Xanana Gusmão, independence hero and former President of East Timor, has drawn a rare conviction after being accused of whitewashing the crimes of a disgraced American priest who is to be tried next week in a case history of child sexual abuse in the predominantly Catholic Southeast Asian nation.
The controversial meeting took place on January 26 – the 84th birthday of self-proclaimed pedophile Richard Daschbach – at a private residence in Dili where he is under house arrest after being charged with 14 counts of child sexual abuse, as well as pornography juvenile and domestic violence.
In a video taken during the meeting, which was covered by local media, Gusmão, also a former prime minister, is seen hugging the former priest and giving him cake.
The son of a Pennsylvanian metallurgist, Daschbach was ordained at St Mary’s Mission Seminary in Chicago in 1965. Two years later he was sent to Timor by the Society of the Divine Word of Chicago, the largest missionary congregation in Chicago. Catholic Church, with 6000 missionaries in 70 countries.
In the mid-1980s, Daschbach established Topu Honis, an orphanage and women’s shelter in Oecusse, an isolated enclave in then Indonesian-controlled territory, which he ruled for more than 30 years. He is also a war hero known for saving the lives of hundreds of children and refugees during East Timor’s bloody independence crisis in 1999.
But in 2018, he fell out of favor after a woman who had lived in the shelter as a child sent an email to the Vatican alleging sexual abuse. Faced with allegations from church investigators, Daschbach admitted that he systematically abused dozens of orphan girls in his care. He expressed no remorse and was later defrocked by Pope Francis.
“He admitted everything he had been accused of in graphic detail and said it was OK because it was his nature,” said Tony Hamilton, a former Topu Honis sponsor from Australia, and the one of the people to whom Daschbach has admitted crimes since the allegations first appeared.
A 2015 survey by The Asia Foundation, a non-profit organization, found that three out of four children in East Timor are victims of physical or sexual violence, although Daschbach is the first person to be accused of sexual abuse. children in the country.
A severely underfunded justice system, combined with Daschbach’s status as a religious leader and his high-level political, police and religious connections in East Timor, made his prosecution extremely difficult.
At least one alleged victim, a former orphan who says she was molested, was assaulted by Daschbach supporters in Oecusse. Gusmao’s visit could worsen the situation, observers said.
“When political leaders support someone like Daschbach, society produces many young people who grow up believing that it is okay to abuse women and that women are okay with being abused,” said Berta Antonieta, researcher for La’o Hamutuk, a think tank in Dili, the capital.
“East Timor is a country that has been the victim of countless abuses in the past. And if any leaders care about this country, they should know it.
A psychiatrist from Dili who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal said, “The message behind Xanana’s visit was very strong – but not in a good way.”
They added: “I am seriously concerned about its impact on the survivors themselves. Xanana is a very powerful leader in this country and there are many people who will support him no matter what.
Virgilio Guterres, human rights activist and chairman of the Timor-Leste Press Council, criticized journalists who attended the meeting for relying exclusively on a press release prepared by Gusmão’s office.
“The visit can carry the message to the public that Daschbach has done a lot for East Timor in the past and deserves compassion rather than imprisonment,” Guterres said. “Coupled with the way the East Timorese media presented the facts, this reinforces the public opinion that Daschbach is innocent. I think he could also be declared innocent by the court now.
“And Xanana being Xanana, the country’s foremost political leader, the weight of his power prevents people here from seeing his misdeeds. He may have lost an election, but he will never lose the worship of the people. No matter what he says or does, his name cannot be blackened out, although Daschbach’s victims must have felt different. Previously, they would have seen Xanana as their guardian angel. Now they know he’s not on their side.
Gusmão’s three children, who live in Melbourne, Australia, also came out by sending a written apology to the victims through their legal representatives.
“After hearing my father visit Richard Daschbach, I was very disappointed and I hope his actions will not change what you have decided to do. You deserve to feel safe and overcome this ordeal as soon as possible, ”wrote Alexandre Sword-Gusmão, Gusmão’s eldest son.
“I commend you for standing firm in handling this. I hope you know that what you are doing will inspire the children of East Timor now and in the future to speak out and seek justice when their rights are violated, ”wrote Daniel Gusmão, 16.
“I know these are tough times and you feel lonely today, but one day history will remember you as heroines. Talking about what happened to you is the first step on the road to recovery, ”wrote Kay Olok Sword-Gusmão.
The letters were then shared on Facebook by their mother, Australian Kirsty Sword-Gusmão, who divorced Gusmão in 2015.
She said that while some consider Gusmão’s meeting with Daschbach as an act of “personal charity”, the media presence has made it “a public and political act with great implications for public opinion, the psychological well-being of victims and the ongoing legal process ”.
Gusmão, who gained international fame in the 1990s as a charismatic leader similar to Che Guevara of the rebel army fighting the Indonesian army, is regarded as flawless by many Timorese who endearingly call him “Maun Boot.” – Big Brother.
“I know these words will make a lot of people angry and some will make negative comments,” Sword-Gusmão wrote on Facebook. “But we are ready [for the backlash] because all social change and all human progress require courage, sacrifice and suffering. All Timorese, including Big Brother himself, know this better than most people.
Al Jazeera contacted Daschbach through his guardian in Dili, but he did not respond. Gusmão’s office also did not respond to inquiries.
Daschbach’s trial will begin in Oecusse on February 22. He could face up to 20 years in prison if found guilty. He has also been charged with three counts of wire fraud in the United States and has been placed on the Red Notice list of Interpol, an online database of wanted international criminals.
Disclosure: The author volunteered for the Topu Honis Orphanage in East Timor before allegations of child sexual abuse surfaced.