(CNN) — With just four words, Chris Templeton’s tears started flowing. For the first time in his life, he was hearing the priest who abused him more than three decades ago say, “Guilty, your honor. Guilty.”
On Tuesday, Wayland Brown, 76, pleaded guilty to nine charges of criminal sexual conduct of a minor for abusing two boys in the 1970s and 1980s. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
But the relief that Templeton, 44, said he had been “looking for since day one” almost never came.
His case initially faced the same obstacle stymieing prosecutors pursuing priest abuse cases across the country.
Although hundreds of Catholic priests have been accused in recent years of sexually abusing children over several decades, few have faced criminal charges because the statute of limitations to pursue legal cases has passed.
Only two priests in Pennsylvania were charged out of more than 300 accused in July of being “predator priests” in a grand jury report detailing allegations of child sex abuse against more than 1,000 children. The report said “almost every instance of abuse we found is too old to be prosecuted.”
When Templeton first approached Meg Heap, district attorney for Chatham County, Georgia, in 2015 about the abuse he suffered at Brown’s hands, nearly 30 years had gone by. Still Heap said she “just had to look into this.”
As she did, she realized Brown would walk free under Georgia’s statute of limitations. So, Heap appealed to the US Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia to investigate.
“He was barred by the statute of limitations as well,” she said.
But just half an hour away, across the Savannah River, she found a breakthrough.
A pattern of abuse
Wayland Brown became a priest in 1977. According to prosecutors, just one year into his priesthood he began abusing a student at St. James Catholic School in Savannah, Georgia.
In 1978, Brown slowly befriended then 9-year-old Allan Ranta, prosecutors said. He eventually drove the boy across the state border to the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge in Hardeeville, South Carolina, and raped him, according to a 2017 indictment. Prosecutors say Brown abused Ranta across multiple locations in South Carolina that year and into 1979, a pattern of abuse that he would repeat years later with a different boy at the same school.
According to prosecutors, Brown did a rehabilitation stint at an institute in Maryland in 1986 after church officials received complaints of child abuse unrelated to Ranta.
Yet when Brown returned to the diocese, he was assigned to be the associate pastor of St. James parish in Savannah—the same parish where he’d first assaulted Ranta.
The diocese had no response to the allegations.
Templeton’s abuse began in 1987, after Brown returned, when he was an eighth grader at St. James Catholic School. Templeton said he was abused “over 50” times in the span of nine months.
‘It’s like a puzzle’
When District Attorney Heap learned that Brown had taken the boys into South Carolina, she reached out to her counterpart on the other side of the river, 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone. South Carolina has no criminal statute of limitations for sex abuse.
Stone and Heap decided to collaborate on Brown’s case. While their offices routinely assist each other when criminals cross the border into the others’ jurisdiction, jointly prosecuting a case was something the district attorney and solicitor had never done.
“You’re also talking about a case that was well over 36 years ago. So that in itself makes the case a little bit unusual that you’re dealing with such an old case and trying to recreate what happened, going back and retracing steps to pull all that together. That makes it unusual to begin with,” Stone said.
Added Heap: “Sometimes you don’t know what you need to ask for, you don’t know what’s out there. So you’ve just got to start picking up pieces and picking and picking and picking. It’s like a puzzle.”
Together, the two offices subpoenaed witnesses, tracked down leads and built a case.
Brown was indicted last August on nine charges of child sex abuse.
At Tuesday’s sentencing, Ranta, now 50, recounted some of the affects of the abuse.
“I was unable to look at myself in the mirror and felt like I had a parasite coursing through my body at all times,” Ranta said at the hearing.
For Templeton, before coming forward he was filled with a “loneliness that you can’t even live with. You just want to die.”
A story of ‘hope’
Brown was eventually dismissed from the priesthood by the Vatican in 2004, 16 years after being removed from active ministry. At the time of his dismissal, he was serving a 10-year sentence in Maryland for molesting two brothers in the 1970s, before he became a priest.
But Brown’s guilty plea isn’t the end of the joint investigation. For Heap, “there’s no doubt in [her] mind” that there are more people Brown abused who have yet to come forward.
Stone said investigators are trying to answer a “number of questions concerning who knew what, why didn’t they stop him.” Heap’s office has set up a hotline (912-652-8080) for information about any similar crimes.
At this week’s hearing, Brown addressed who he says was to blame.
“The priests, the Bishops had no knowledge of what was going on,” Brown said, according to CNN affiliate WSAV. “I don’t think they should be held responsible for the selfishness of my own doing.”
In response to the conviction, Barbara King, a spokeswoman for Diocese of Savannah’s Bishop Gregory Hartmayer, said, “We agree that justice was served and we hope that it brings a measure of peace to the victims.”
The Diocese of Savannah has paid more than $4 million to Ranta and Templeton each to settle civil lawsuits related to the abuse.
Templeton now wants this to be a story of “hope.”
“If I can save one person from living through the hell that I lived through, I will do anything in the world, and I won’t stop.”