Bishop Belo during Friday morning mass in Dili, East Timor, on October 8, 1999. Belo returned to Timor-Leste on October 6 after being in exile due to the violence in Dili. He saw his house destroyed by fire and religious artifacts desecrated by pro-Jakarta militias © Jason Reed / Reuters

There is also a Dutch translation of this article available.

It was Sunday morning. Paulo was standing among the other faithful listening attentively to the mass Bishop Belo was holding in the tropical garden at his residence in Dili, the capital city of Timor-Leste. After the mass, Belo walked up to Paulo, then a teenager of fifteen or sixteen years old. ‘He asked me to come to his place’, says Paulo, now 42, who wishes to stay anonymous for the privacy and safety of himself and his family.

It was an honour to be invited. ‘I was very happy,’ says Paulo. Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo was not only the powerful head of the Roman Catholic church of Timor-Leste, but also a national hero and a beacon of hope for the people. He spoke up for his country, then suffering so terribly under the extreme and violent Indonesian occupation (1975-1999), and he demanded respect for human rights and self-determination.

In the late afternoon Paulo went unsuspectingly to the Bishop’s residence, on the coastal road of Dili with a magnificent view over the sea. That evening Belo took him to his bedroom. ‘The bishop took my pants off, started to sexually touch me and committed oral sex on me,’ Paulo says. Confused and shocked the teenager fell asleep. When he woke up, ‘he gave me some money,’ he remembers. ‘In the morning I ran away fast. I was a little scared. I felt so strange.’ Paulo felt ashamed, until he realised: ‘It is not my fault. He has invited me. He is the priest. He is a bishop. He gives us food, and talks nice to me. He is taking advantage of that situation.’ He adds: ‘I thought: this is disgusting. I won’t go there anymore.’

Paulo didn’t tell anyone about the sexual abuse and sexual exploitation. It happened once, that one time. But that didn’t apply to Roberto, now 45, who has also decided to remain anonymous. Both Paulo and Roberto would later settle abroad to build their lives.

There was a mood of excitement in Roberto’s town, where a church feast was in full swing. People were delighted because even the bishop had come. While Roberto watched the play and listened to the music, Belo’s eye fell on him. The bishop asked the teenager, who was about fourteen years old, to come to the convent. Roberto went to the convent and it got later and later. Too late to go home. The bishop then took Roberto to his room, where the exhausted teenager fell asleep. Until he suddenly woke up. ‘The bishop raped and sexually abused me that night’, says Roberto. ‘Early in the morning he sent me away. I was afraid because it was still dark. So I had to wait before I could go home. He also left money for me. That was meant so that I would keep my mouth shut. And to make sure I would come back.’

It was a large amount for the teenager, who had lost many family members due to the Indonesian occupation, during which as many as 183,000 Timorese died from hunger, disease, exhaustion and violence. On his following visits to the town, the bishop would send someone to fetch Roberto. Belo played on his heart and mind. ‘I felt recognized, chosen, loved and special,’ says Roberto. ‘Until I understood that the bishop was not really interested in me, but that it was only about himself. Then it was only about money for me. Money which we needed so badly.’

When Roberto moved to Dili, the sexual abuse and sexual exploitation moved to the bishop’s residence in the city. There Roberto saw orphan boys growing up at the compound and other boys who were called in like him. Roberto and Paulo both say people were sent with the car to bring the boys that Belo wanted to the residence.

Asked for a response to the allegations, Bishop Belo immediately hung up the phone

The bishop abused his position of power over boys who lived in extreme poverty, says Paulo. ‘He knows that the boys have no money. So when he invited you, you came over and gave you some money. But meanwhile you are a victim. That’s the way he did,’ Paulo explains.

It was impossible to disclose what was going on in Belo’s bedroom, Paulo says. ‘We were scared to talk about it. We were scared to pass on the information. Like me, about my bad story with bishop Belo’.

The Catholic church enjoys immense respect among the people in Timor-Leste, for its religious role and as an institute that helped people and offered protection. If accusations against Belo were made public it would scandalize the country and undermine the struggle for independence, says Roberto. It is still difficult for people to speak out about Belo’s alleged sexual crimes, from fear of stigmatisation, ostracization, threats and violence.

Paulo wanted to forget and he buried his thoughts about the sexual abuse. But when he liked a girl, his experiences surfaced. ‘I have the negative in my mind already. That way, like the bishop did to us, is not good.’

From the research carried out by De Groene it appears Belo had more victims. De Groene spoke with twenty people with knowledge of the case: dignitaries, government officials, politicians, NGO workers, people from the church and professionals. More than half of them personally know a victim, while others know about the case and most discussed it at work. De Groene also spoke with other victims who didn’t want to tell their story in the media. Paulo and Roberto both know fellow sufferers. ‘I knew it of some of my cousins. I knew it of some of my friends,’ Paulo says, adding: ‘They go to his place, just to get the money.’

The Research

This research project began in 2002, when a Timorese man says a friend was sexually abused by Bishop Belo. He had been very worried about his younger brother who visited the bishop’s residence every week and he had told his mother to not allow him to go there any more. Later that year, in November 2002, the bishop suddenly resigns. From that moment, rumours about the alleged sexual abuse grow into a massive public secret.

Several journalists try to report on the case. But the bishop is ‘too big to fail’. A possible opening comes up in February 2019, when Tempo Timor for the first time reveals the case against American ex-priest Richard Daschbach.

Since then De Groene has been researching the Belo case and spoken to several victims and twenty people with knowledge of the matter: dignitaries, government officials, politicians, NGO workers, people in the church and professionals. Over half of them know a victim, while others know about the case and discussed it at work.

In recent years, cracks have appeared in the image of the infallible church in East Timor

The abuse stretches over a long period of time. The accusations of Paulo and Roberto refer to the 90s. According to our research, Belo also abused boys before he became bishop, in the early 80s, in the village of Fatumaca, when he was superior at the educational centre of the Salesians of Don Bosco (SDB), the congregation to which he belongs. The current archbishop, Virgílio do Carmo da Silva, was then a student at the pre-seminary there, as has been written in online articles by, among others, Bishop Belo.

Belo, now 74, was born on February 3, 1948 to a devout family in the hamlet of Wailacama in Timor-Leste, then still a colony of Portugal. When he was three years old, his father died. The family faced a tough life in the deep poverty that had blighted the entire nation. Belo began working in the fields when he was a toddler, sometimes walking three hours a day to get rice. As a boy he liked to play priest. One day he put a grapefruit peel on his head, took a stick as a crozier and ordered his cousins to come and kiss the hand of the ‘bishop’, writes Arnold S. Kohen in his laudatory biography ‘From the Place of the Dead. Bishop Belo and the Struggle for East Timor’ (1999).

Belo is taught at Catholic schools and the seminary. As head student he is tough on class-mates. He can be moody, loves debating, theatre, soccer, romantic songs and The Beatles. In 1968 he leaves Timor-Leste to study in Portugal, where he witnesses the Carnation revolution which ends Portuguese colonialism. He returns to Timor-Leste, becomes a Salesian on October 6, 1974, and begins teaching at Fatumaca.

When Indonesia invades Timor-Leste in 1975, Belo is staying in Macau. In 1980 he is ordained as a priest. When he returns to his home country in 1981, Belo is shocked by the extreme fear, the poverty and the violent war. The Indonesian army uses the population – including Belo’s brother, uncles and cousins – as human shields during military operations, writes Kohen.

Belo goes to Fatumaca, where he is master of novices and after a year he is promoted to the position of superior. In 1983, Pope John Paul II choses the 35-year-old as head of the church in Timor-Leste. In 1988, Belo is appointed bishop. It is a tough and stressful position. People desperately address the bishop to tell him how Indonesian troops invade their houses, take people, torture and kill. Belo is called in to mediate when the violent Indonesian military and police target the population. Despite the danger he ‘had a sense of playfulness characteristic of many Salesians’, writes Kohen, interpreting Belo’s repeated phrase: ‘I am only another sinner!’

On November 12, 1991, Belo hears machine guns. At the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili the Indonesian army has opened fire on demonstrators. Many young people are killed. Hundreds flee to Belo’s residence. When the bishop visits the graveyard he sees victims covered with blood and with bullets in their bodies. Finally Belo gets access to the military hospital. He recognizes many people that earlier he had personally brought home from his compound, but who were arrested and badly hurt and pummelled. At that time Paulo is too young, but when he is 15 he joins the demonstrations. It is an irregular and dangerous life. Many friends get killed. During an attack he is badly wounded and loses his best friend.

In 1996 Belo receives the Nobel Peace Prize, together with activist and diplomat José Ramos-Horta, the current president of Timor-Leste. The two receive the award ‘for their work towards a just and peaceful solution to the conflict in East Timor’. Belo presents himself during his Nobel speech as ‘the voice of the voiceless people of East Timor’ and states: ‘what the people want is peace, an end to violence, and respect for their human rights.’

In 1999, Timor-Leste is finally given a referendum on self-determination. It is organised by the United Nations, and Indonesia seeks to undermine the process with brutal violence. With a 78.5 per cent landslide, the people of Timor-Leste vote for independence. Indonesia takes merciless revenge. Indonesian military and police together with Timorese militia destroy houses, buildings and infrastructure. They loot, kill and deport a quarter of the population. In that organised explosion of violence, more than 5,000 people flee to the Bishop’s place. On September 6, militia launch an attack and burn down his residence. Belo leaves his flock, fleeing first on an Indonesian chopper, then on an Australian army plane to Darwin. In October 1999, he returns to Timor-Leste. Amidst that total destruction, the sexual abuse is resumed, says a witness.

'The bishop left me money to make sure I would shut up'

A UN transitional government rules the liberated country from 1999 until 2002. There are attempts to bring the sexual abuse case to light. But there is fear of reprisals and concern that in this early stage the country can’t deal with such a devastating scandal. The Timorese people have paid a massive price for independence. Paulo is severely traumatised and suffers panic attacks. ‘It’s a lot of things mixed up. It’s from the war and from the bishop. I have been through dark times’, he says.

Suddenly Belo resigns as head of the church. The Pope relieves him of his duties on November 26, 2002. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate says he suffers ‘from both physical and mental fatigue.’ In January 2003, Belo leaves Timor-Leste, officially to recover in Portugal. After talking to the prefect of the then Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and the rector major of the Salesian congregation, he chooses a new post, he says in an interview with Catholic agency UCA News. In June 2004 he becomes ‘assistant priest’ in Maputo, Mozambique. ‘I have descended from the top to the bottom’, Belo tells UCA News.

But why does an ambitious, world-famous bishop accept such a low position? In light of the accusations of sexual abuse, what he says about his work in Maputo is alarming: ‘I do pastoral work by teaching catechism to children, giving retreats to young people.’ Belo never lives in Timor-Leste again, but he visits occasionally, most recently at Christmas and New Year in 2018, and leaving his home country in January 2019.

In recent years cracks have appeared in the image of the once-infallible Catholic church in Timor-Leste. In February 2019, the local news platform Tempo Timor reveals for the first time the details of a clergy abuse case.

While the Vatican had found the American missionary Richard Daschbach guilty and had dismissed him from priesthood, these decisions were kept quiet. On December 21, 2021, Timor-Leste’s court convicted Daschbach of sexually abusing girls in the shelter home he ran and sentenced him to 12 years in prison (see the De Groene website for a Dutch feature on this case). In 2015 a Catholic brother received a ten-year prison term for the sexual abuse of teenagers in a support centre in the district Ermera, though that verdict didn’t make it to the media.

There are more cases. De Groene Amsterdammer spoke with people who made accusations about four priests in Timor-Leste. There are many concerns about British priest Patrick Smythe, convicted this year in the UK for abusing children, who spent ten years travelling to Timor-Leste and had children sleeping in his hotel room.

Several sources say church authorities have restricted Belo’s travel. He now resides in Portugal and he was not allowed to travel on his own initiative to his home country, but first had to ask permission from Rome. The travel restriction was confirmed by the president of Episcopal Conference of Timor-Leste. ‘He has to ask permission from the Vatican to see if they allow him to come or not’, bishop Norberto do Amaral said in an interview in September 2019. He said he doesn’t know the reason. ‘Over the matter why he can’t come, please ask the Vatican’. Because ‘issues with bishops’ are not dealt with by the local church, ‘but the Vatican.’

Such a travel restriction is a measure of canon law that church authorities can apply during an investigation of a case to protect victims, the investigation and the suspect. The church can also apply restrictions after a guilty verdict. Sources confirm the bishop is still not allowed to travel freely. He was not present during the recent grand installation in Rome of the new Catholic cardinals, who include Timor-Leste’s archbishop Virgílio do Carmo da Silva.

De Groene Amsterdammer has asked the Catholic church for a response to the accusations. The Holy See, responsible institutions including the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), cardinal Virgílio do Carmo da Silva in Dili and the rector major of the Salesian Congregation, have not answered our questions, and remain silent on the issue. Bishop Belo picked up the phone for a moment, but then put it down immediately.

As a victim, Paulo wants an end to the silence about the sexual abuse. ‘We have to talk about it, and shout it out louder to the world,’ he says. Roberto tells his story because he wants to open the way for other victims to speak out. ‘What I want is apologies from Belo and the church. I want them to acknowledge the suffering inflicted on me and others, so that this violence and abuse of power won’t happen anymore.’

This article was made possible by a grant of the Fonds Bijzondere Journalistieke Projecten. The identity of the victims is known to the editorial desk