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Timor Leste

Amid sex abuse trial of ex-priest, Timor-Leste confronts its demons

New campaign aims to break the taboo about talking about sexual abuse in the Catholic-majority country

Amid sex abuse trial of ex-priest, Timor-Leste confronts its demons

A woman shows her support for efforts to fight sexual abuse in Timor-Leste. (Photo supplied)

Images and short videos of people holding posters containing statements against sexual abuse adorn the timeline of a new Facebook campaign page.

The campaign is called “Hapára Abuzu Seksuál hasoru Labarik,” which means “Stop sexual abuse against children” in Timor-Leste’s Tetun language.

Created on March 3, it aims to strengthen public awareness of sexual abuse amid the trial of ex-priest Richard Daschbach, according to Ariel Mota Alves, one of its administrators.

“Given the sensitivity of the case, the campaign is very generalized. People's messages are just around rights and children's protection,” he said.

The 25-year-old student, who is doing a master’s degree at the University of Hawaii in the US, said the page’s administrators have received more than 200 statements of support and expect many more.

“Those who have shown support come from various municipalities across the country and other Timorese people living and working abroad, people in government, disability groups, but mostly young people and university students,” he told UCA News on March 9.

A Timor-Leste court started the trial of Daschbach, 84, on Feb. 22 and the next hearing is scheduled for March 22.

The American former Divine Word missionary faces 14 charges of sexual abuse of children under 14, child pornography and domestic violence. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison.

Daschbach, who was dismissed from the priesthood by the Vatican in 2018, also faces wire fraud charges in his homeland in the US, where he has been placed on Interpol's red notice list.

However, he has not lost the support of many people in the Catholic-majority country, including some powerful political figures.

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In 1993, he set up Topu Honis, a shelter for homeless children, disabled adults and women fleeing domestic violence. He was also hailed as a hero for saving children during Timor-Leste’s independence battle in 1999.

Xanana Gusmao, the country’s former president, briefly appeared at court to support Daschbach on Feb. 22. On Jan. 26, he visited Daschbach to greet him on his birthday while he was under house arrest.

Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak also visited him in 2018 when he had already confessed his crimes.

About 100 of Daschbach’s supporters tried to enter the courtroom on Feb. 22 but were driven away by police.

In a statement, advocacy group Fundasaun Mahein said that Gusmao had tried to make a "political intervention" in the trial process.

Moreover, it said the former president’s move had encouraged Daschbach’s diehard supporters to question the credibility and motives of his victims and attack those calling for justice.

Since Gusmao is expected to appear as a defense witness in the trial, the group said it “will influence the judge’s decisions and limit the ability of prosecution witnesses to give their testimony.”

It noted that “Daschbach may be acquitted of the charges despite his multiple confessions and shocking lack of remorse.”

Ato Lekinawa Costa, editor-in-chief of the Dili-based Neon Metin online media, confirmed the strong support for Daschbach.

“Many people condemned us on social media when we published a video of his victims’ statements,” he told UCA News.

Colonial legacy

A university student and sexual abuse survivor who has joined the Facebook campaign told UCA News that she sees the support for Daschbach as a sign of “a society dominated by men.”

“Most of our leaders are men and there are very few women leaders that we can look up to,” she said.

She added that another factor is “the colonial legacy that portrays foreigners as somewhat superior.”

Due to these factors, she said, many people still doubt the Vatican's decision to dismiss the priest.

“The Vatican needs to look again at its policy and might need to enforce it to maintain credibility,” she said. “For example, it could hold its own trials and compensate victims instead of leaving it to the local authorities.”

Amid these challenges, this is the time to help victims who are the most powerless members of society, she added.

“Our hope for the victims is they know that they are not alone, that they have a lot of community support,” she said.

“We want them to know that the justice they seek represents many victims who have been silenced because of fear, threats, judgment and shame.”

The student said those who “speak out and speak up are heroes who have a chance to change the course of history and improve the lives of any future victims.”

In an open letter to victims on March 4, some 21 Timorese students who are studying in the US said that “we believe in your story, we listen to your voice, and we thank you for your courage to speak out against atrocities that you experience.”

They added: “We want you to know that we, together with many Timorese, offer our unwavering support, and you guys are not alone in this fight. We want to let you know that we exist alongside you. You’re not only brave but you’re also our heroes, and we’re proud of you all.”

Meanwhile, Alves said organizers hope to expand the reach of their sexual abuse movement. They have just released a 15-minute video of the declarations of support that is also expected to be broadcast on television.

“The campaign is to ensure that people keep talking. There is the need to ensure that we break the silence as there is a taboo about talking about sexual abuse despite its high prevalence,” he said.

He added that Daschbach’s case has started the discussion “and now we want to make sure that this is used to the benefit of the entire community.”

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