Former Timor-Leste president Xanana Gusmao (right) with Richard Daschbach, a former priest defrocked by the Vatican for child sexual abuse. (Photo: Twitter)
Richard Daschbach might be 84, defrocked from the priesthood and under house arrest in Timor-Leste capital Dili, but he continues to make a buzz in the tiny Catholic-majority Southeast Asian nation.
The self-proclaimed pedophile and former priest from the Society of the Divine Word congregation has hit the headlines again in Timor-Leste and beyond.
On Jan. 26, former president Xanana Gusmao visited the American to greet him on his birthday and pose for photos in what some believe was a political stunt by the former guerrilla leader turned politician.
The news of the visit was widely covered by news outlets including state-run news agency Tatoli.
Most reports covered the life and work of Daschbach in detail, including his contributions to the country’s independence struggle and support for marginalized people. However, little to nothing was mentioned about his crimes of sexual abuse of dozens of girls and pornography that led to his dismissal from the priesthood by the Vatican in 2018. Neither did they say that he is wanted in the United States for fraud.
Many people took to social media to issue birthday wishes by calling him “a priest and father figure.” Besides laypeople, some religious also joined in to re-identify Daschbach as a priest.
The buzz involving the former priest didn’t go down well with some others.
“This is a very concerning and distressing show of support for a man who has admitted to abusing children in his care. You wonder what is Xanana's thinking,” tweeted Sophie Raynor, an Australia-based journalist and writer.
In a statement, Timorese Press Council president Virgilio Guterres criticized Gusmao’s visit and described the news coverage as an attempt to “whitewash” Daschbach and influence public opinion in favor of him.
“It is very serious because the news does not even make reference to the Vatican’s expulsion decisions or data on the crime he is accused of in East Timorese justice,” he told Portuguese news agency Lusa.
In another statement, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Timor (CET) urged the Catholic community to be respectful to the decision of Pope Francis relating to Daschbach.
“Mr. Richard Daschbach has already received his sentence from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, on November 6, 2018, from Pope Francis. He is no longer a priest, he is now a layman,” said the statement signed by CET president Bishop Norberto do Amaral of Maliana.
“According to this decree of the Holy Father, there is nothing more to say about his priesthood. Priests, deacons, brothers, mothers and all the baptized are asked to respect this decree and not make any further comments.”
The debate and unease over Daschbach is ironic and paradoxical in a nation that has failed to get rid of him or make proper efforts to prosecute and punish him under its justice system.
Daschbach has continued to evade justice, much to the chagrin of his victims and the advocacy groups who called for his defrocking by the Vatican.
From savior to predator
Richard Daschbach arrived in Timor-Leste in 1966 when it was still a Portuguese colony. As a missionary, he was involved in social work and reportedly backed Timorese groups seeking independence from Indonesia. He was also hailed a hero for saving children during Timor-Leste’s independence battle in 1999.
In 1993, he set up Topu Honis (Guide to Life), a shelter for homeless children, disabled adults and women fleeing domestic violence.
Through his apparent great missionary work, he became a well-connected and highly respected figure, with his friends including the country’s ruling political and civil society elites.
It was a bombshell when accusations of sexual abuse surfaced in 2018. The American was dismissed from the priesthood following a Vatican investigation into an admission by the then cleric that he had abused dozens of girls.
Following his defrocking, Daschbach returned to the orphanage, refusing to give up his ministry, and had to be later removed by authorities.
He was arrested on April 26, 2019, after Fokupers, a Timorese advocacy group that supports women and children, published an interview of a victim detailing his abuses.
However, he was released on condition of so-called house arrest, which was presumed to be a result of his strong connections in the right places.
It is unlikely that the disgraced former priest will face any criminal punishment in his lifetime given that countries in many parts of the world continue to turn a blind eye to crimes of Westerners due to an overbearing colonial hangover.
Going strong despite the fall
Despite his fall from grace, Richard Daschbach continued to enjoy his life of retirement, while his friends within the Church and political circles kept in touch with him.
In September 2018, Father Herminio de Fatima Goncalves, president of the Timor-Leste Church’s Justice and Peace Commission, signed a slanderous and inaccurate report in support of the disgraced priest that accused police, prosecutors, victims and organizations of providing false evidence and data about the American.
Following public uproar over the report, Archbishop Virgilio do Carmo da Silva of Dili sacked Father Goncalves and issued an embarrassing apology to police and prosecutors as well as sexual abuse victims and NGOs.
The latest debate over Daschbach’s birthday celebration with his old buddy Xanana Gusmao has raised eyebrows as many wonder if the victims of his abuse will ever see the light of justice.
It seems Daschbach’s powerful connections in Timor-Leste will continue to offer him a sanctuary from the long arm of justice at the expense of victims who still suffer from physical and psychological trauma.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.