Catholic priest Father Pius Hendricks
In this Feb. 19, 2019, photo, Philippine National Police, National Capital Region Police Chief Maj. Gen. Guillermo Eleazar, left, talks to Catholic priest Father Pius Hendricks prior to being served five more arrest warrants at the Regional Special Operations Unit at Camp Bagong Diwa in suburban Taguig, east of Manila, Philippines. Investigators say about 20 boys and men, one as young as 7, have accused the priest of sexual abuse at his parish in Talustosan village, Naval township, Biliran province in central Philippines Image Credit: AP

Talustusan, Philippines: The American priest's voice echoed over the phone line, his sharp Midwestern accent softened over the decades by a gentle Filipino lilt. On the other end, recording the call, was a young man battered by shame but anxious to get the priest to describe exactly what had happened in this little island village.

"I should have known better than trying to just have a life," the priest said in the November 2018 call. "Happy days are gone. It's all over."

But, the young man later told the Associated Press, those days were happy only for the priest. They were years of misery for him, he said, and for the other boys who investigators say were sexually assaulted by Father Pius Hendricks.

His accusations ignited a scandal that would shake the village and reveal much about how allegations of sex crimes by priests are handled in one of the world's most Catholic countries.

He was just 12 - a new altar boy from a family of tenant farmers anxious for the $1 (Dh3.67) or so he'd get for serving at Mass - when he says Hendricks first took him into the bathroom of Talustusan's little rectory and sexually assaulted him.

"I asked why he was doing this to me," the rail-thin 23-year-old said in an interview, the confusion still with him years later.

"'It's a natural thing,'" he said the priest told him, "'It's part of becoming an adult.'"

Scared for the next victim

The abuse continued for more than three years, he says, but he told no one until a village outsider began asking questions about the American priest's extravagant generosity with local boys, and until he feared his brother would be the next victim.

In November, he went to the police and told them what he knew.

Soon after, local authorities arrested Hendricks, 78, and charged him with child abuse. Since then, investigators say, about 20 boys and men, one as young as 7, have reported that the priest sexually abused them. Investigators say the allegations go back well over a decade - though many believe it goes back for generations, and could involve many dozens of boys - continuing until just weeks before the December arrest. Hendricks' lawyers insist he is innocent.

The AP, which does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault, has met with five of the accusers.

Hendrick's arrest was a sudden fall for a priest who had presided over this community for nearly four decades. He rebuilt Talustusan's chapel and installed rooftop loudspeakers to summon parishioners to Mass. He pressed officials to pave the village road. He drove the sick to the hospital, and paid school fees for poor children. Many here will still tell you how much he did.

But the case also reflects much about the Philippines, a country where the church has long shrugged off the presence of its sex offenders and where the criminal justice system often ignores the problem.

"It's a culture of coverup, a culture of silence, a culture of self-protection," said the Rev. Shay Cullen, an Irish priest who has spent decades in the Philippines and works with victims of child sexual abuse. "It's a silent consent to the abuse of children."

Recording the call

In 2018, after the young man had gone to police - but before Hendricks had been arrested - he recorded a phone call with the clergyman.

In extracts of the conversation heard by the AP, Hendricks laments the passing of those happy days, and admits to an unspecified "mistake on my part".

"Well, it's true. I'm not saying it's not. Did I say it's not?" Hendricks said, his voice a combination of self-pity and resignation.

He said he'd probably have to retire.

"So I have to learn," he continued. "I have to take the good with the bad."