Tempo Timor (Bobonaro) - The bishop of Maliana apologizes to the victims who have been sexually abused by priests, nuns and fraters. With a team he works on a system so that people can report cases of child sex abuse by the clergy to the Church. Currently he knows of only one case in Timor-Leste.
On the slopes of a hill just outside the town of Maliana lies the large white villa where bishop Norberto do Amaral lives. It is sunny, hot and quiet. Until the two dogs start barking. The bishop opens the door of his residence and agrees to an interview with Tempo Timor. Quickly he walks down a small path that takes him through the weeds and bush. Some fifteen minutes later he sits in a large black chair in the parlour of the yellow coloured diocese with pillars and red roofs. In front is a small pond with water from which a statute of Jesus rises up. The brand new buildings, paid for by the government, have only been completed some five months ago.
Last February the bishop participated in the special summit at the Vatican, which was convened by the Pope. Bishops and church leaders gathered in Rome to discuss the avalanche of cases the Catholic Church is facing in a growing number of countries where children have been sexually abused by priests, bishops, cardinals, brothers, pastors and nuns - and how to prevent these atrocities. ‘As Catholic Church we have to combat this kind of crime,’ bishop Do Amaral tells Tempo Timor, adding that because of these crimes people are now saying ‘that the Church is like Lucifer.’
In May the Pope issued a new law stating that the dioceses all over the world have to set up ‘public, stable and easily accessible systems’ to make it possible for people to report sexual abuse by clerics and religious, the use of child pornography, and cover-ups of these crimes. The new rules cover clerical abuse not only against children but also vulnerable adults, adult seminarians and novices. The Pope said that ‘the crimes of sexual abuse offend Our Lord, cause physical, psychological and spiritual damage to the victims and harm the community of the faithful.’
In Timor-Leste bishop Do Amaral is responsible for drafting the procedure which will enable people to report sexual abuse cases in the country to the Church. He explains that the Catholic Church has formed a team that discusses how the system in Timor-Leste should look like. ‘The procedure has to include how to deal with victims and how to take care of the suspect. The Pope gave us clear instructions to work closely with the courts with regard to these crimes,’ says Do Amaral. Soon he will report to the Vatican. ‘In December we will send our proposal to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for them to review. Then they will say what we have to do,’ Do Amaral explains. The system needs to be in place in June 2020. (See also: https://www.vaticannews.va/en/pope/news/2019-05/pope-francis-motu-proprio-sex-abuse-clergy-religious-church.html)
The bishop explains that the procedures will slightly differ in each country. ‘In Timor-Leste we touch, hug and caress. It means love to the children. In the USA, however, that is already considered sexual abuse. But that’s too much,’ he says. Countries like for instance Australia, Portugal or India can be an inspiration for Timor-Leste. ‘But we shouldn’t follow these people’s ass,’ states the bishop. The model has to fit the local circumstances. ‘We have our own laws, customs and rules,’ Do Amaral says.
The Pope’s law also says that it is an obligation for all clerics – men and women – that if they are aware of sexual abuse against children, cover-ups by their superiors and mismanagement of investigations, they have to ‘report promptly’ to the Church authorities. The dioceses and congregations that are already investigating such cases have to update the Vatican regularly and have to complete their work within three months.
When asked how many cases there are in Timor-Leste, bishop Do Amaral says: ‘There is only one case.’ He refers to the former priest R.D., an American who ran the shelter Topu Honis in the hamlet of Kutet in the enclave of Oecusse. In November 2018 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is responsible at the Vatican for handling these cases, found R.D. guilty of sexual crimes against minors and dismissed him as a priest. ‘The bishop of Dili told me: sometimes he confesses that he did it, but at other times he didn’t confess,’ says Do Amaral about the ex-priest who is now 82 years old, adding: ‘It might be because of his old age, that he sometimes forgets.’
But his victims can’t forget. The Timorese NGO Fokupers has published a statement of one of his victims, who describes the horrific abuse she was subjected to. The girl tells how she had to come in his bedroom where R.D. orally raped her. (See: https://fokupers.org/latest-news/2019/4/25/vtima-abuzu-seksul-iha-orfanatu-oecusse-konta-ninia-istria) According to sources the abuse at Topu Honis was systematic with R.D. allegedly sexually abusing every single young girl in the shelter at least once, molesting vulnerable children who were under his care for many years.
Last week Tony Hamilton, who is an Australian donor of Topu Honis, published an heartfelt open letter expressing his deepest sympathy to the staff, children and youth at the shelter. He tells how happy he always was to be able to visit and support them, but that until last year he didn’t know children were abused. Hamilton writes that in April 2018 he went to see R.D., who admitted twice to him personally that he had sexually molested young girls in Kutet ‘for a long time.’ Hamilton feels utterly betrayed by the ex-priest. He saw no other way than to stop sending money to the shelter, a normal procedure when an institution ‘does nothing to support and protect the children,’ Hamilton writes. If there is good new professional leadership and oversight, and the shelter is transformed so that the safety and wellbeing of the children and women is guaranteed, Hamilton will donate money again.
At first, for a whole year, the prosecution in Timor-Leste didn’t investigate the allegations against the American ex-priest, until civil society pushed for it and the case drew international media attention. Last April the Timorese police arrested the former priest. Currently the prosecution is investigating the case, which is of high complexity as it allegedly relates to abuses spanning decades and involving a large number of children. R.D. has, however, not been put in prison, but stays in the residence of the SVD congregation in Maliana. ‘He can’t go around, because he is under house-arrest,’ states bishop Do Amaral. But a picture on Instagram shows R.D. in a corner in a restaurant in Maliana using a laptop, while the current director of Topu Honis, Ms. Liliana ‘Lily’ Tarung, is with him enjoying a beer.
The bishop says he is not aware that in 2014 also a frater, who was the director of the Dormitório do Lar O Bom Samaritano in Gleno, in the district of Ermera, was arrested and prosecuted. ‘Sorry, I don’t know. It is the first time I hear about this,’ says the bishop. A.B. was found guilty of sexually abusing five boys and is now serving a sentence of more than seven years in the prison of Becora, in Dili. Earlier this year there was an attempt to request a pardon for the frater. When the bishop hears that this year a request to pardon the convicted frater was submitted to President Francisco Guterres, popularly known as Lú-Olo, he says: ‘He shouldn’t get it because we have to wait until the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith finishes its work on the procedure.’
Although the Catholic Church and SVD congregation did investigate the allegations against R.D. and punished him for his crimes by dismissing him as a priest, the Timorese Church leaders have been reluctant to give a full public account to the population about what happened in Oecusse and haven’t reached out to the victims there. Public statements have mostly been made in response to questions by journalists. Recently Fokupers asked the Archbishop in Dili in an open letter to support the victims of Topu Honis shelter and to visit them. So far the Archbishop hasn’t reacted to the call.
When asked what message the Maliana bishop has for victims of clerical sexual abuse in general, Do Amaral says: ‘The Church will always love you. We will not exclude you from the Church.’ He refers to the words of the Pope saying: ‘We apologize to them on behalf of those priests, nuns, or fraters who committed those crimes. We have to ask them forgiveness.’ The bishop stresses that the Church has to ‘make an effort to rehabilitate the victims. They need to get medical and psychological care for trauma healing and counselling.’
Australia and USA
It is striking that there seem to be just two cases in Timor-Leste. In 2017 the Australian academics Desmond Cahill and Peter Wilkinson (both are ordained priests who left the church in the 1970’s) published their international study about sexual child abuse by priests, brothers and nuns between 1955 and 2000. ‘We have only two countries where we have reliable statistics: Australia and the USA,’ writes Cahill in an email. The average figure for both countries is that 6 to 7 per cent of the parish priests (one in fifteen priests) committed sexual abuse against minors. The figure for religious order priests is lower in both countries. He calls the abuse figures for religious brothers ‘horrendous’, usually above 20 per cent.
Cahill and his colleague also looked at the circumstances that create a higher risk. ‘One key factor here is access to vulnerable children,’ Cahill explains. ‘A child was more likely to be abused sexually if it was a boy, especially an altar boy or choir boy, and most especially if you were in a Catholic residential care institution such as an orphanage run by priests or religious brothers,’ Cahill explained in his email. (As happened in the two cases that are publicly known in Timor-Leste). Explaining the potential danger, the Australian professor states: ‘It is well to remember that today the Catholic Church runs over 9000 residential care facilities for children, especially in India and Italy. Many are run by religious brothers rather than by nuns.’ (More information: https://www.rmit.edu.au/news/all-news/2017/sep/report-lifts-lid-on-catholic-church-and-child-sex-abuse)
In general it takes a long time before cases come to light. ‘The major factor in the Church’s bishops covering the abuse up was protection of the Church’s reputation and its self-concept as an all-holy Church,’ writes Cahill. It makes it even harder for victims to tell what happened to them. ‘The Australian figures show that Catholic victims took on average 29 years to disclose’ the crimes committed against them, states Cahill.
In the last two decades a large number of church abuse scandals have been revealed in mainly North and South America, Australia and several European countries. The most prominent case has been the trial against the Australian cardinal George Pell, who had a top position at the Vatican. He has been found guilty of sexual abusing two choir boys and has been sentenced to six years in prison. Meanwhile, in a number of countries the Catholic Church has been paying compensation to victims.
‘I am new’
The bishop of Maliana, who has been in this position at this diocese since 2010, says he is not aware of more cases in Timor-Leste. ‘I only just became a bishop,’ he explains. ‘This diocese is new. This is not an old diocese. Even my people are also new. That’s why they don’t give me information. Because I am new, they don’t have the trust yet. Until today nobody came to report a sexual abuse case to me. So I can’t say anything, because I don’t know anything.’ He adds: ‘Maybe there are some cases, but they hide it.’
He is aware of the Pope’s order that the Church has to receive people who come to report. ‘But if they remain silent, how can we process those cases?’ he states.
‘But if people come to report a case, the diocese will find a way to process it, as this is an order from the Vatican,’ the bishop says. If there is enough evidence ‘I will report it to the police.’