When silence can no longer be bought

Union of Catholic Asian News (UCA News) [Hong Kong]

October 11, 2022

By Justin Wejak

In light of sex abuse charges against Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo, keeping quiet is no longer an option

When Dutch magazine De Groene Amsterdammer first exposed sex abuse allegations against Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo, the long silence about the shameful past finally broke. Several mainstream media outlets around the globe followed suit in covering the allegations.

Two alleged victims, now in their 40s, cited in the story, had the courage to break the silence. Their courage is expected to inspire more alleged victims to come forward. It is indicated that Bishop Belo may have also allegedly abused other minors in the 1980s at the Salesians’ education center, where he taught before becoming a bishop.

The question is: will other alleged victims have the same courage to at least recount their memories and stories? The media circus and criminal trial of the case may or may not be helpful in bringing justice, particularly to the alleged victims.

The courage of the rape victims in Timor-Leste has been shown to the public in the case of a pedophile American priest, Richard Daschbach. He was sentenced to 12 years in jail in December 2021 for sexually abusing young orphaned and underprivileged girls in his care.

On top of his 12-year imprisonment, Daschbach was ordered to compensate each victim US$4,000. Four rape victims aged under 12 received compensation from Daschbach, 84. He was the first cleric in the predominantly Catholic country prosecuted for sex abuse of minors. This guilty verdict for Daschbach gives hope to other alleged victims of sexual abuse seeking justice. But, will justice ever come in Belo’s case as in Daschbach’s?

Belo, 74, is no doubt different from Daschbach, and the Church remains a powerful institution in Timor-Leste. Belo is a local and he was once a bishop, and as such he is very influential socially and politically in the country. With Jose Ramos-Horta, Belo received the Nobel Peace Price in 1996 for his consistent campaigns for Timorese independence through peaceful means. I suspect behind the scenes, grassroots support will be mobilized to defend their man.

“They are likely to provide even more moral support to Belo than they did to Daschbach”

The political elite in the country will not remain silent and passive, they may do whatever they can to silence the victims that they might feel bring shame to the whole community — the community of the faithful and the political community. They are likely to provide even more moral support to Belo than they did to Daschbach during his trial.

As the rape allegations against Bishop Belo are now out in the public arena, this not only shows that the Church’s silence is broken, but also relationships and trust may be broken. Some may begin to feel betrayed and abandoned spiritually, emotionally and socially. Some could be left confused as their man, their hero and role model is being accused of a historical sex crime. It may feel like taking ‘God’ to court, and some will do whatever they can to defend their ‘God.’ The irony is Belo is not God, and God is not Belo.

Belo is only a human being capable of doing both good and bad. The allegations against him are very serious and must be thoroughly investigated.

Bishop Belo, now believed to be residing in Portugal, had in fact been sanctioned by the Vatican, following a report in 2019 of sex abuse allegations against him during the 1990s. Belo is a clergy of the Salesians of Don Bosco, a Roman Catholic religious order that historically had a strong influence at the Vatican.

It is reported that no pastoral work had been assigned to Belo while in Portugal. It is reported that when it first received the report back in 2019 the Vatican immediately imposed restrictions on Belo’s movement and ministerial role. He was also not allowed to have contact with minors.

Belo resigned from his episcopal role early in 2002 at the age of 54, still very young to retire as a bishop. The odd thing was that after his resignation he was still permitted to work with minors in Mozambique. This needs to be clarified by the Vatican, especially when the case is taken to court.

“There is nothing unusual about alleged victims of sexual violence speaking out against their alleged perpetrators years after”

Many want to know why Belo resigned, and why he was still allowed to work with minors outside of his home country. Is this a pattern of the Church authorities in handling cases such as this, for instance by simply moving them around until they got caught out? 

I recall when De Groene Amsterdammer exposed the sex abuse allegations against Bishop Belo, many reacted to the news with mixed feelings. There was sadness, shock and confusion. Some even accused the media of running a media trial of Bishop Belo as a way to discredit the Church as an institution.

This accusation could be misplaced. The simple argument expressed by those feeling uncomfortable with the rape allegations against Bishop Belo is that the alleged rape took place a long time ago, and they question the motivation of the victims.

In fact, there is nothing unusual about alleged victims of sexual violence speaking out against their alleged perpetrators years after the occurrence, especially if their abuser was a person in a position of trust and authority. Young children usually do not have a concept of what constitutes sexual abuse, and they do not have the language to express what happened to them. So it is perfectly normal that later on in life both the memory and understanding of the abuse surfaces and can no longer be repressed.

For this reason, silence is no longer an option to move forward in dealing with sex abuse allegations.

Instead, the Church needs to try to understand the root causes of sexual abuse and to continue to explore meaningful ways of reforming itself from within, to ensure that it never happens again. Pope Francis has appealed repeatedly to the Church community to have the courage to do so.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.