‘Is the prosecutor brave enough to prosecute church commission?’
Tempotimor (Dili) - The Catholic Church in Timor-Leste is interfering with the course of justice in the case against ex-priest R.D., who is being investigated by the office of the prosecutor for allegedlysexually abusing girls in the shelter he was running in the country’s enclave Oecusse. Last week the Justice and Peace Commission, which falls under the Metropolitan Archdiocese, distributed a report criticizing the prosecutor’s criminal investigations and disclosing the names of potential victims,witnesses and the suspect himself.
Breaking the law
‘The commission is violating the penal code,’ lawyer Manuel Tilman told Tempo Timor. While the prosecutor is investigating a case, the information that is gathered such as the identity of victims, witnesses, the suspect and their statements are confidential and may not be published.
The lawyer says that the church’s commission can be prosecuted for breaking the law by releasing the names. ‘Now it depends on the public prosecutor whether he is brave enough to start to prosecute the Justice and Peacecommission,’ Tilman said.
On 27 August a team of the commission went to the enclave of Oecusse, where Topu Honis shelter for orphans and vulnerable people is located. The report explains how the team spoke to young girls, who are potential victims and witnesses in the criminal case of the prosecutors, as well as parents. Their names and identities, as well as those of the suspect, are disclosed in the report. The commission also spoke to lawyers, the Commissioner for the Rights of the Child and the police.
In the report the police and prosecution are said to have intimidated the girls during their investigations into the alleged sexual abuse. NGO’s supporting victims and doctors are also criticized. The report states that the commission had problems in getting information about the whereabouts of several girls. The commission concludes that the NGO’s work closely together in this case and accuses them of ‘organised crime’, ‘exploitation of underage girls’, ‘human trafficking’ and being a ‘justice-mafia.’
However, the steps of the commission are in sharp contrast to the Vatican’s decisions and contradict the earlier position of high-level church officials in Timor-Leste itself.
Who is R.D.?
R.D. is an American ex-priest originally from Pittsburg, USA, belonging to the congregation Societas Verbi Divini (SVD, Society of the Divine Word). He arrived in 1966 on the islandof Timor. In the early nineties he established Topu HonisShelter Home in Oecusse. The centre was described on its website as ‘a safe haven’ for orphans, children ‘from extremely poor homes, disabled adults, and women fleeing abuse.’ Over the years it ‘served more than 600 children and adults in the area,’ stated the website, before it was taken down.
Behind the scenes however, there was another reality. Early March 2018 the SVD received information with allegations that R.D. had sexually abused girls in the Topu Honisorphanage in the small mountain hamlet of Kutet. During a phone conversation with SVD’s superior general in Rome, R.D. admitted his crimes. Father Yohanes Suban Gapun, SVD’s regional superior based in Timor-Leste, sat nearby the accused priest when he made his confessions. ‘It is 100 percent true,’ Gapun heard R.D. saying. ‘He repeated that four times,’ Gapun told Tempo Timor in an earlier interview.
In November 2018 R.D. was defrocked after the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) had investigated the allegations, concluded the priest was guilty of sexually abusing minors, and decreed his official dismissal.On 30 November 2018 R.D. signed the document accepting the Vatican’s decision.
‘He is not considered a priest anymore. He accepted the accusation, and signed the letter with the accusation about the wrong, misleading behaviour that he committed,’ Father Jovito Rêgo de Jesus Araújo, episcopal vicar for pastoral care of the diocese of Dili, told Tempo Timor in an interview in January 2019. ‘He committed a crime,’ father Jovito added.‘He needs to be arrested.’
Meanwhile R.D. was still living freely in Oecusse. On 30 December 2018, a month after R.D. was defrocked, Fr. Jovitowent to Kutet to prevent the ex-priest from performing mass. ‘But when I arrived he had celebrated [mass] already. I was mad, because he already got the letter from the Diocese that he was not allowed to celebrate [mass]. I told the people: if you want to help him, better not to come to his celebrations.’
The church, however, mainly kept quiet about the case. When R.D. was arrested for the first time in April 2019, he wasaccommodated in a SVD-residence under an informal house arrest arrangement. In November 2019 R.D. escaped to Oecusse, but was captured by the police when he arrived by ferry. A month later, in December, the court sent him to prison. Six months later R.D. was released from jail and put under house arrest. However, in July the defrocked priest briefly disappeared, violating his house arrest rules, but then resurfaced again. While the public prosecutor is investigating R.D. for allegedly sexually abusing young Timorese girls, the former priest is also wanted by the USA government for wire fraud.