Last November the Vatican dismissed R.D. from his clergy status punishing him for the crimes he allegedly committed when he was a priest. It is the first time that a case of sexual violence against minors by a member of the Catholic clergy has become public in Timor-Leste.
R.D. is a 82 years old American who was a member of the congregation Society of the Divine Word (Societas Verbi Divini, SVD). After his ordination in 1964 he went to Indonesia. Later he settled in Oecusse, Timor-Leste’s western enclave, where he established in 1992 Topu Honis Shelter Home, which presented itself as ‘a safe haven’ for orphans, poor children, disabled adults and abused women. Over the years it served hundreds of children. The sexual abuse took place in Topu Honis’ orphanage for young girls and boys, located in the isolated mountainous hamlet of Kutet. A second location in the coastal village Mahata accommodates the teenagers. R.D. was a respected priest and seen as a saviour, who provided food, clothes and education to the most deprived people in the area. His community called him ‘father’ and ‘God.’ But there was a dark side to him and the shelter.
A victim tells about the sexual abuse
What happened in the orphanage in Kutet is told by a victim, who has to stay anonymous for her safety. Her story has been published last week by Fokupers, a Timorese NGO which supports women and children who suffered violence. The victim explains she was a young girl of eight years old when she arrived at the orphanage. Soon the staff told her to sleep with the priest, which was the start of the sexual abuse she would be subjected to. She had to go to his bedroom together with other girls, where he would take a girl on each side and masturbate himself. By gesturing and grabbing their hands the priest would make clear to the young girls what he wanted and sexually imposed himself on them. ‘He touched us and performed oral sex on us. And we had to do the same back to him. He would place our hands on his body where he wanted, including his private parts,’ she said. From her account it becomes clear the priest raped her. ‘As a child I thought the father’s private parts should not be in my mouth,’ she said. The victim describes how utterly confusing and frightening it was. ‘He was like our father, we were afraid and respected him. It was our fear for him, that made us do what he wanted.’
A list with names
Her story also details the systematic nature of the sexual abuse and shows that many girls were victims. ‘A list with the names of the girls was on his door, so we knew when it was our turn. All the girls had to go. I don’t think there were exceptions. It happened every day, during his afternoon naps and the night,’ the victim said. Only when the girls became older they weren’t called to go to his bedroom anymore and the abuse stopped. ‘But new girls, who were still little ones, had to go to until they were big.’ The victim tells that what initially shocked her most was that nobody in the shelter talked about the abuse, which has left her traumatised.
Church starts investigating
The silence continued until last year March when the case started unravelling after the SVD received information with accusations that R.D. had sexually abused young girls. The congregation’s regional superior, Father Yohanes Suban Gapun, was immediately sent to Oecusse to take the accused priest back to Dili, Timor-Leste’s capital city, which is located about 200 kilometres east of the enclave. While the congregation investigated the case, suspended and forbidden to perform his priestly celebrations. He was also presented to Timor-Leste’s police several times.
R.D. has been giving mixed messages about his conduct. During a phone conversation with the superior general in Rome last year he confessed, Fr. Gapun told in an interview with the news site TempoTimor.com, which broke the story in February. Gapun heard R.D. saying: ‘It is 100 percent true.’ The accused priest also confessed to Tony Hamilton, an Australian businessman who had sponsored the shelter with thousands of dollars and went to Timor-Leste to confront the priest about the allegations. To Hamilton’s surprise he confessed. The Australian recalled R.D.’s words as saying: ‘Yes. Everything I am accused of is true. This is who I am. I have always been this way.’ The answer baffled Hamilton. ‘I went to Dili expecting him to deny. But we got an absolute confirmation that he was a paedophile and that he had always been a paedophile,’ Hamilton told Tempo Timor.
When recently Tempo Timor interviewed R.D. in Kutet about the accusations, small children were walking in and out of his modest house with bamboo walls. He didn’t deny the sexual abuse, but switched between not remembering that he was taken to the police last year, not knowing about the allegations and ‘no comment.’
Vatican defrocks priest
Last August, without permission from his congregation, R.D. had decided to go back to Kutet, where he lived until his arrest. The SVD continued investigating the case and decided to expel him from the congregation and to dismiss him from priesthood. When it comes to allegations of child sex abuse and penalties, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which is located at the Vatican, deals with these cases. In November 2018 the CDF issued a decree stating that R.D. was officially dismissed from the clergy because he sexually abused minors in Oecusse. However, the church in Timor-Leste never properly explained to the population why the priest was defrocked, nor did the church provide support to the victims.
No foreign funds
Meanwhile foreign support has dried up. The Australian businessman Hamilton said that apart from what foreigners have been donating over the years, in February 2018 – in the same month that the sexual abuse was reported to the Catholic Church – Topu Honis received 104.000 USD$ (9.000 US$ from Hamilton; 95.000 US$ from another organisation). Apart from donations to the shelter, supporters like Hamilton also gave money for individual scholarships so children from Topu Honis could pursue post-secondary education (2000 US$ a year). Foreign volunteers used to work temporarily at the shelter. Several children were, after lengthy court processes, officially adopted by foreigners, such as an Australian policewoman who adopted a young girl from Kutet.
A free man
For a year, since the allegations were made to the SVD, the Timorese police and prosecution hardly took action. R.D. was allowed to live as a free man in Kutet, in the community where he had committed his crimes. The current director of Topu Honis, Liliana Tarung, refused to believe or investigate the allegations against the ex-priest, didn’t help potential victims to press charges nor protected the children against possible new crimes by her former boss. Sources say she went around pressing victims to say that no sexual abuse took place in the orphanage. However, Tarung was arrested by the police in Oecusse after she and children who were seeing R.D. off as he was arrested, attacked a woman who used to live in the orphanage as a child, and whom she suspected of having given a statement against the priest to the judicial authorities. The victim was beaten up and is slightly wounded.
In the last few months threats have been made on Facebook by former Topu Honis residents against victims and witnesses, forcing them to keep silent. Victims are afraid that if they speak out, they and their families will be ostracized by the community or might even have to fear for their lives.
Sexual abuse by a priest is a taboo in Timor-Leste, where almost 90 percent of the population is catholic. The church is a powerful institution, not only providing support, spirituality and structure to people’s lives, but also because of its position during the 24 years of brutal Indonesian occupation – from 1975 until 1999 - when many priests and nuns helped and tried to save the people. R.D. himself is much respected by members of the Timorese leadership as he protected people who were fleeing for the Indonesian military and Timorese militia during the referendum organised by the United Nations in 1999, when the population overwhelmingly voted for independence from Indonesia. Taur Matan Ruak, who is a former guerrilla leader, army chief, president and currently prime minister, visited the priest several times in Oecusse. When last year R.D. was taken to Dili by the congregation, Taur Matan Ruak (who had no official state position at that time) went with his wife to the SVD’s provincial office suggesting that the congregation should allow the American missionary to return to Kutet.
Pressure was building up after the local news site Tempo Timor revealed the case on 1 February 2019, which led to international media attention. The Timorese legal services agency JU,S Jurídico Social opened a hotline for victims of sexual abuse in Oecusse. It was then that the prosecution stepped up investigations, which led to the arrest of the former priest, who is now a formal suspect and has been taken from Oecusse to the town of Maliana, where he currently stays in SVD’s premises.