John McBeth, Jakarta – A political bombshell could be about to explode over the deeply-Catholic state of Timor Leste following revelations that the Vatican covered up long-rumored accusations that Nobel Peace Prize laureate Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo was a serial pedophile.
The Vatican has now confirmed the 74-year-old Belo has been under disciplinary sanctions in Portugal since 2019 over sexual abuse allegations committed against boys during his time as apostolic administrator in then- Indonesia-controlled East Timor in the 1990s.
"The Holy See's restrictions on Bishop Belo might seem familiar to US Catholics – the bishop was prohibited from living in East Timor, contacting minors or exercising public priestly ministry," said The Pillar, America's leading conservative Catholic magazine.
The Dutch news magazine De Groene Amsterdam broke the story after a painstaking, years-long investigation by Dutch freelance journalist Tjitske Lingsma into dozens of cases of abuse against youths from mostly poor, devout families.
Lingsma, who has covered Timor Leste for decades, detailed graphic accounts of the abuse from a string of witnesses, many of them now in their 40s, who were afraid to come forward before because of the power wielded by the church.
It now remains to be seen whether Pope Francis will go ahead with a visit to Asia's youngest Catholic majority country and also neighboring Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, which has already been delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The scandal could rebound on the Timor Leste leadership, including independence hero and former president Xanana Gusmao, who had an audience with Pope Francis on August 26 as a special envoy of President Jose Ramos-Horta.
Gusmao outraged his ex-wife and their three sons last year by paying a prison visit to defrocked US priest Richard Daschbach, 84, subsequently jailed for 12 years for sexually abusing orphaned girls at a shelter he ran in the enclave of Oecusse between 1991 and 2018.
Numerous sources say Belo's behavior was an open secret in Timor Leste – and probably in Rome as well – dating back to the 1980s, long before the former Portuguese territory's 1999 vote for independence from 24 years of brutal Indonesian rule.
Ramos-Horta and other members of the ruling elite also face criticism for what veteran Australian journalist Lindsay Murdoch describes as the "deafening silence" surrounding the abuse allegedly committed by Belo and what De Groene claims are four other unnamed priests.
Then there is predatory British priest Patrick Smythe, 79, jailed for seven and a half years this year for preying on boys in Yorkshire. Court testimony shows he traveled to Timor Leste over a 10-year period and often had children sleeping in his room "to show them how the other half live."
"The church played a central role in the independence struggle and the leadership just doesn't want to pull the scab off this," says Murdoch, who like Lingsma covered the bloody militia rampage that followed the independence vote.
"The Catholic Church enjoys immense respect among the people in Timor Leste, for its religious role and as an institution that helped people and offered protection," said De Groene. "If accusations against Belo had been made public it would have scandalized the country and undermined the struggle for independence."
Although it still isn't clear whether he was compelled to step down, Belo explained his surprise resignation in November 2002 as a move to make way for a refreshed post-independence church in a country where 97% of the 1.3 million population is Catholic.
Some media reports suggest he was relieved of his duties by Pope John Paul II, who only a year earlier, on November 21, 2001, had broken his long silence and sent his first e-mail apologizing for endemic child sexual abuse within the church.
In any event, after spending a short time in Portugal, where he had studied as a young Salesian, the bishop was inexplicably posted to dirt-poor Mozambique as a missionary priest – working mostly with children, as he acknowledged in a 2005 interview.
It was equally unclear at the time why a bishop of Belo's stature would take such a low position and even more puzzling why he would be doing pastoral work "teaching catechism to children and holding retreats for young people," as he put it.
Belo and current President Jose Ramos-Horta shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 for playing a leading role in the struggle to win freedom for Timor Leste, which is now seeking membership in the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN).
Ian Martin, the now-retired UN official who oversaw the referendum, told reporters at the 20th-anniversary celebrations of the vote in 2019 that Belo couldn't make the trip to Dili because he was forbidden from leaving Portugal.
That was confirmed by Bishop Norberto da Amoral, president of the Episcopal Conference of Timor Leste, who said in a 2019 interview that "issues with bishops" were only dealt with by the Vatican and not by the local church.
The Holy See press office has belatedly revealed that measures restricting Belo's travel and ministry were "modified and reinforced" in 2020 and only last November and that Belo had accepted them in both instances.
Apart from a promised Vatican investigation of the charges, the Nobel Committee may feel compelled to look into the case as well with a view to deprive Belo of the prize he is believed to deserve for his courage and tenacity during Indonesian rule.
It is understood that under Indonesian Law, which applied in newly-independent Timor Leste until the end of the UN-led transitional administration in 2002, the statute of limitations on Belo's alleged abuses would have run out in 2018.
The son of an impoverished farmer, Belo was in Macau when Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975. Six years later, the newly-ordained priest was posted back to his homeland, serving as a master of novices at Fatumaca, east of Dili.
In 1983, Pope John Paul II appointed the 35-year-old priest as head of the church In East Timor and five years later he became a bishop, taking up the cause of a cowed population living in fear of Indonesian repression.
On November 12, 1991, he was a witness to the infamous Santa Cruz graveyard massacre that left an estimated 250 people dead and sparked worldwide condemnation and a 16-year US military embargo.
Variously described by those who met him as "arrogant, acerbic and short-tempered," Belo sought to protect people fleeing militia mobs in 1999, but his residence was set ablaze and he was forced to flee the country on an Australian air force aircraft.
Although he returned, it was not for long. In 2004, two years after his resignation, there were repeated calls in Timor Leste for him to go back to run for the presidency but he declined, saying he would "leave politics to the politicians."
Comparing the circumstances of the Belo case with that of notorious Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was laicized in 2019 over charges of sexual misconduct with boys, The Pillar said there was no "good" explanation" for how the Timorese churchman was similarly protected.
As the magazine put it: "The simple reality that is that four years on from McCarrick, Catholics are right back where they started: wondering how many more bishops have been quietly 'restricted' by the Vatican, despite all the promises of a new era of transparency and accountability, and asking when, if ever, they can expect some straight answers from their shepherds."