Xanana Gusmão, independence hero and East Timor’s former president, has drawn rare condemnation after being accused of whitewashing the crimes of a disgraced American priest who is due to stand trial next week in a landmark child-sex abuse case in the Catholic-majority Southeast Asian nation.
The controversial meeting took place on January 26 – the 84th birthday of self-professed paedophile Richard Daschbach – at a private residence in Dili where he is under house arrest after being charged with 14 counts of child sex abuse, as well as child pornography and domestic violence.
In a video taken at the meeting, which was covered by local media, Gusmão, also a former prime minister, is seen hugging the former priest and feeding him cake.
The son of a Pennsylvanian steelworker, Daschbach was ordained at St Mary’s Mission Seminary in Chicago in 1965. Two years later, he was dispatched to Timor by Chicago-based Society of the Divine Word, the largest missionary congregation in the Catholic Church, with 6,000 missionaries in 70 countries.
In the mid-1980s, Daschbach established Topu Honis, an orphanage and women’s shelter in Oecusse, a remote enclave of the then-Indonesian-controlled territory, which he ran for more than 30 years. He is also a war hero credited with saving the lives of hundreds of children and refugees during East Timor’s bloody independence crisis in 1999.
But in 2018, he fell from grace after a woman who had lived in the shelter as a child sent an email to the Vatican alleging sexual abuse. When confronted with the allegations by church investigators, Daschbach admitted he had systematically abused scores of orphan girls under his care. He did not express any remorse and was subsequently defrocked by Pope Francis.
“He admitted to 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 one of a number of people to whom Daschbach has admitted the crimes since the allegations first surfaced.
A 2015 survey by The Asia Foundation, a non-profit organisation, found that three out of four children in East Timor are physically or sexually abused, although Daschbach is the first individual to be charged with child sex abuse in the country.
A severely under-resourced justice system combined with Daschbach’s status as a religious leader and his high-level political, police and church connections in East Timor has made bringing him to justice extremely challenging.
At least one alleged victim, a former orphan who says she was molested, was assaulted by Daschbach’s supporters in Oecusse. The Gusmao visit could make the situation worse, observers say.
“When political leaders supporting someone like Daschbach, society produces many young people who grow up to thinking it’s OK to abuse women and it’s OK for women to receive abuse,” said Berta Antonieta, a researcher for La’o Hamutuk, a think-tank in Dili, the capital.
“East Timor is a country that has been abused countless times in the past. And if any leaders care about this country, they should know better.”
A psychiatrist in Dili who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals said: “The message behind Xanana’s visit was very strong – though 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 many people will support him no matter what he does.”
Virgilio Guterres, a human rights activist and chair of the Timor-Leste Press Council, criticised the journalists who attended the meeting for relying exclusively on a press release prepared by Gusmão’s office.
“The visit may carry the message to the public that Daschbach has done much for East Timor in the past and deserves compassion rather than imprisonment,” Guterres said. “Coupled with the way East Timorese media presented the facts, it builds public opinion that Daschbach is innocent. I think he could also be found innocent by the court now.
“And Xanana being Xanana, the most prominent political leader in the country, the weight of his power makes it impossible for people here to see his wrongdoings. He may have lost an election but he will never lose the peoples’ adoration. No matter what he says or does, his name cannot be blackened, though Daschbach’s victims must feel different. Previously they would have seen Xanana as their guardian angel. Now they know he is not on their side.”
Gusmão’s three children, who live in Melbourne, Australia, have also weighed in by sending written apologies to the victims through their legal representatives.
“After hearing my Dad visited Richard Daschbach, I was very disappointed and hope that his actions don’t change what you decided to do. You deserve to feel safe and get through this ASAP,” wrote Gusmão’s eldest son Alexandre Sword-Gusmão.
“I applaud you for standing strong to handle this. I hope you know that what you are doing will inspire children across East Timor now and in the future to speak out and seek justice when their rights are violated,” wrote 16-year-old Daniel Gusmão.
“I know these are tough times and you feel alone today but one day history will remember you as heroines. Talking about what happened to you is the first step on the path to healing,” wrote Kay Olok Sword-Gusmão.
The letters were subsequently shared on Facebook by their mother Australian Kirsty Sword-Gusmão, who divorced Gusmão in 2015.
She said while some consider Gusmão’s meeting with Daschbach an act of “personal charity,” the media presence had turned it “into a public and political act with big implications for public opinion, the psychological wellbeing of the victims and the ongoing judicial process”.
Gusmão, who gained international acclaim in the1990s as the charismatic Che Guevara-like leader of the rebel army fighting the Indonesian military, is considered above reproach by many Timorese who endearingly refer to him as “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’re ready [for the backlash] because all social change and human progress require courage, sacrifice and suffering. All Timorese, including Big Brother himself, knows this better than most people.”
Al Jazeera contacted Daschbach through his minder in Dili, but he did not respond. Gusmão’s office also failed to respond to enquiries.
Daschbach’s trial will begin in Oecusse on February 22. He could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted. He has also been charged with three counts of wire fraud in the US and been placed on Interpol’s Red Notice list, an online database of wanted international criminals.
Disclosure: The author worked on a pro-bono basis for the Topu Honis orphanage in East Timor before allegations of child-sex abuse surfaced.