Part 2 | Ex-priest in sex case: Long battle for justice in Timor-Leste

This is the second installment of a two-part report. Read Part 1 here.

For the first time in days José Belo, one of Timor-Leste's leading journalists, was relaxed. The tension in his face was gone. Together we worked on the story uncovering the case against Richard Daschbach. On Friday morning, February 1, 2019, the news was published by Belo's news platform Tempo Timor.

Immediately the scoop was getting many hits. On social media several people from Oecusse called it "fake news." But the feared surge of furious reactions didn't happen. There was neither an outpouring of sympathy for the victims. The case quietly rattled the nation. People were taking in the news. 

Meanwhile, Daschbach was in Oecusse. When I arrived in Kutet to interview him on February 18, 2019, he changed his previous approach of admitting guilt. When asked about the allegations, he answered: "No comment." Did you ever touch children, I asked. An irritated Daschbach responded: "That's my business, not yours."

Battle for justify

The battle for justice is set to intensify.

CONTROVERSIAL. Richard Daschbach (wearing a collared shirt) is the former priest facing a sex abuse case in Timor-Leste.

Photo by Tjitske Lingsma

The driving force behind it is a small group of dedicated human rights lawyers of legal consultancy firm JU,S, joined by Fokupers, individuals like Tony Hamilton, and several others. They support the victims throughout these difficult times, protect them against threats and harassment, help them continue their studies, challenge the church’s silence, and push the case through institutions. 

Another key factor is the office of the public prosecution slowly changing its course.

When the Prosecutor General of the Republic (PGR), José da Costa Ximenes, saw that his prosecutor in Oecusse didn't act, he moved the Daschbach case to his main office in Dili. But there the staff doubted the scale of the abuse, and one top official visited an SVD priest to tell him to stop talking openly about the case. Finally, the police arrested Daschbach in April in Oecusse, where distressed followers bid him farewell. The suspect, however, was not put in prison. PGR Ximenes had made a deal with the bishop of Dili. For humanitarian reasons the church would lodge the old defrocked priest under an informal house arrest in the SVD residence in the town of Maliana. 

For me it is a big surprise that a case about such a serious crime drags on.

Father Peter Dikos

Meanwhile supporters of Daschbach are threatening people trying to shut them up and undermine the case.

"Victims and their families, individuals, NGOs, lawyers, journalists, and officials at government departments working on the case have been subjected to intimidation," Hamilton said. "Some were followed, others were labeled on social media." Potential witnesses received even death threats from former residents of Topu Honis. A family was threatened their house would be burned down. 

Escape

Then on November 12, 2019, Daschbach secretly escaped from the SVD residence in Maliana. That evening, he was spotted on the ferry to Oecusse. Despite the late hour, Ximenes took immediate action. 

It was still dark when Daschbach arrived in the exclave where the police were waiting for him. He was arrested and taken to stay in police facilities. On December 10, 2019, the court sent Daschbach to prison, where former Topu Honis residents came to visit him. 

At that time Father Peter Dikos was in Timor-Leste to explain the case to the public and speak to leaders, the wives of the president and prime minister, and NGOs. He was "a little bit disappointed" in the criminal justice system. "I would expect the judicial system to be more proactive" and that the case would have concluded long ago. "For me it is a big surprise that a case about such a serious crime drags on," Dikos said.

INVESTIGATIONS. Father Peter Dikos (center) is the SVD procurator general in Rome who investigates allegations against congregation members.

Photo by Tjitske Lingsma

But the office of the prosecutor has been struggling with the Daschbach investigations. PGR Ximenes changed at least 3 prosecutors who failed to work properly on the case. Finally Daschbach's computer was confiscated, which proved to be a game changer. Gradually, a stronger case was developed. But as investigations were taking long, in June 2020 Daschbach was moved from prison to house arrest. When the police knocked on the door of the family where he stayed, as Daschbach was summoned by the prosecution, he disappeared. It took days before he reappeared.

Church's reluctance

While nuncio Marco Sprizzi, the Vatican's ambassador to Timor-Leste, made it crystal clear that he has no doubt that Daschbach is guilty of the crimes, the Timorese church has been reluctant to discuss the matter and responds mainly only when pressured.

How strong opposition among the Timorese clergy is, became clear in September last year.

While PGR Ximenes was finishing the document containing the charges, the Justice and Peace Commission, which falls under the Metropolitan Archdiocese, said Daschbach was treated unfairly. The commission said the case "has the same modus operandi" as the trial against Cardinal Pell in Australia, who has been acquitted. Worse, while researching the case, the commission traced possible victims and witnesses. When in the resulting report their names were disclosed, an enormous safety risk was created. The commission also came up with bizarre allegations against the Timorese prosecution, police, lawyers, health care workers and NGOs, accusing them of "organized crime," "human trafficking," "exploitation of children," and being a "justice mafia" for working on the case.

Forced by the events Archbishop Virgílio do Carmo da Silva sacked the commission's director, apologized, and said the church wants to support the victims. 

Xanana Gusmão

During all these years political parties remained mostly silent, walking away from their duty to debate and show concern for the Timorese children, preferring to not stir their relationship with the church and their constituency.

What I have witnessed in this case makes me angry and incredibly sad.

Tony Hamilton

In contrast, the defrocked priest has a powerful friend who does show his allegiance publicly. On January 26, 2021, national hero Xanana Gusmão – ex-president, ex-prime minister and former commander of guerrilla movement Falintil – went accompanied by journalists to Daschbach to congratulate him on his 84th birthday. Video images showed how the national hero hugged Daschbach, feeding the suspect cake, and putting a wine glass to his lips. Press releases were distributed to journalists, with a selective resume of the ex-priest's life omitting the sexual abuse charges.

The news items prompted the president of the press council, Virgilio Guterres, to criticize the media. "The visit and the way journalists covered it, were an attempt to whitewash a former priest who had been dismissed by the Vatican," he said. "This is an attempt to influence public opinion and to influence the court."

Silence

The upheaval forced the Timorese Catholic Church to make a statement, showing its true colors.

In a communiqué issued on January 28, 2021, the Timorese bishops' conference explained that after "an in-depth and long process," the Pope had dismissed Daschbach. However, also the communiqué failed to mention the exact reason for the expulsion – the sexual abuse. The bishops urged the priests, fraters, sisters, and disciples to accept the dismissal and "not issue any further comment" about the case. By requesting silence, the bishops again smothered a public debate.

But Xanana's ex-wife, Kirsty Sword Gusmão, and their 3 sons decided to speak out. The boys, who live in Australia, condemned their father's actions openly on Facebook, writing heartfelt letters of support to the victims. The sons said they admire their "courage," being "incredibly brave" to be taking these "heroic actions" that will inspire children in Timor-Leste and the world to "come forward and seek justice when their rights are violated." They recognize that speaking up is the first step towards healing. "I know these are tough times and today you may feel alone, but one day history will record you as heroines,"  wrote Kay Olok Sword Gusmão.

Moral outrage

"Moral outrage is what I feel," said businessman and sponsor Tony Hamilton. "What I have witnessed in this case makes me angry and incredibly sad."

After a long and turbulent struggle, Daschbach will appear before the judges on February 22, 2021.

He explained the magnitude of the case by pointing out that "every child" that lived at Topu Honis is a victim. "The girls because Daschbach abused them every day. The boys because he was a role model and a father to them. Every mother and father that sent their children there, hoping for a better life for the child, is a victim," Hamilton said.

Others are also victims: the women who sought shelter in Topu Honis, the donors, and Timorese citizens who believed Daschbach was a hero.

"He deceived all of us – and he has no remorse," Hamilton said. Being a Catholic, he was shocked by the clergy's attitude. "The church I grew up to believe in" has failed the Timorese people "in every way," he said. "My most fervent wish now is that the Society of Divine Word (SVD) and the Catholic Church take their responsibility and support the victims."

The trial

After a long and turbulent struggle, Daschbach will appear before the judges on February 22, 2021. He is charged with sexually abusing 14 underage girls, child pornography, and domestic violence.

As the trial involves vulnerable underage victims, it takes place behind closed doors in Oecusse. There are worries that a possible presence of Xanana in the exclave might stir emotions. The leader of Fretilin, the biggest political party, encourages in general terms the country's justice system to be not intimidated and continue to judge crimes of violence and sexual abuse against children. But overall concern for intimidation has subsided.

Media attention helped to open the public’s eyes, a source said. People came to realize that with a formal indictment that involves so many victims, the allegations could be true. Press council president Guterres said: "The case generated courage of some people to voice out. That's an important step towards change." Apart from the sexual abuse charges, Interpol issued a red notice as Daschbach is also wanted by the US for wire fraud.

To this day the victims live with the pain, wounds and scars of the sexual abuse.

"It has traumatized me. For a long time after I had left Topu Honis I was afraid to go to sleep. It was even scary for me just to be around male family members such as my uncles. For many years it has been such a burden," said Ana (not her real name), an alleged victim of Daschbach.

She has a message for others like her. "I know that young girls and boys who suffer abuse feel very alone. But I really wish victims to know that our body is the most sacred part of who we are. Nobody has the right to touch or hurt us." – Rappler.com

Tjitske Lingsma is a senior freelance journalist and award-winning author based in The Netherlands. In her work she focuses on justice and human rights. From 1998 on, she visited Timor-Leste to cover the struggle for independence, the referendum, and the birth of a nation. Her book "All Rise" about the International Criminal Court was shortlisted for the Brusseprijs, for best journalistic book in The Netherlands. She won the Scherpenzeelprijs for her book "The Sorrow of Ambon" (only in Dutch) about the sectarian war in the Indonesian Maluku islands. She has been reporting for Dutch and international media, such as De Groene Amsterdammer, JusticeInfo.net, Wordt Vervolgd, and Tempo Timor.