East Timor: police arrest ex-priest for sexually abusing girls in his orphanage

Tjitske Lingsma

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East Timor: police arrest ex-priest for sexually abusing girls in his orphanage
'A list with the names of the girls was on his door, so we knew when it was our turn...It happened every day, during his afternoon naps and the night,' says one victim

DILI, Timor-Leste – The police in Timor-Leste have arrested a former priest who has been accused of sexually abusing young girls in his orphanage in the country’s enclave Oecusse.

“R.D.” was brought before the judge on Friday, April 26, and is now in custody, sources confirmed. Meanwhile the director of the shelter was arrested too on Sunday, April 28, after she organized an attack against a former resident of the orphanage whom she suspected of having given a statement against the priest.

Last November the Vatican dismissed R.D. from his clergy status punishing him for the crimes he allegedly committed when he was a priest. (READ: Vatican defrocks former U.S. cardinal over sex abuse claims) 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 an 82-year-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 savior, 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.

What happened in the orphanage in Kutet is told by a victim, who has to stay anonymous for her safety. Her story was published last week by Fokupers, a Timorese NGO that supports women and children who suffered violence. The victim explained she was a young girl of 8 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 became 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 described 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 detailed the systematic nature of the sexual abuse and showed 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 said that what initially shocked her most was that nobody in the shelter talked about the abuse, which has left her traumatized.

Church starts investigating

The silence continued until March 2018 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 kilometers east of the enclave.

While the congregation investigated the case, he was suspended and forbidden to perform his priestly celebrations. He was also presented to Timor-Leste’s police several times.

Mixed messages

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 said in an interview with the news site TempoTimor.com, which broke the story in February.

Gapun heard R.D. saying: “It is 100% 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: “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 pedophile and that he had always been a pedophile,’ 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. 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 the 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.

ABUSE. Ex-priest R.D. is arrested after allegations he sexually abused young girls in the Topu Honis Shelter Home in the hamlet of Kutet, in Timor-Leste’s enclave Oecusse. Photo by Tjitse Lingsma

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 US$104,000 ($9,000 from Hamilton; $95,000 from another organization).

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 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 said she went around pressing victims to say that no sexual abuse took place in the orphanage. However, on Sunday, April 28, Tarung was arrested by the police in Oecusse after she organized a group of children to join and attack 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 taboo in Timor-Leste, where almost 90% 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 from the Indonesian military and Timorese militia during the referendum organized 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 R.D. was taken last year 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 allow the American missionary to return to Kutet.

Pressure was building up after the local news site Tempo Timor exposed the case on February 1,  2019, which led to international media attention.

The Timorese legal services agency JUS Jurídico Social opened a hotline for victims of sexual abuse in Oecusse. It was at the time that the prosecution stepped up investigations, which led to the arrest of the former priest, now a formal suspect who has been taken from Oecusse to Dili. – Rappler.com

Tjitske Lingsma is a journalist, researcher, and author of ‘All Rise.’ She is now based in Amsterdam.

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