No (East Timor)
From our special correspondent
Night has fallen on Dili, driving the searing heat from the streets of East Timor’s capital. Not far from the cathedral, a priest stands between decrepit buildings lit with a pale light. The case is sensitive, the meeting must be discreet. The ambient humidity, shortly before the rainy season at the beginning of November, weighs down the atmosphere.
At the mere mention of the name of Carlos Felipe Ximenes Belo, the monk casts an anxious look in the direction of young people gathered about twenty meters away. In order not to be understood, the priest abandons Tetum, the native language, for fluent English, in a low voice. “Of course we knew that,” he admits. It was one of our main topics of conversation at the seminar. His confession over, he suddenly falls silent. The inner conflict that agitates him is visible: should he have betrayed a national hero?
On September 28, the Dutch newspaper De Groene Amsterdammer revealed that the former bishop of Dili, Msgr. Ximenes Belo, had sexually assaulted young minors, citing two victims anonymously. The impact was considerable, particularly because of the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the bishop in 1996 for his work “towards a just and peaceful solution to the conflict in East Timor”. How, twenty years after his resignation, such facts are still passed over in silence? According to information collected by La Croix, the first abuses occurred in 1974, when he was still only a 26-year-old Salesian seminarian, in formation between East Timor and Macau.
In the country, which has 97% Catholics, the Church is still haloed by the role it played alongside the population, between 1975 and 2002, in the fight against the Indonesian occupation. At the end of the conflict, more than a quarter of the Timorese population had lost their lives, through arms or starvation. “The churches have been a refuge for all the demonstrators and resistance fighters who have taken up arms”, testifies “Hamar” Antoninho Alves, director of the museum and archives of the resistance of Dili. “Never have the Indonesian soldiers dared to enter the presbyteries or attack the priests”, continues this veteran, hidden for many years in the jungle of the Timorese mountains.
Bishop Belo is one of the most committed to the protection of separatists. At the time, he courageously denounced the violence of the Indonesian army. Its main coup dates back to November 12, 1991. That day, soldiers opened fire on demonstrators in the cemetery of Santa Cruz de Dili, killing 250 people. Commemorated every year, this massacre still haunts the memories of the Timorese. “Bishop Belo immediately opened the doors of the episcopal residence to shelter the young people in danger and bring them help”, underlines “Hamar” Alves.
Also, when the accusations surfaced in September, the former bishop of Dili enjoyed almost unanimous support from the population. The reactions are strong, because the accusations touch on the history and deep identity of the country. “Whatever he may have done, we cannot forget what he did for our country to become free”, asserts a priest from the neighboring diocese of Baucau who admits to having been aware for more than twenty years of the accusations against the former Catholic leader. In the population, they are put on the account of a so-called “colonialism”. “They are trying to destroy our culture and our religion,” protested parishioners.
Thus the silence continues and with it the firm conviction of the innocence of Bishop Belo. An unprecedented intervention by the representative of the pope in Timor, Mgr Marco Sprizzi, on national television affirming that the accusations were founded did nothing.
The victims, on the other hand, remain in silence. Sexual violence in the Church is still the subject of an omerta in East Timor. Despite the efforts made for this investigation, it was not possible to collect the testimony of the victims. Out of a dozen of them approached by La Croix, none wished to respond. “It would be too dangerous for me,” said one of them, identified by a family member.
In the absence of testimonies, families and friends recount their difficulties and their fears and try to convince them to speak out. “Most are now 40 years old, they are married and have children, others have become priests, relates Avelar (1), whose cousin confided to him that he had been raped by Bishop Belo. The victim label is hard to bear. They cannot open up about it to their wives or their families for fear of the way they look at them. »
“Basically, to accuse Belo is to betray the homeland,” summarizes a senior official of the Timorese Church. So the victims are afraid of being denounced, of losing their jobs, of seeing their house burnt down or of being killed. »
Bishop Belo targeted teenagers from the mountain villages he visited or schoolchildren from the capital. But also the Notre-Dame-de-Fatima minor seminary, in the Balide district, where many young people were abused. “He came for religious holidays or at the start of the school year. He asked the rector for a pupil to go to the episcopal residence”, recalls Apeu (1), a former pupil of the minor seminary also invited, who owes his salvation to a comrade who dissuaded him from going there after him. recounting being raped. “The invitation was seen as an honor,” he continues. When the young people arrived, he made them drink alcohol until they dozed off. When they woke up, he had jumped on their genitals and imposed masturbations and fellatios on them. »
Even today, the Timorese clergy remain silent. The former officials of the establishments where Bishop Belo ruled lip service to the “rumors” heard after his departure. “I didn’t pay attention to it and I didn’t try to find out more,” eludes the Jesuit Leonardus Dibyawiyata, former rector of the minor seminary of Balide between 1996 and 2022.
However, the local church authorities have been warned for a long time. In 2001, more than a year before the resignation of Bishop Belo, the clergy was alerted during a meeting at the major seminary in Dili. “A seminarian stood up and said that the bishop had raped him a few years earlier,” said a witness. Several other victims then spoke and denounced the behavior of Bishop Belo. A dozen priests from the diocese were present at this meeting.
Asked by La Croix, neither the current Salesian Provincial nor the Cardinal Archbishop of Dili wished to respond. “I was relieved that the Vatican is carrying out an investigation, confides a source close to the Timorese justice. Because if the local Church had seized it, it would have endangered the whistleblowers. »
The victims are moreover scalded by a previous diocesan investigation targeting the American Richard Daschbach, another famous figure in East Timor. In 2018, he was dismissed from the clerical state, after confessing to repeated rapes for a decade on girls from the orphanage he ran in the enclave of Oecussi (west of Timor). In December 2021, he became the first clergyman convicted in the country of pedocrime.
Despite this, an official of the diocese of Dili, Father Herminio Goncalves, wrote and circulated in 2020 a report in defense of Richard Daschabch in which he exposed the identity of the complainants. For fear of reprisals, the latter must then take refuge for several months in the homes of members of a Catholic NGO. As for Daschbach, “monks and politicians visit him, ask him on their knees for his blessing when he is no longer a priest”, describes a visitor to Becora prison.
“Cases of sexual abuse of minors in the Church, there are others, regrets a judicial source, citing the name of a deceased priest. But the cases never make it to court. Families think it tarnishes their reputation. They forbid their children to speak and the priest is moved or sent to Rome to study. »
The case of Bishop Belo is too cumbersome for a simple sidelining. Since 1983 at the head of the diocese of Dili, he resigned in 2002, at the age of 54, officially for health problems linked to the painful experience of the conflict. He went to Rome in stride, was received briefly by John Paul II, then he left for Lisbon. No communication emanated that day from the Vatican. Is he sanctioned? It is then clearly not forbidden to contact with minors since he was sent between 2004 and 2005 to Mozambique to teach catechism and supervise spiritual retreats for young people, before returning definitively to Portugal.
In Rome too, silence reigns among the officials in office at that time. Contacted, Cardinals Stanislaw Dziwisz (former secretary of John Paul II), Robert Sarah (secretary of Propaganda Fide, the dicastery for the evangelization of peoples), Malcolm Ranjith (deputy secretary of the dicastery, appointed nuncio in Indonesia and East Timor in 2004) as well as the current Patriarch of Lisbon, Manuel do Nascimento Clemente, refused to answer our questions. Just like the current heads of the dicastery.
The facts had however reached the Roman Curia. “There were already unofficial restrictions given by Propaganda Fide, explains a Vatican source. Basically, he was asked to lay low. At the time, this withdrawal was based, according to our sources, on suspicions of a homosexual double life. “It is the attack on chastity which was sanctioned, specifies this same source. So yes, the Church partially covered. But neither was it moved from one parish to another, as was done then. »
It remains that such a distance is rare for acts of homosexuality and that the recommendations did not prevent the Nobel Prize winner from returning to Timor several times. During his last trip, in 2018, he had encountered a victim. “He knelt down in front of her to ask her forgiveness,” says a relative of her. In Portugal, the facts were also known. “The Salesians welcomed him as if he were a star. However, in the Portuguese Church, everyone knew that he was abandoned because he had abused young boys,” confides an observer.
It was not until December 2019 that an investigation was formally launched by the Vatican. The following year, Bishop Belo was banned from contact with minors and restricted his movements. Sanctions imposed for a period of five years, extended in 2021. According to our information, the Vatican tried to obtain, before Christmas, a public confession from him. Not found in Portugal since September, he too has walled himself in silence.
Leave a Reply