She says the initial steps taken by the church in this case were positive. In March 2018 the congregation Societas Verbi Divini (SVD) received allegations that SVD-priest Richard Daschbach had sexually molested children in the mountain hamlet of Kutet, which is one of the two locations of the Topu Honis shelter home that he had set up in the early 1990’s in Oecusse. The congregation reported the alleged sexual abuse to the Timorese police, took the priest to SVD’s regional headquarters in Dili and started their investigation. In November 2018 the Vatican expelled Daschbach from priesthood for crimes against children, although this decision was not made public.
Fokupers now calls upon the church to work with victim’s organisations in order to bring Daschbach to justice. ‘We hope the church will cooperate with us in the legal process,’ Guterres says.
Her call reflects the words spoken by Pope Frances last Sunday at the end of an extraordinary summit of bishops in Rome about the protection of minors in the Catholic Church. Sex abuse scandals involving the clergy have rocked the church to its core in the last years, with the bulk of the cases being uncovered in the America’s, Europe and Australia, while Asia and Africa are lagging behind. The case against Daschbach is the first that comes to light in Timor-Leste, after the case was uncovered by Tempo Timor. While Pope Frances insisted at the bishops conference that victims are a priority, that cover-ups have to be ended and abusers must be prosecuted, the church and authorities in the Daschbach-case are far from meeting these goals.
Fokupers-director Guterres is much concerned about the fact that Daschbach unilaterally decided in August 2018 to move back to Kutet where he currently lives with the community where he committed the alleged crimes. She insists he will have to be removed from the area. ‘There is a risk that sexual violence will continue to take place in Kutet,’ says Guterres. She also points out that his presence will frustrate the legal process by Timor Leste’s prosecution service and police. ‘His presence puts a lot of psychological pressure on the victims still living in Oecusse, who will be afraid to speak up,’ says the Fokupers-director.
Guterres explains that in general the clergy has a powerful position in society. ‘The priest is the second person to represent God and is called Amu Lulik,’ she says, referring to his spiritual and magical status. ‘Many people simply can’t imagine that a priest can commit the crime of sexual abuse,’ the Fokupers-director explains. There are also more earthly factors that will make it difficult for people to speak out as they feel obliged to this particular priest. ‘In the case of Daschbach they say he was like a father to the children, as he helped them with food, clothes and education. People have respect for him and are grateful, but also depend on him. This priest has a lot of power over people as he controls everything. And they fear that if they don’t do what the priest wants, he will not give them money, education and food anymore.’
Lack of knowledge
Another problem is the lack of knowledge about sexual crimes. ‘Many people think that sexual abuse is about a man penetrating a woman. They don’t know that it is also sexual abuse if a priest sleeps in bed with children and touches their bodies in a sexual way. They don’t know that when children take a shower and an adult touches their sensitive parts with the intention to feel aroused, it is sexual abuse. They don’t know that if a man has oral sex with children, it is a crime.’
Guterres says that sexual abuse has a severe impact on children because it affects their ‘psychological and physical well-being.’ During the time that a child is sexually molested the victim can experience a range of emotions including fear, sadness, anger, guilt, self-blame and confusion. Sexually abused children can find it difficult to have ‘trusting relationships’ which means their lives with family, friends and partners can be seriously affected. Children can even ‘feel responsible for changes to family dynamics and the well-being of family members,’ Guterres explains. It can also harm the children’s school results and careers. On their turn parents can be affected as ‘they feel responsible for having been powerless and unable to protect their child.’ Gutteres says that victims ‘may find it difficult to talk to partners, family and friends about the sexual abuse, preventing others from being able to help and offer support.’ But she wants to tell the victims that ‘they are not alone.’ Fokupers and other organisations in Timor-Leste are here to ‘protect them, to give assistance, provide shelter, counselling and legal information.’
A public crime
Guterres says the case against Daschbach is of utmost importance. ‘This is a public crime. No matter if it is a priest, we must fight to bring this case to justice. And we hope the church stands on our side.’ She points out prosecuting Daschbach can give a preventative signal. ‘If other priests hear about this case, they might be afraid to commit similar abuses.’