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Timor Leste

Time for soul searching over clerical abuse in Timor-Leste

The scandal over a pedophile American priest and his backers is a wake-up call for the Church in the tiny nation

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Time for soul searching over clerical abuse in Timor-Leste

The Society of the Divine Word found that American priest Richard Daschbach had abused girls in his care on a daily basis. (Photo: AFP)

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The heroic move by Timor-Leste’s Archbishop Virgilio do Carmo da Silva to remove the president of the local Justice and Peace Commission was swift and timely. But the cleaning out of clerics in his archdiocese — the entire tiny half-island nation with a population of just 1.2 million — cannot stop there.

It was not only Father Herminio Fatima Goncalves, who signed the slanderous and wildly incorrect report in support of disgraced pedophile and former priest Richard Daschbach, who needed to be disciplined.

Was Goncalves alone in authoring a report which made the wildest false accusations against police prosecutors, journalists and NGOs — the very people trying to help Daschbach’s victims, who numbered at least 19 over the years he ran the Topu Honis orphanage?

According to a report by Portuguese newswire LUSA, the report, rather horrendously, included data on the alleged victims — a breach of trust so fundamental that it must be asked if Goncalves and any other authors of the report are fit to continue in the priesthood or hold a pastoral role ever again.

The LUSA report said that the Justice and Peace Commission report, which its journalist Antonio Sampaio has seen, “attempted to deflect all the priest’s responsibilities, seeking to accuse the Timorese judicial and police authorities and organizations that have supported victims of ‘collective sexual abuse’ for allegedly conducting forensic examinations and hearings of women. It claims victims placed in protective custody were ‘abducted’.”

Furthermore, “judicial investigations are criticized, the authorities are accused of abducting the children to whom they have given protection and even the places of protection are revealed.” And it bizarrely claimed that victim support organizations were a network that acted in a “structured” way with the government, prosecutors, the health sector and the police. A final claim was that the police investigation was “an organized child exploitation operation, human trafficking and mafia justice.”

That such a report could somehow see the light of day without the archbishop’s approval is also extremely strange. Whatever the case, diocesan procedures — as well as its cleric staff — clearly need a complete overhaul.

But the problem does not stop at this single case, far from it.

It has suited the Church in developing nations, including more than a few in Asia, to hang foreign priests out to dry for abusing children. It quite understandably hews to the colonial narrative. But action against the clergy so often stops there despite there being many local priests who are abusers. And all too often this is common knowledge in communities.

Worse still, these clerics retain the respect of many elders in the community who, bizarrely, appear to put the reputation of a priest over the health, safety and future of their children. This is quietly horrifying and a cancer in those communities that is allowed to grow unchecked, infecting the whole community

Indeed this was precisely the case with Daschbach, who operated orphanages on the remote enclave of Oecusse since 1992, having been in the country (formerly a Portuguese colony and province of Indonesia until its 1992 independence) since 1966. The Society of the Divine Word, his former order, found that he had abused girls in his care on a daily basis, so the real number of his victims is unknown and quite likely horrifically high.

As well as community enablers, it’s hard to fathom how Daschbach did not have enablers within the Church despite the remoteness of his operation. Already suspicion has fallen on other priests in Oecusse covering up his vile exploits.

According to multiple sources that UCA News has canvassed in Timor-Leste over the years, the sexual abuse of children and youths by clerics –— including in minor seminaries and orphanages — is an open secret, so open that people describe it wearily as an old story. It is not, of course, because it has yet to be told.

The Church is powerful in Timor-Leste, particularly among the less educated in rural areas but also in the halls of power. But it is losing the grip it once had. The media remains generally silent except braver outlets like LUSA and the independent Tempo Timor, which originally broke the Daschbach story. They are disgracefully abused by clerics — who should be disciplined — for their trouble.

The problem, of course, is not only one for the Church, it is in every country across the world a community tragedy, one that has been and is covered up every single day.

It is the Church with which we are most concerned here. And it is in a position to act, to try and start cleaning its own house.

If it does not, it may, we can only hope, end up in the dock for its crimes of cover-up, omission, wilful blindness and moral complicity in much the same way as it has in some countries with brave governments such as Australia, which held its Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

If Archbishop da Silva won’t act, the government must.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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