Dili, East Timor – East Timor's Catholics reacted with shock but also expressions of support Friday for revered independence icon and Nobel Peace Prize winner Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo following allegations he sexually abused boys decades ago in the impoverished Southeast Asian nation.
The Vatican admitted Thursday that its sex abuse office had secretly sanctioned the bishop in 2020, restricting his movements and contacts with minors and forbidding him from having contact with his homeland. The Vatican revealed the restrictions after the Dutch magazine De Groene Amsterdammer exposed the claims against Belo by two of his alleged victims and reported there were others, too.
The Holy See has not responded to questions about when church officials first suspected possible misconduct by Belo, why he was allowed to retire two decades early in 2002 and why he was then sent to Mozambique to work as a missionary priest with children. He has said he retired because of health reasons and stress.
Belo won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 with fellow East Timorese independence icon Jose Ramos-Horta for campaigning for a fair and peaceful solution to conflict in their home country as it struggled to gain independence from Indonesia.
The bishop was feted at home and abroad for his bravery in calling out human rights abuses by East Timor's Indonesian rulers despite threats against his life. The East Timorese were cowed by Jakarta's brutal rule, and Belo's audacious defiance was viewed as heroic. Apart from the Nobel prize, he was awarded honorary doctorates by universities around the world, including Yale.
The Timorese Bishops' Conference said it would work with any possible judicial investigation arising from the allegations.
"If any legal process is set in motion in East Timor, the Timorese Bishops' Conference will comply with and cooperate with the legal process," it said in a statement carried by Portuguese news agency Lusa and reported by public broadcaster RTP.
Government officials in East Timor, also called Timor Leste, where the Catholic Church wields enormous influence, didn't respond to multiple requests for comment Friday, after the Vatican revealed the sanctions against the bishop. Few Timorese wanted to speak, but those who did voiced support for him.
"As East Timorese, we are shocked to hear this news," said Naomi Sarmento, a Catholic. "We have known Bishop Belo for a long time, a good person who has done many services for God, helped the people of Timor Leste and became a role model in the world. We will continue to support and pray that he stays healthy and continues to serve God."
Gregoriu Saldanha, who chairs the November 12th Committee, a youth organization established after a massacre at Santa Cruz during Indonesia's occupation of East Timor, held a news conference in Dili to express support for the bishop. He cited Belo's contributions to the country and its struggle for independence.
"We accept and submit to any decision issued by the Vatican on the allegation against Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo, whether it is right or wrong," Saldanha said.
But he stressed: "We will still stand with Bishop Belo, because we realize, as a human being, Belo has weaknesses or mistakes like others. If he does wrongdoing, it's his individual fault, nothing to do with the religion."
He added that "We cannot ignore his kindness and what he has fought for the people of East Timor. Belo is part of our struggle for independence. As a leader of the Catholic church, he has provided supports and solidarity for the people's struggle."
He urged fellow Timorese to not spread "negative news" about Belo and to pray for him and his family, the church and the people of East Timor.
Belo, who is believed to be living in Portugal, has not made any public statements since the allegations were published this week. Efforts to find him have not been successful.
Belo is a member of the Salesians of Don Bosco, a Roman Catholic religious order that has long had influence at the Vatican.
The Portuguese branch of the Salesians said Thursday that it learned "with great sadness and astonishment" of the news and confirmed they had taken him in after he left East Timor. But the Portuguese office distanced itself from him, claiming he was no longer dependent on them.
The Salesians' headquarters in Rome stressed in an email that Belo remains a member of the order but noted that once he became a bishop, he reported primarily to the Vatican.
That Catholics rallied behind Belo, despite the allegations, is not surprising. A similar reaction occurred when another priest, revered for his role in East Timor's independence, was also found to have sexually abused children.
Former President Xanana Gusmao, for example, brought child supporters with him to the court last year that convicted the defrocked American priest, Richard Daschbach, on charges he abused orphaned and disadvantaged young girls under his care and sentenced him to 12 years in prison.
[Winfield reported from Vatican City. Hatton reported from Lisbon, Portugal.]