‘Denigration of my humanity’

— Gay priests reflect on pope’s use of homophobic slur

Fr. Bryan Massingale, left, and Fr. Greg Greiten are pictured in 2017 photos.

by Katie Collins Scott

Fr. Bryan Massingale first admitted to himself he was gay at age 22 but came out many years later as a priest after hearing stories of LGBTQ Catholics from regions of the world where people face imprisonment, torture and death because of their sexuality.

He’d listened to delegates living in fear of such realities while attending a 2019 meeting of the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics, a coalition of organizations from multiple continents.

“I knew I couldn’t ask them to continue to do their difficult, courageous and heroic work without taking a risk myself,” Massingale, a theologian at Fordham University in New York, told NCR. “I was moved to make a public declaration on my sexuality as a way of saying I need to also be willing to take a risk for a better church.”

The priest said the work needed to build up a better church was on his mind following the news that Pope Francis reportedly used a derogatory term when referring to gay men.

“I was shocked and saddened that a pope would speak this way,” said Massingale. “Because if what he said was true, this went beyond simply reaffirming traditional beliefs about sexuality and was an insult. Sexual slurs dehumanize people and are a denigration of my humanity and of the humanity of other sexual minorities.”

Pope Francis prays with Italian bishops in the Vatican synod hall during the general assembly of the Italian bishops' conference on May 20. (CNS/Vatican Media)
Pope Francis prays with Italian bishops in the Vatican synod hall during the general assembly of the Italian bishops’ conference on May 20.

Italian media quoted unnamed bishops who claimed that amid a closed-door meeting with the Italian bishops’ conference May 20, the pope, as he strongly reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s prohibition on gay men entering seminaries or being ordained priests, jokingly said, “there is already an air of faggotness” in seminaries. After a flurry of news and negative reactions, the Vatican issued an apology May 28.

“The pope never intended to offend or express himself in homophobic terms, and he extends his apologies to those who were offended by the use of a term that was reported by others,” said Vatican spokesperson Matteo Bruni, who did not confirm or deny that Francis had used the term.

The alleged slur was most personal for gay priests, and in the days following the media firestorm, Massingale and Fr. Greg Greiten, a pastor in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, described their thoughts and emotions about it — and about the gifts and pain of being an openly gay priest.

There is research that indicates around 30-40% of U.S. clergy are gay. Some say it’s a much higher percentage, with the majority choosing not to share their sexual orientation publicly.

Greiten came out to parishioners in 2017 during a homily, saying at the time he no longer wanted to live “in the shadow of secrecy.”

“I wanted and needed to be honest and authentic about who I am,” he told NCR in an interview May 29.

The immediate reaction to Greiten’s disclosure was a standing ovation, with one parishioner saying after Mass she “could care less” and loved him “for the person he is.”

Gregory Greiten
Fr. Gregory Greiten distributes Communion at his 25th anniversary celebration May 20, 2017.

For Massingale, too, responses from “those in the pews were absolutely, overwhelmingly supportive.”

The negative repercussions came from church officials, including bishops, the priests said.

Massingale recalled at least two occasions where, on account of being openly gay, a bishop told him he could not give a talk in his diocese and said several times he’d been disinvited from delivering an address. In one case he was not allowed to speak at a local seminary.

“How it was reported to me was the bishop was concerned that it would be giving a bad example to seminarians,” said Massingale.

‘I was shocked and saddened that a pope would speak this way. Because if what he said was true, this went beyond simply reaffirming traditional beliefs about sexuality and was an insult.’
—Fr. Bryan Massingale

Greiten said the biggest fear for him was always local church leadership. “In other places people have been removed for being public about their sexual identity, and I know gay priests who’ve gone into deep depression because a bishop was so horrible to them,” he said. “I was worried but I was ready because I wasn’t lying anymore.”

Greiten said he has not felt accepted or supported by Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki — who in 2022 issued a sweeping policy on so-called gender theory — but the priest declined to share specifics on record so as not to jeopardize his ministry position.

“Speaking up and being open in the context of the church has its consequences,” he said.

In 2016, Fr. Warren Hall was banned from ministry by then-Archbishop John Myers of Newark, New Jersey. The archbishop claimed it was due to the priest’s advocacy work; Hall said it was because he was gay.

Massingale and Greiten both told NCR they appreciated the pope’s apology following his reported slur.

“I accept the fact that he did not intend to speak maliciously,” but it is important to draw a distinction between “the intent of this word and the impact of this word,” said Massingale. “And the impact of this word can only be negative.”

‘Speaking up and being open in the context of the church has its consequences.’
—Fr. Greg Greiten

The vice president of the Italian bishops’ conference said the pope’s comments were taken out of context and that Francis “is not homophobic and never was.” Vatican reporters also noted Italian is not the Argentine pope’s first language and that he regularly uses slang and speaks informally.

Greiten said the pope “is a very smart individual” and thinks it’s unlikely he didn’t understand the word fully or how he used it in a particular context.

It is language that ultimately reinforces “the horrific attitudes, stereotypes and discrimination directed toward the LGBTQ community from the hierarchy in the Catholic Church,” he said. “It is never OK. It is never a joke.”

Greiten added that it is “extremely painful and hurtful” for LGBTQ individuals like himself, “who have been on the receiving end of these offensive comments and attitudes for years while growing up.”

The pope previously has affirmed the church’s ban on gay men in seminaries, although the head of the bishops’ conference denied that in the May meeting Francis gave an absolute “no” on gay men entering seminary.

Pope Francis speaks to visitors in St. Peter's Square during his general audience May 29 at the Vatican. (CNS/Lola Gomez)
Pope Francis speaks to visitors in St. Peter’s Square during his general audience May 29 at the Vatican.

Early in his papacy Francis’ famous “Who am I to judge?” statement was in regard to the sexual orientation of priests and marked a decided shift in the Vatican’s discussion of LGBTQ individuals.

Massingale told NCR the recent episode with the pope shows the need for a frank discussion about gay men in the priesthood.

“It is a fact there are now and have always been many, many gay men who have served the church as priests and bishops faithfully, generously and well,” he said. “So I think we need to have an honest conversation about where this fear and suspicion of homosexuality in the priesthood is coming from.”

The bans on gay individuals in the seminary and in the priesthood are not working, “they are not effective,” said Massingale. “The only thing it’s doing is driving people to be dishonest in the process of seminary formation. That is not healthy for the young men in formation or healthy for the church.”

Fr. Bryan Massingale speaks during a June 8, 2022, online dialogue on "After Buffalo, After Uvalde, After Tulsa: Broken Hearts, Broken Nation, Faithful Action." The panel was sponsored by Georgetown University's Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life. (CNS/YouTube)
Fr. Bryan Massingale speaks during a June 8, 2022, online dialogue on “After Buffalo, After Uvalde, After Tulsa: Broken Hearts, Broken Nation, Faithful Action.” The panel was sponsored by Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life.

Greiten agreed. The emphasis on silence around sexuality means seminarians “are not fostering integrity in their formation,” he said, adding that in his own life the secrecy was destructive.

Both Greiten and Massingale said they believe there is a fear and a mistaken belief that gay men are less capable of honoring the vow of celibacy than straight men.

“Show me the studies that are going to back up that belief,” said Greiten. “It’s not true.”

“Of course gay men and straight men can be a cause of scandal in the church when they fail to live up to their obligations,” Massingale said. “But that’s not about sexual orientation.”

If there’s a need to speak about priests leading holy, authentic lives versus those leading double lives, “that’s great, let’s have that conversation,” said Greiten. “But that’s a different issue than someone just being a gay candidate.”

In terms of the lasting impact of the pope’s word choice, a lot will depend on what occurs going forward, according to Massingale, who hopes the pope, “who has demonstrated a historic openness to the LGBTQ community,” will meet with gay men who are priests.

“So in that way the pope can know our trials and our joy, our struggles, and our hopes and dreams,” he said. “I think in that way we can move from this very unfortunate incident and make it an occasion of grace and an occasion of healing.”

Massingale also affirmed the ongoing work of the church.

“My belief is that this is all part of the birth pain of a new church coming to be,” he said. “Every church body that is moved to a more accepting or more open attitude for sexual minorities has gone through a messy and confusing period of turmoil.”

Massingale listed the Lutheran, Episcopal, Presbyterian and Methodist churches as examples.

“In all those churches, gay clergy have been at times attacked and maligned,” he said. “Yet that was also part of the process by which the church came to a deeper understanding of human sexuality and of the truth of the Gospel.”

Complete Article HERE!

Pope Francis Tells Gay Man Rejected From Seminary to ‘Go Ahead With Your Vocation’

— The 22-year-old from La Spezia in northern Italy reportedly told the Pope about his belief he has a calling to the Catholic priesthood and how he was not accepted into seminary after revealing his sexual identity.

Pope Francis waves to pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square for his Wednesday general audience on May 8, 2024.


Pope Francis has reportedly encouraged a 22-year-old gay man to continue to pursue a vocation to the priesthood after he was not accepted into a Catholic seminary.

According to the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero, the Pope responded to an email from Lorenzo Michele Noè Caruso, telling him to “go ahead” with his vocation, just days after the Vatican issued an apology for the pontiff’s use of a slur in reference to seminarians who identify as gay.

The Pope’s handwritten note was sent June 1 as an email attachment. According to news reports, it condemned clericalism and worldliness and said: “Jesus calls all, all.”

According to Il Messaggero, Pope Francis told the 22-year-old that “some people think of the Church as a customs house, and this is terrible. The Church should be open to everyone. Brother, go ahead with your vocation.”

Caruso told Il Messaggero that he had sent a lengthy email to Pope Francis on May 28 in which he wrote that he wanted to draw attention to his story and the stories of many who, “like me, live at the margins of the Church, often forced to hide themselves to be included by the community or forced to pay the high price of refusal for being sincere.”

The 22-year-old from La Spezia in northern Italy reportedly told the Pope about his belief he has a calling to the Catholic priesthood and how he was not accepted into seminary after revealing his sexual identity. He also asked the Church to reconsider its prohibition on admitting homosexual people to the seminary as stated in a 2005 instruction from the Congregation for Catholic Education.

“This letter gave me hope,” Caruso said. “Now the seminary remains a not-dismissed dream.”

The Pope, in his note, also said he was struck by an expression Caruso used in his own email: “toxic and elective clericalism.”

“It’s true!” Francis continued. “You know that clericalism is a scourge? It’s an ugly ‘worldliness.’”

He added that “worldliness is the worst thing that can happen to the Church, worse even than the era of concubine popes,” attributing the quote to “a great theologian,” by whom he likely meant Jesuit Father Henri de Lubac.

The pontiff has frequently quoted or paraphrased Father de Lubac on spiritual worldliness.

“My whole story,” Caruso said, “has been studded with these responses, when a religious person discovered my sexuality, no matter how much he had appreciated my person and my faith up to a minute before, he would retreat, saying things like, ‘There are so many ways to decline a vocation.’ I was effectively denied the possibility of having a priestly vocation. ‘Continue,’ urges Pope Francis.”

Complete Article HERE!

Pope Francis’ F-word exposes Catholic Church

By The Rev. Irene Monroe

Pope Francis sent global shock waves when the news broke that he used the highly offensive F-word “frociaggine,” meaning “faggotness” in Italian. In a closed-door conversation at the Italian Bishops’ Conference in May, a discussion about whether to admit gay seminarians in preparation for the priesthood, the pontiff replied, “There is too much frociaggine in seminaries.”

The news of Francis using this particular homophobic and eyebrow-raising epithet hurt deeply many out-and-proud Catholic LGBTQ+ people hoping for full inclusion and acceptance by Pope Francis. “I imagine people like me are eating their optimistic words,” Nina Girgenti of Boston told me. But Nina’s optimism was not unfounded.

During the Catholic Church’s World Day of the Poor in Torvaianica, a run-down seaside town just 20 miles south of Rome, a community of transwomen, many of who are sex workers, received VIP seats as Pope Francis’ guests at the monthly lunch gatherings. Francis called for the decriminalization of homosexuality, lauded by LGBTQ+ advocates as a milestone that would help end harassment and violence against us, despite the pontiff still stating publicly that homosexual acts are a sin – though not a crime. During World Youth Day, Francis announced that the Church was for everyone. “There is space for everyone, and when there isn’t, please, let’s work so that there is. “ The Vatican also agreed to baptize transgender Catholics and allow them to be godparents.

The pope’s PR machine has come out with many incredulity-provoking excuses and tepid apologies for his gaffe. But this faux pas suggests “even if intended as a joke, the pope’s comment reveals the depth of anti-gay bias and institutional discrimination that still exist in our church,” Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, said in a press release in solidarity with gay priests.

Church needs its gay priests

“The truth is that the church simply could not function without those countless gay priests, bishops and maybe even popes who currently serve and have served over the centuries,” Duddy-Burke said. I agree. The reality here is that the Catholic Church is a gay institution. And that is not a bad thing!

The homosocial and homosexual milieux of gay priests have been part of the life and operations of the Vatican and Catholic Church for centuries. Their strength to come out now as a formidable force within the hallowed walls of the Vatican is laudable on the one hand and a liability on the other hand – especially in terms of casting a gay suspicion on all priests as well as the potential to expose priests who want to remain in the closet.

“If they were to eliminate all those who were homosexually oriented, the number would be so staggering that it would be like an atomic bomb; it would do damage to the church’s operation,” said the late Richard Sipe, a former priest and psychotherapist who has been studying the sexuality of priests for decades. Sipe points out that to do away with gay priests “would mean the resignation of at least a third of the bishops of the world.”

The problem in the Catholic Church is not its gay priests, and its solution to the problem is not the removal of them. Years of homophobic church doctrine have made the Church unsafe for us all and have created a down-low culture.

Eugene Kennedy, a specialist on sexuality and the priesthood and a former priest, wrote in his book, “The Unhealed Wound: The Church and Human Sexuality,” that the Catholic Church “had always had gay priests, and they have often been models of what priests should be. To say that these men should be kept from the priesthood is in itself a challenge to the grace of God and an insult to them and the people they serve.”

Can we trust Pope Francis?

Once again, Francis is rocking the world and continuing to command attention with his liberal-leaning pronouncements. But the pontiff is a complicated, if not confusing, figure to LGBTQ+ people. On the surface, Francis displays a pastoral countenance to his papacy that seemingly extends to our community.

In 2013, responding to a question about a possible “gay lobby” in the Vatican, Francis said, “If they accept the lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them?” Supporters and activists of the “gay lobby” in the Curia state emphatically that this brave and visible group is essential to the running of the Vatican as well as protecting themselves from the Church’s hypocrisy in scapegoating them for many of the social ills of the Church.

But Pope Francis is the consummate flip-flopper of our time. He doublespeaks on issues. He embraces the LGBTQ+ community, then he doesn’t. His pastoral demeanor cloaks the ironfisted church bureaucrat that he is. It’s not enough for Francis to say he embraces our community – privately or publicly. He must also do it.

Complete Article HERE!

‘Darkest period of my life’

— Gay conversion therapy in Italy

Rosario Lonegro says his time in the seminary was “the darkest period” of his life

By Davide Ghiglione

Rosario Lonegro was only 20 years old when he entered a Catholic seminary in Sicily as an aspiring priest preparing to be ordained. But while he was there he fell in love with another man and his superiors demanded that he undergo conversion therapy intended to erase his sexual preferences if he wanted to continue on the path to the priesthood.

“It was the darkest period of my life,” he told the BBC, recalling his seminary experience in 2017.

Haunted by guilt and fears of committing a sin in the eyes of the Catholic Church, Rosario said he “felt trapped with no choice but to suppress my true self”.

“The psychological pressure to be someone I was not was insurmountable. I could not change no matter how hard I tried.”

For more than a year, he was compelled to take part in spiritual gatherings outside the seminary, some over several days, where he was subjected to a series of distressing activities intended to strip him of his sexual proclivities.

These included being locked in a dark closet, being coerced to strip naked in front of fellow participants, and even being required to enact his own funeral.

During these rituals, he was tasked with committing to paper his perceived flaws, such as “homosexuality”, “abomination”, “falsehood” – and even more explicit terms, which he was then obliged to bury beneath a symbolic gravestone.

‘I thought I needed to be cured’

The World Health Organization (WHO) removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1990. Subsequent scientific research has largely concluded that attempts to change sexual orientation are not only ineffective but also harmful.

In France, Germany and predominantly Catholic Spain, conversion therapies have been officially banned, and efforts are under way both in England and Wales to outlaw such practices.

Today in Italy, it’s nearly impossible to determine the precise extent of these practices, reported mostly by men, but some women too, and there is no standard legal definition of them.

In recent months, however, the BBC has conducted interviews with several young gay men across the country who have shared their experiences of being subjected to pseudoscientific group meetings or individual therapy sessions aimed at turning them into heterosexuals.

One 33-year-old man who attended this type of meeting for over two years expressed his initial motivation, saying: “I wanted to reconcile with myself. I didn’t want to be homosexual. I thought I needed to be cured.”

“I saw that as my sole path to acceptance,” said another. He was not trying to become a priest, but was simply seeking acceptance in his daily life.

Getty Images Priests make their way to wait in line to view the body of Pope John Paul II as it lays in state in the St Peter's Basilica April 5, 2005 in Vatican City
Experts say Italy is hesitant to ban the practices partly due to Italy’s strong Catholic influence

Gay conversion therapy is not limited to one specific region of Italy – group meetings and individual therapy sessions run across the country, some even run by licensed psychotherapists. In some cases, these gatherings and therapy sessions are unofficial and covert, often promoted through discreet conversations and secret referrals.

Other courses are publicly advertised, with known figures within Italy’s conservative circles actively seeking followers online and on social media platforms to promote their ability to change sexual orientations.

In Sicily, Rosario Lonegro was primarily subjected to meetings organised by the Spanish group Verdad y Libertad (Truth and Freedom), under the leadership of Miguel Ángel Sánchez Cordón. This group has since disbanded, having incurred the disapproval of the Catholic Church.

However, the Italian priest who originally pushed Lonegro into these practices was given a senior position within the Church, while others continued to draw inspiration from Sánchez Cordón’s methods in Italy.

Many of the people the BBC spoke to were referred to Luca di Tolve, a “moral/spiritual trainer” who gained recognition through his book titled “I was gay once. In Medjugorie I found myself”.

On his website, Di Tolve and his wife boast that they are a “contented couple” seeking to “aid anyone whose sexual identity is in turmoil, helping them to genuinely exercise their freedom in determining who they wish to be as a person”. When contacted by the BBC, Di Tolve did not respond.

Another active individual promoting ways to tackle perceived sexual orientation is Giorgio Ponte, a well-known writer in Italy’s ultra-conservative circles. He says he wants to help people overcome their homosexuality and be liberated, by telling his own story as a man with homosexual drives who is on his “potentially life-long” path to freedom.

“In my experience, homosexual attraction stems from an injury to one’s identity that conceals needs unrelated to the sexual-erotic aspect but rather tied to a distorted perception of oneself, reflecting across all aspects of life,” he told the BBC.

“I believe that a homosexual person should have the freedom to try [to become heterosexual], if they want, knowing, however, that it may not be possible for everyone,” he added.

‘When I kissed her it felt unnatural’

In recent years, dozens of young men and women have sought guidance from the likes of Di Tolve, Ponte and Sánchez Cordón. Among them is 36-year-old Massimiliano Felicetti, a gay man who grappled with attempts to change his sexual orientation for more than 15 years.

“I started to be uncomfortable with myself from a very early age, I felt I would never be accepted by my family, society, Church circles. I thought I was wrong, I just wanted to be loved, and these people offered me hope,” he said.

Felicetti said he had tried different solutions, consulting psychologists and clergy members who offered to help him become heterosexual. However, about two years ago, he decided to stop. A friar who knew of his struggle encouraged him to start dating a woman, but it didn’t feel natural.

“When I kissed her for the first time, it felt unnatural. It was time to stop pretending,” Felicetti said.

Only a few months ago he came out as gay to his family. “It took years, but for the first time I am happy to be who I am.”

Despite attempts from previous governments to promote a bill to oppose conversion therapies, no progress has been made in Italy. Italy’s right-wing government led by Giorgia Meloni has so far adopted a hostile stance toward LGBT rights, with the prime minister herself vowing to tackle the so-called “LGBT lobby” and “gender ideology”.

Such lack of progress comes as no surprise to Michele Di Bari, a researcher in comparative public law at the University of Padova, who says that Italy is structurally much slower to implement change compared with other countries in Western Europe.

“This is a very elusive phenomenon, given that it is a practice prohibited by Italy’s order of psychologists itself. Yet, in the Italian legal system, it is not deemed illegal. People carrying out such practices can’t be punished.”

Despite the complexity of the issue, experts believe that partly due to Italy’s strong Catholic influence, the country has been more hesitant to prohibit these controversial practices.

Getty Images A participant reacts next to a banner depicting Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni during the Pride March to show support for members of the LGBT community, in Milan on June 24, 2023.
Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s government has adopted a hostile stance to LGBT rights in Italy

“This may be one of the elements that, along with a strongly patriarchal and male chauvinist culture, makes the broader understanding of homosexuality and LGBT rights more difficult,” said Valentina Gentile, a sociologist at Rome’s LUISS University.

“However, it is also fair to say that not all Catholicism is hostile to the inclusion of diversity and the Church itself is in a period of strong transformation in this regard,” she added.

Pope Francis has said that the Catholic Church is open to everyone, including the gay community, and that it has a duty to accompany them on a personal path of spirituality, but within the framework of its rules.

However, the Pope himself was reported to have used a highly derogatory term towards the LGBT community when he told a closed-door meeting with Italian bishops that gay people should not be allowed to become priests. The Vatican issued an official apology.

Rosario Lonegro has left Sicily behind and also lives in Milan. Following a nervous breakdown in 2018, he left both the seminary and the conversion therapy group.

While he still believes in God, he no longer wants to become a priest. He shares an apartment with his boyfriend, he studies philosophy and undertakes occasional freelance work to pay for university. However, the psychological wounds inflicted by such activities still run deep.

“During those meetings, one mantra haunted me and was repeated over and over: ‘God didn’t make me that way. God didn’t make me homosexual. It’s only a lie I tell myself,’ I thought I was evil,” he said.

“I will never forget that.”

Complete Article HERE!

In Southeast Asia’s youngest nation, leaders are defending clergymen mired in child abuse scandals

— In deeply Catholic Timor-Leste, high-profile clergymen involved in child sex abuse scandals are supported by some of the country’s most powerful politicians while victims who come forward are labelled as ‘church haters’.

Father Richard Daschbach was sentenced to 12 years in prison by a Timorese court after he confessed to sexually abusing many young girls at the orphanage he ran for 30 years in Timor-Leste.

By Kimberly Lambourne

Nobel Prize winner Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo was once the most powerful figure of the Roman Catholic church in Timor-Leste.

But in 2022, a Dutch newspaper report accused Belo of multiple rapes and sexual assaults on young boys dating back to the time he was a priest in the early 1980s.

In 2002, when the first allegations against him were raised, the Vatican discretely moved Bishop Belo to Mozambique, and then to Portugal, saying he was suffering “physical and mental fatigue”.

Then in 2020, Belo was secretly sanctioned by the Vatican and banned from living in his home country and coming into contact with minors.

Despite the allegations against him, Belo still receives the support of the nation for his role in campaigning for the human rights and self-determination of the Timorese people during the Indonesian occupation from 1975 to 1999.

A man wearing a black clerical gown and purple cap (left) embraces Pope John Paul II, who is wearing white.
Timorese spiritual leader and Nobel peace laureate Bishop Carlos Belo (left) meets Pope John Paul II in his summer residence at Castelgandolfo in September 1999.

Belo’s portrait is prominently displayed at the entrance of the Timor-Leste resistance museum — an ever-present reminder of his reputation as a fearless fighter for Timorese independence.

The president of Timor-Leste, Jose Ramos Horta, is a long-time friend of Bishop Belo. The two shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 for their advocacy work and were the international faces of the Timorese during the occupation.

Ramos-Horta continues to speak highly of Belo, despite the Vatican exiling Belo from Timor-Leste due to the child sex abuse allegations against him.

“We were surprised, but that’s life, these things happen,” he said in an interview for a documentary first broadcast on European public broadcaster ARTE. “It was very hard for us, for the Timorese people.”

“He represented the church, but also all the people of Timor.”

(left), a bespectacled man with a moustache; (right) a bespectacled clergyman in a bishop's hat
The president of Timor-Leste, Jose Ramos Horta, is a long-time friend of Bishop Belo (right). The two shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 for their advocacy work and were the international faces of the Timorese during the occupation.

“That’s a matter for the Vatican, for the Holy See, to decide whether he can return to Timor,” he said. “Yes, of course, people would love to welcome him back here.”

However, he declined to comment on the accusations against Belo.

The documentary makers made several attempts to contact Belo, seeking a response to the allegations raised in the program. He did not reply.

The church and the fight for independence

The topic of child sexual abuse in Timor-Leste is shrouded in a code of silence. The Timorese people revere the Catholic church as an institution that helped and offered them protection in the country’s darkest days.

Located north of Australia, Timor-Leste is a former Portuguese colony. After declaring independence in 1975, the nation was quickly invaded by Indonesia and for 24 years Timor-Leste endured a violent occupation. It formally became independent in 2002.

More than 150,000 people were killed in the fight for independence — almost a quarter of the country’s population — making it one of the deadliest conflicts of the 20th century.

During the occupation, priests sheltered and cared for the Timorese independence fighters, with the church loyal supporters of the resistance.

Today Timor-Leste is considered the second most Catholic country in the world, behind only the Vatican, with 97 per cent of the population practicing Catholicism.

This deep connection between the church and the fight for Timorese independence has fostered an environment where it’s difficult for victims to speak up as to speak ill of the church in Timor-Leste means to undermine the pain the nation has suffered through for its sovereignty.

Victims who come forward are often labelled as church haters and face being ostracised from their community.

A bespectacled older man wearing a medical face mask hugs two young women whose faces are blurred
In 2021, American missionary Richard Daschbach became the first member of the clergy to be convicted of sexual abuse of minors in Timor-Leste.

American ex-priest jailed for rape

Belo is far from the only priest in the country to have child sexual abuse allegations levelled at them.

It’s alleged that around a dozen other priests are accused of sexual abuse in Timor-Leste.

But prosecutions are rare.

In 2021, a Timorese court sentenced then 84-year-old American missionary Richard Daschbach to 12 years in prison for sexual abuse of children — the first time a member of the clergy has been convicted of such crimes in Timor-Leste.

Three years earlier, Daschbach, who had run an orphanage for 30 years in remote Timor-Leste, admitted to sexually abusing many young girls who were in his care.

In a letter addressed to his superiors, Daschbach wrote: “The victims could be anyone from about 2012 back to 1991, which is a long time.”

He went on to say, “It is impossible for me to remember even the faces of many of them, let alone the names — who the victims are I haven’t the faintest idea.”

After his confession, the Vatican expelled Daschbach from the church.

Two older men sitting on a couch. The man on the right is wearing a floral blue shirt and has his right arm around the shoulder of the man on the left, who is pointing his index finger
Convicted child sex offender Father Richard Daschbach (left) and Timor-Leste’s prime minister, Xanana Gusmão (right).

Daschbach, like Belo, supported the Timor-Leste rebels in their 24-year battle for independence, giving him status as a respected war hero and saviour of children.

Despite the evidence, criminal conviction and Daschbach’s own confessions, many Timorese still defend his honour. Among them is the country’s prime minister, Xanana Gusmão.

Since Daschbach’s imprisonment, Gusmão has visited the priest twice for birthday celebrations.

Speaking to a reporter, Gusmão confirmed that he believes Daschbach doesn’t belong in prison and will continue “every, every, every year” to bring him cake for his birthday.

In response to the news that the prime minister visited the convicted child sex offender in prison, Gusmão’s three sons, who now live in Melbourne, wrote handwritten letters to Daschbach’s victims apologising for their father’s actions.

One wrote: “When I heard that my father had visited the perpetrator ex-priest RD, I felt sad and angry. I apologise if my father’s actions caused you distress.”

Gusmão has said the release of Daschbach will be one of his priorities while in office.

Daschbach also receives avid support from Martinho Gusmao, a former priest and presidential candidate in 2022 elections.

“I think this case must be … cancelled … his name must be restored,” he said about Daschbach’s sentencing.

“You cannot. Just because you hate the Catholic church in Timor-Leste, you cannot do that.”

A congregation inside a Catholic church during mass
Timor-Leste is considered the second most Catholic country in the world, behind only the Vatican, with 97 per cent of the population practicing Catholicism.

The culture of silence

Josh Trinidad, a Timorese anthropologist and specialist in sexual violence, says Timor-Leste generally doesn’t see paedophilia as a big issue.

“A lot of people still don’t understand the issue of paedophilia [in Timor-Leste],” he said.

“It’s not like in the West, in Australia or in the UK, if you are a paedophile is, you know, really bad.”

As the victims of child sexual abuse crimes speak up, it is revealing a much larger cultural problem about the way sex abuse is perceived in Timorese society.

Many locals fear any reckoning to address the abuse will be deeply traumatic to the young nation that has fought relentlessly for its freedom.

Given the innate reluctance to even talk about child sexual abuse and the institutional power abusers and their supporters hold in Timor-Leste, it makes it more difficult for victims to tell their stories and be believed.

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