Anne Barker – The sons of Timor Leste's former president Xanana Gusmao have expressed their disappointment to the victims of a former priest facing child sexual abuse allegations, after their father visited him for his birthday at his home in Dili.
Alexandre Sword-Gusmao, 20, and his brothers Kay Olok, 18, and Daniel, 16, wrote to the victims of former Catholic priest Richard Daschbach, who has been charged with sexually abusing girls at a remote Timorese orphanage that he ran for decades.
Xanana Gusmao, also the former prime minister, was filmed late last month visiting Mr Daschbach at his Dili home where he is under house arrest, toasting him on his 84th birthday with cake and drink.
Mr Daschbach, an American-born missionary who first arrived in Timor Leste in 1966, is regarded by many Timorese as a hero for his role in saving children during the country's independence struggle.
But he was officially defrocked by Pope Francis in 2018, and expelled from the organisation SVD, or Divine Word Missionaries, after he admitted to the sexual abuse of minors.
Mr Gusmao's youngest son Daniel, in a letter delivered to Mr Daschbach's alleged victims via their lawyer, told them of his anger and sadness when he heard about his father's visit to celebrate Mr Daschbach's birthday.
"I admire your courage in speaking about the crimes committed against you," he wrote. "I apologise if my father's actions caused you distress."
His brother Alexandre expressed similar emotions. "After hearing that my father visited Richard Daschbach, I was very disappointed and hope that his actions will not change what you choose to do," he wrote. "You deserve to feel safe and have this behind you as soon as possible."
AThe letters were posted by their mother Kirsty Sword-Gusmao on her public Facebook page from her home in Melbourne, where she and her sons now live.
Ms Sword-Gusmao is the founder of the Alola Foundation, set up to campaign against sexual and gender-based violence in Timor Leste.
"I've been involved on the margins of this case for some time, and I have talked to my sons about it," she told the ABC. "I thought they needed to know about their father's visit to former priest Richard Daschbach. And I have to say they were pretty sad and disgusted."
Ms Sword-Gusmao, who is separated from Xanana Gusmao, said her sons felt a moral duty as young Timorese, to encourage other children and young victims of abuse to speak out about their experience.
"It's easy to imagine how distressing it would have been to see someone of Xanana's standing nationally, embracing the man who had committed such terrible crimes against them."
The ABC contacted Xanana Gusmao's office for comment but has had no response.
One longstanding associate told the ABC it was unlikely Mr Gusmao had intended to damage the judicial process. Others suggested the visit was to honour Mr Daschbach's role during Timor Leste's long struggle for independence.
Richard Daschbach is the first serving or former Catholic priest to be accused of child sexual abuse in Timor Leste, a country where around 96 per cent of the population is Catholic, and where the church is one of the country's most powerful institutions.
He was officially defrocked by Pope Francis in 2018, after he admitted his actions to the church.But formal legal charges were only laid by Timor Leste's Prosecutor General last September. They include 14 counts of sexual abuse against children under the age of 14, one count of child pornography and an accusation of domestic violence.
Mr Daschbach is due to face court later this month in Oecusse, the remote Timorese province where he set up the Topu Honis orphanage in 1992. Under Timorese law he could face 20 years jail if he is convicted.
Tony Hamilton, an Australian man who helped fund the Topu Honis orphanage for several years, said Mr Daschbach personally confessed to him that he had molested young girls.
In an affidavit submitted to prosecutors in Dili, Mr Hamilton said he and another donor had confronted him at a restaurant in Dili in 2018 to find out if the allegations against him were true.
"He continued smiling and said to me, 'Yes that is who I am, I have always been that way,' or using words to that effect," Mr Hamilton said in his affidavit.
Mr Hamilton is expected to testify by video when Mr Daschbach appears in court later this month.
Child abuse in Timor may be widespread
Kirsty Sword-Gusmao said numerous studies in Timor Leste had found that child sexual abuse is widespread but vastly under-reported.
Divine Word Missionaries, or SVD, has appointed a special liaison officer from its Melbourne office, to show the Timorese people it takes the issue of child sexual abuse seriously.
Father William Burt, who has so far been unable to visit Timor Leste because of the pandemic, said the missionary organisation was against any kind of child abuse.
"We are as revolted by this as anyone. Here is a man who doesn't deny that he did this harm, except he doesn't see it as harm," he told the ABC.
"And we certainly would come down very strong if we knew of any other cases. But we are not aware of any in Timor Leste at this stage. We just want justice to be done, and we want the young people who have been abused by [Mr Daschbach] to receive the justice they deserve in every way."
Kirsty Sword-Gusmao said the reluctance of some Timorese to speak out about the Daschbach case led her to encourage her sons to write to his victims.
"I think people have been somewhat reluctant to express their views in case they'd be construed as criticism of the church, as opposed to being a criticism of the actions of one particular individual," she said.
"I was a little bit conscious that I might be throwing my sons to the wolves by publishing those letters. But it has been very affirming to see that there is a groundswell of support for victims and for the cause of justice for victims of sexual violence in Timor Leste, and that gives me hope."