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Church officials deny alleged abuses in Timor-Leste seminary

News outlet Diligente reported seminarians faced physical abuse and ate bad food
Father Natalino da Costa Soares, rector of the Balide-based Our Lady of Fatima Minor Seminary speaks during a press conference on June 22 where he denied accusations of mistreatment in a media report

Father Natalino da Costa Soares, rector of the Balide-based Our Lady of Fatima Minor Seminary speaks during a press conference on June 22 where he denied accusations of mistreatment in a media report. (Photo: Diligente)

Published: June 23, 2023 11:14 AM GMT
Updated: June 23, 2023 11:38 AM GMT

Church officials in Timor-Leste have dismissed a media report on the abusive treatment of students and substandard food in a seminary as false, terming it an attempt to tarnish the image of the church.

Father Natalino da Costa Soares, rector of the Balide-based Our Lady of Fatima Minor Seminary said "we firmly reject the allegations made" during a press conference on June 22.

"We consider it untrue and the content is slanderous, which directly affects the dignity and rights of those involved, and jeopardizes the honor and reputation of the seminary as a special training institution for seminarians," the priest said in a written statement.

The statement was in response to a June 11 report published by capital Dili-based news outlet, Diligente, with the headline 'Aggression and bad food: former seminarian denounces persecution at Minor Seminary.'

The report uncovers stories from three former seminarians, all anonymous, who say that they were physically abused and ate bad food.

A source told Diligente about the cruel sanctions for seminarians who make mistakes.

"They put my head underwater, in a bucket, and when they pulled me out of the water, they slapped me," the source said.

Another source described that the food they ate at the seminary “had animals similar to worms and hair.” 

However, Father Soares said the report was fictitious, as it does not indicate any source of information, and was not investigated or confirmed with the seminary management prior to publication.

He admitted that he was contacted by Diligente journalists before the article was published, but only for a generic interview request, "without telling anything about the contents of the accusation and false information, so as not to give the seminary the possibility of being able to defend itself against the false accusation."

“[The seminary] should be given the opportunity to study the contents of the accusations, with a minimum of 24 hours to respond, a situation that Diligente does not respect," he said.

He stated that “we understand that freedom of expression and the right to information are fundamental principles of democracy and an important reason for the existence of the press and that journalists are public servants who must be impartial and free from conflicts of interest.”

The seminary “will submit to the Attorney of the Archdiocese, in partnership with the Law Office, the necessary due diligence to restore its institutional honor and reputation,” the priest said.

In another report published on June 22, Diligente claimed that its report referred to the confessions of former seminarians “whose identities were kept secret, for fear of reprisals."

They "told in detail the series of human rights violations” that were experienced at the seminary. 

The outlet said the confidentiality of sources was guaranteed for journalists by Timor-Leste’s 2014 law on Social Communication.

To substantiate its claim Diligente also released a new confession from a source, Salvador da Costa Pinto, 34, who studied at the seminary between 2005 and 2008.

Pinto said during that period he witnessed cases of physical aggression (punches, kicks and slaps) by the training team toward his teammates who were "cut to the point of 'bleeding.'"

Diligente emphasized that it “has no interest in damaging the image of the Timor-Leste Catholic Church,” an institution that played a vital role during the nation’s struggle for independence from Indonesia and stood by the side of the people against rights violations.

"The Diligente team recognized the importance of the Church for the country and stressed that the Church acts professionally, disclosing matters of public interest in a responsible manner and in accordance with the professional code of journalism," it said.

Dili Archbishop Cardinal Dom Virgilio do Carmo Silva did not respond to requests by UCA News to explain the church’s position on the matter and the possibility of investigating the allegations.

Monsignor Marco Sprizzi, the chargé d'affaires at the apostolic nunciature said that the “allegations are not true” as per information he received.

“The rector was not put in the condition to know in advance the content of the allegation when he was contacted for an interview,” he told UCA News, adding that the priest was only asked, “about the day-by-day life at the seminary.”

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