A tattoo of a cross decorates the neck of Walter Denton as he rests on the side of a boat while swimming in the ocean with his brother in Agat, Guam. Picture: David Goldman/AP

Agat, Guam - Long after clergy sex abuse erupted into scandal in the United States, it remained a secret on the American island of Guam, spanning generations and reaching to the very top of the Catholic hierarchy.

For decades, abusers held the power in a culture of impunity led by an archbishop who was among those accused. Anthony Sablan Apuron was convicted in a secret Vatican trial and suspended in 2016, after which restrictions he supported on the reporting of abuse were eased.

More than 220 former altar boys, students and Boy Scouts are now suing the US territory's Catholic archdiocese over sexual assaults by 35 clergy, teachers and scoutmasters, hoping to finally see justice. The archdiocese filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this year, estimating at least $45 million in liabilities, and survivors have until August 15 to file for a financial settlement.

Thousands of pages of court documents reviewed by The Associated Press, along with extensive interviews, tell a story of systemic abuse going back to the 1950s and of repeated collusion by predator priests. Seven men have publicly accused Apuron of sexual assaults they endured as children, including his own nephew.

Walter Denton prays as the sun rises in his backyard in Agat, Guam. Denton is one of over 200 former altar boys, students and Boy Scouts who are now suing Guam's Catholic archdiocese over decades of sexual abuse they say they suffered at the hands of almost three dozen clergy, teachers and scoutmasters. Picture: David Goldman/AP

The archbishop, now 73, denies the allegations, but in April the Vatican revealed that Pope Francis had upheld the findings of a secret church trial that he was guilty of sex crimes against children.

"He believed he was untouchable, more powerful than the governor," said Water Denton, a former US Army sergeant who alleges he was raped by Apuron 40 years ago as an altar boy. "But it was me against him, and I had nothing to lose."

Walter Denton, a former Army sergeant, treads water while saluting a US flag on a nearby cliff of a military base during the morning broadcast of the national anthem as he swims with his brother in Agat, Guam. Picture: David Goldman/AP

Though Apuron has been removed from public ministry and effectively exiled from Guam, he remains a bishop and receives a monthly $1,500 stipend from the church. The Guam archdiocese said it did not know where Apuron is, and his lawyer declined repeated requests for comment. The AP found he recently registered to vote in New Jersey, but residents at the address he listed said he doesn't live there and they don't know him.

Leo Tudela visits the beach where he says he was sexually abused as a boy by a priest on a Boy Scout outing in Yona, Guam. Picture: David Goldman/AP

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.

Leo Tudela recalls his allegations of sexual abuse at age 13 by a monk at the Saint Fidelis Friary, seen in the background, in Hagatna, Guam. Tudela was eventually moved to live in the rectory of another church where Father Louis Brouillard took an interest in him. That began an eight-month period during which Tudela alleges he was regularly raped and molested. "We're all human beings so there is always forgiveness but this person I don't think God will forgive him," he said. Brother Mariano Laniyo and Brouillard are now dead. Brouillard acknowledged abuse allegations before he died. Picture: David Goldman/AP

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. He couldn't explain why, but said he had heard rumors of "a big bonfire" outside the chancery before Apuron left.

Archbishop Michael Jude Byrnes, who was sent to the island in 2016 following his predecessor's suspension, prepares to deliver Mass at Dulce Nombre de Maria Cathedral-Basilica in Hagatna, Guam. "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," Byrnes said. Picture: David Goldman/AP

"It's horrific," Byrnes said. "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."

Catholicism is deeply engrained in the culture of Guam's indigenous people, known as Chamorros. Four out of five Guamanians are Catholic. Many streets on this former Spanish colony of 165,000 are named for bishops and priests — including some now accused of sexual abuse.

B.J. Cruz, a former vice-speaker of the Guamanian Senate, is photographed in his office which overlooks the island's main cathedral, Dulce Nombre de Maria Cathedral-Basilica, in Hagatna. 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. Picture: David Goldman/AP

Brothers Tomas and Ramon De Plata have filed suit alleging abuse by more than one priest. In March 1964, the brothers say, Apuron — then a seminarian in his late teens — was at a sleepover in the rectory. Around midnight, Ramon says, he walked into the priest's bedroom looking for the bathroom and saw Apuron and another priest 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!'"

Denton says he dreamed as a 13-year-old altar boy of becoming a priest, just like Father Tony. So he 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 says he woke up face down on bed, his legs spread, and the priest on top of him.

"I yelled, I screamed, and I begged Father Tony, 'Please stop! Please stop!'" Denton, now 55, recounted.

Jeanie Bamba holds her grandson, Jayce, as they lay flowers at a statue of the Virgin Mary during a Mass on Mother's Day at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Toto, Guam. Nearly four centuries after the arrival of the first Jesuit missionaries, Catholicism is deeply engrained in Chamorro culture. More than 85 percent of Guam's 165 000 residents identify as Catholic. By comparison, the most Catholic city on the mainland, Boston, is 36 percent. Picture: David Goldman/AP

First, Denton told his mother what happened, but says she accused him of making it up. Denton then confided in an older altar boy, who said Apuron had abused him too. Together, Denton says they reported the assaults to another priest, but that man did nothing and later turned out to be an abuser himself.

When Guam's archbishop died in 1985, Apuron was quickly named as his successor. With him in charge, pedophile priests were protected from the top.

Mark Apuron, who says he was raped by his uncle, Archbishop Anthony Apuron when he was 15, sits in the backyard of the home he's now staying at in Dededo, Guam. 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." Picture: David Goldman/AP

In August 2015, Denton reported his rape to Apuron's superior, the apostolic nuncio for the Pacific. Denton wrote a notarized four-page letter to Pope Francis, and the Vatican opened an investigation. Months ticked by.

In May 2016, a Guam survivor publicly accused Apuron of molesting him. Tired of waiting, Denton informed the church that he too was going public. The day before his scheduled press conference, Pope Francis suspended Apuron.

Roland Sondia is comforted by his son, Daniel, 19, while visiting the grave of his mother, Rosalia, on Mother's Day at Our Lady of Peace Memorial Gardens along with his wife, Frances, right, in Yona, Guam. "She would have been devastated," said Sondia of his mother passing before he made public his story of sexual abuse as a boy by a priest she admired. "I just feel like she needed to know before she left us." Picture: David Goldman/AP

In a written statement issued in April, after Pope Francis rejected his final appeal, Apuron maintained his innocence but compared the decision to a death sentence.

Denton still thinks about what happened almost every day, but after decades away from the church, the former altar boy is once again attending mass.

People watch the sun set along a popular beach in Tamuning. Isolated on an emerald green hunk of volcanic rock closer to Tokyo than Honolulu, Guamanians often like to joke that whatever happens on the mainland takes a long time to reach them. Picture: David Goldman/AP

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