Chris Barrett, Singapore – The Nobel Prize-winning former head of the Roman Catholic church in East Timor has been accused of sexually abusing boys during the country's independence struggle in the 1990s.
The Vatican will investigate the claims made against Bishop Carlos Felipe Ximenes Belo in a report by Dutch news magazine De Groene Amsterdammer, a representative in East Timor said.
The publication quoted two men who alleged that as teenagers, between the ages of 14 and 16, they were sexually abused by Belo at his residence in Dili and then paid money by the bishop.
"He knows that the boys have no money. So when he invited you, you came over and gave you some money," the report quoted one of the alleged victims as saying. "But meanwhile you are a victim. That's the way he did."
Belo, 74, a revered figure in deeply Catholic East Timor who shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 with current Timorese President Jose Ramos-Horta, hung up the phone immediately when approached by the magazine for comment.
But the allegations contained in the report would be investigated by the Vatican, said Marco Sprizzi, its representative in East Timor.
"Pope Francis is so much engaged in zero tolerance so no doubt after an article like that, they are investigating and they will investigate deeply," he told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. "I'm sure 100 per cent of that."
Belo, who now lives in Portugal, became a Timorese hero during the Indonesian occupation and was awarded the Nobel Prize for his non-violent resistance.
In September 1999, he was evacuated on an RAAF plane to Darwin as pro-Indonesia militia attacked his home, where 5000 people had sought refuge from violence in the aftermath of the East Timor independence vote.
He returned to Dili before resigning from his post with the church, citing health reasons, in 2002, and leaving to work as an assistant priest in Mozambique.
Last December, East Timor was shaken by the trial of defrocked American priest Richard Daschbach, who was found guilty of child sex abuse and sentenced to 12 years in jail.
Daschbach, who was believed by his followers to have special powers, abused children at the shelter he ran for girls and boys in the western Timorese enclave of Oecusse for more than two decades.
The controversy surrounding his case was heightened by support shown to him from former East Timor president and prime minister Xanana Gusmao.
Sprizzi, the Vatican envoy in Dili, said on Thursday the church had not been approached by victims alleging abuse by Belo but took such claims very seriously.
"I can say that no victim ever appeared here, otherwise I would have known more," he said.
"The church in Timor-Leste in the last six months approved the guidelines for the protection of minors after a deep study of other guidelines in other countries including Australia and the United States.
"The church is very much engaged now in the protection of minors and if any victims would have appeared, they are obliged, bishops and everybody, to receive, to protect to encourage them, also to denounce [the abuse]. This is the present attitude of the church in Timor-Leste."
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni told Japanese news agency Kyodo News that he had been made aware of the Dutch magazine report containing claims of abuse by Belo and would "look into the information."
Of East Timor's population of 1.3 million people, 97 per cent are Catholic.