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Vatican 'probing Timor-Leste bishop abuse claims'

Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo is accused of assaulting teenagers, buying their silence over a 20-year period
Nobel Peace Prize winner Bishop Carlo Filipe Ximenes Belo. The Timor-Leste independence hero is accused of assaulting teenage boys and buying their silence over a period of 20 years

Nobel Peace Prize winner Bishop Carlo Filipe Ximenes Belo. The Timor-Leste independence hero is accused of assaulting teenage boys and buying their silence over a period of 20 years. (Photo: AFP)

Published: September 30, 2022 06:30 AM GMT

The Vatican is examining allegations of sexual abuse against Nobel laureate, Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo, considered one of the leading freedom fighters of this Catholic-majority nation, a Church official said on Sept. 29.

Monsignor Marco Sprizzi, the Vatican's representative in Dili, was speaking after Dutch newspaper De Groene Amsterdammer (The Green Amsterdammer) accused Bishop Belo of sex crimes in a report published on Sept. 28. 

The Dutch weekly, in what it claimed was an investigative report, accused the 74-year Salesian bishop of sexually abusing underage boys in East Timor over a 20-year period and bought their silence.

"In cooperation with the competent Dicasteries of the Holy See, they [Vatican officials] are examining the entire matter, along with your questions, in order to give you, eventually, an appropriate reply," Monsignor Sprizzi said in an e-mail responding to inquires made by UCA News on the issue.

“Hope justice and truth may prevail in this as well as in all matters in the Church,” he said on Sept. 29.

Sex abuse allegations against the prelate, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 with the country's current president Jose Ramos-Horta, began to surface at least a decade ago. He was first investigated by the Vatican in 2019, Vatican spokesperson Matteo Bruni said on Sept. 29.

"That was meant so that I would keep my mouth shut"

"In the light of the accusations it received... [the Vatican] imposed certain disciplinary restrictions upon him" in September 2020, Bruni said.

"These included limitations to his movements and to the exercise of his ministry, the prohibition of voluntary contact with minors," Bruni added.

Those measures were "modified and reinforced" in 2021, and Bishop Belo formally accepted them, he said.

The Vatican official's statement came a day after the Dutch weekly said Bishop Belo assaulted teenagers from the 1980s to 2000.

The weekly quoted one alleged victim, now 45, saying that the “bishop raped and sexually abused me…He also left money for me. That was meant so that I would keep my mouth shut.”

Bishop Belo was a highly respected figure and independence hero among the East Timorese, who won the Nobel Prize for his role in the defense of human rights during the Indonesian occupation.

Bishop Belo headed the Church in the country for 19 years, directly reporting to the pope. In 1983 he became Apostolic Administrator of Dili Diocese, the head of the Church in East Timor. 

Five years later he was ordained bishop of Dili and continued in that post till 2002 when he resigned citing health reasons.

The Dutch report, which mentions other victims, says it has spoken to about 20 people — including politicians and members of the local Church — who were aware of allegations against Belo.

Cardinal Dom Virgilio do Carmo da Silva of Dili did not respond to a UCA News request for a comment on the matter.

“More than half of these people personally know a victim of abuse"

The Dutch report claimed that Bishop Belo also abused boys before he became bishop, in the early 80s, in the village of Fatumaca, when he was superior at the educational center of the Salesians of Don Bosco (SDB), the congregation to which he belongs. ”

Two alleged victims quoted in the report, who requested anonymity, claimed that they know other victims.

The Dutch report said it heard from several alleged victims of Bishop Belo, and twenty people with knowledge of the case, including members of the government, politicians, employees of civil society organizations and elements of the Church.

“More than half of these people personally know a victim of abuse and others are aware of the case,” the report said.

In Timor-Leste, the Dutch newspaper's reports sparked mixed reactions.

"People were talking about it following the publication of the report, but with mixed feelings of shock, curiosity and disappointment," said a Church leader, who requested anonymity.

I fully support the courage of the victims to speak the truth"

"I just hope that the Vatican will provide a clear explanation in response," he said.

Ivo Mateus Goncalves da Cruz Fernandes, a Timorese and researcher at the Australian National University said he has heard various rumors regarding this scandal since the country gained its independence.

“But no one had the balls to testify. Finally, this case came to the fore. It's just like a ticking time bomb,” he told UCA News.

“I fully support the courage of the victims to speak the truth. It is a moral obligation for those who still call themselves ‘educated’ to stand on the side of the victims,” he added.

He said the people of Timor-Leste need to prioritize critical thinking in responding to this case.

“What is happening with Bishop Belo does not erase the other good things he has done in the history of Timor-Leste's struggle,” he said.

"We are waiting for the next steps, the next developments"

President Ramos-Horta told the Portuguese news agency, Lusa, that he preferred not to comment on the allegations against the bishop.

“For now, we are waiting for the next steps, the next developments, by the legitimate entity, with credibility, which can then guide us on how to manage this situation,” he said.

“I want to wait until further developments from the Holy See,” he said.

Timor-Leste, a country where 97 percent is Catholic out of a total 1.3 million population has only seen one case of sexual abuse by a Church leader brought before a civilian court.

American missionary priest Richard Dascbach, 84, was jailed for 12 years last December for abusing girls in an orphanage he founded.

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