church and the lives of its faithful — including the altar server ministry.

Traditionally, having young boys serve at the church was a source of pride for families in this predominantly Catholic community. But given the rampant allegations of sex abuse against members of the clergy, do families still trust that their young boys are safe when left alone with a priest?

Archbishop Byrnes said “the exact numbers and level of impact is different from parish to parish.” He acknowledged that some parishes struggle to recruit youths to be altar servers while a number of parishes still have strong, robust programs and participation by their youths.

“Whichever may be the case, the reality is that trust in the Church has been broken,” Byrnes said. “It will take much work and humility to rebuild that trust and it’s going to take many years. I want everyone to know that we have begun to take those important first steps. For instance, we have aligned our strengthened, new sexual abuse policy with the very stringent Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People which the United States Bishops amended in 2011.”

D.S., a mother from Agana Heights, confessed that her confidence and faith have eroded and that she has since pulled out her sons from the altar server ministry. “I am having a true crisis of faith over all of this. Trying to separate my faith from my church but it’s very hard,” she said. “I stopped going to church after growing up Catholic, attending Catholic schools and even teaching CCD. I am struggling every single day to find peace and find my way back home but it’s just not happening yet.”

D.S. said her faith and comfort in church began to waver when the division between the traditional Catholics and the Neocatechumenal Way started to boil over. “I was active with our Parish Youth Group but we were always ignored by Archbishop Apuron and it always made me feel like he didn’t care for the non-Neo children as much as he did the Neo children. There was always such a disconnect with the Archbishop.”

It further disheartened D.S. when the division between traditional Catholics and the Neo movement became public. “When the sex abuse allegations started coming to light it was what sent my faith — the very basis of my moral compass —into complete disarray,” she said. “I mean how can I find peace and righteousness when more than 100 sex abuse allegations have been brought to light? It is so absolutely heartbreaking. We have a crisis in our Church and now I have a crisis in my faith.”

At the Archdiocese, Byrnes said the church policy on Guam now mirrors the strict policies and procedures of the U.S. Charter which safeguard youths from abuse, including mandatory on-line training throughout the archdiocese to include volunteers. “Now, any adult who works directly with youth such as altar servers or who supervises them must also undergo a mandatory background check,” he said.

The mandatory training and background screening are part of a national program known as Virtus, in which the Archdiocese has invested. “More than 2,000 clergy, staff and volunteers from our schools, parishes and Catholic groups have participated in the on-line training in Virtus, which is used by hundreds of Catholic dioceses and groups across the country,” Byrnes said.

The archbishop has repeatedly apologized to all victims of clergy sexual abuse and vowed to bring healing and reparation to them. “Despite the shame of what has occurred in the past, the altar server ministry remains a very important part of parish life and the liturgy,” he said. “I give my personal thanks to the youths who help the Church in this way – now and in the past – as well as to their parents who support them. Our archdiocese pledges to safeguard all our children with the utmost care and vigilance.”

For some families, faith is not lost

Nevertheless, it is not hard to find Guam families which still see the Catholic Church as a vital part of their child’s development. Despite the harsh and not unwarranted criticism visited on the Church by the revelations of the scandal, many families continue to encourage their children to become altar servers.

Kevin Delgado of Mangilao had a transpersonal awakening as an altar boy during the 1990s and hopes to guide young Catholics in the same spiritual journey. “There are many ways to help the church and being an altar server is just one of them,” said Delgado, program director at Santa Teresita. “Their purpose is to help father with the mass and they learn how to celebrate. Through this they gain discipline and leadership. Parents really appreciate when their kids are involved, because it allows the family to attend mass together. It helps the kids grow and create a partnership with the Church."

Although Delgado describes “a very copacetic experience” as an altar boy, he is aware of the troubles other youths suffered while serving the Catholic Church on Guam. "It's unfortunate that some have had painful experiences as altar servers," Delgado admitted. Despite the abuse allegations facing the Church, Delgado is proud to assist the youth in embracing God. "It's a good program, but it can be a difficult program to be in. While this position is meant for the young, it sincerely requires a heart for service. It's more than just attending mass. The experience leads the server to identify their gifts for helping the community.”

As a mother, Alma Terbio felt the Catholic Church had to be a significant part of her family’s culture. “Both my husband and I are Lectors at Nuestra Senora De las Aguas Catholic Church in Mongmong,” said Alma. “Logan and Adam went to mass with us regularly ever since they were infants. When Logan received his First Holy Communion when he was in the third grade, Fr. Dan Trajano, the resident priest at our parish at the time, encouraged him to become an altar server. Two years later, Logan's younger brother Adam became an altar server too after receiving his First Holy Communion.”

Now that Logan is 11 and Adam is 9, Alma is proud of how far her sons matured through their service. “Both Logan and Adam have developed a deeper understanding of the importance of mass and have become more enthusiastic when it comes to serving the Lord,” said Alma. “They participate in first Friday masses followed by Holy Hour and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. They have this understanding because they see the enthusiasm we have serving too.”

Through their experience, the boys have already learned to cope and sacrifice certain pleasures to attend Church. Alma said, “During the Lenten season, their spring break lands on Holy Week, instead of hitting the beach and going to the movies, they spent their break at church preparing for the Triduum masses which include Washing of the Feet on Holy Thursday, Good Friday services, and Easter vigil mass. We do what we can to place God first in what we do and that can sometimes be less than exciting for the boys.”

Alma truly believes that other families should definitely consider having their children become altar servers. “Get involved with your parish and serve using the time, talents, and treasure God blessed you with. Surround yourself with other Catholics. There are great organizations like The Cursillo Movement, Couples for Christ, and the various ministries in your Parish. Your children's formation starts with you. It is modeled and reinforced by you. You are hard pressed to ask your children to serve God if you don't do so as well.”


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