Vatican Disciplined Nobel Laureate Bishop Over Child Abuse Claims

ROME — A Nobel Peace Prize-winning Catholic bishop received “disciplinary restrictions” and was banned from “contact with minors,” the Vatican revealed on Thursday, based on allegations that the prelate, Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo, had raped and abused teenage boys decades ago in East Timor.

The church’s acknowledgment came a day after a Dutch magazine, De Groene Amsterdammer, aired the accusations in an explicit account of abuse by two of the priest’s alleged victims.

“The Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith was first involved in this case in 2019, in the light of the accusations it received concerning the bishop’s behavior,” the Vatican spokesman, Matteo Bruni, said in a statement.

In September 2020, the Vatican limited Bishop Belo’s movements and the exercise of his ministry, Mr. Bruni said, and banned “voluntary contact” with minors and contact with East Timor, the tiny Southeast Asian nation where he is beloved for his role in winning independence from Indonesia.

“In November 2021 these measures were modified and reinforced,” Mr. Bruni said. “On both occasions the measures were formally accepted by the bishop.”

Bishop Belo, 74, was an icon in East Timor, sharing in the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize with another hero of independence, José Ramos-Horta, who went on to become president, as they sought a peaceful and just resolution to a bloody conflict. The Norwegian Nobel Committee specifically cited the bishop’s courage in sneaking two witnesses to a 1991 massacre out of the country so they could testify to the United Nations human rights commission.

They worked over decades to bring peace to East Timor, a former Portuguese colony where the Roman Catholic Church is influential, after Indonesia, which is majority Muslim, forcibly annexed it in mid-1970s. The battle between East Timorese guerrillas and Indonesian forces killed hundreds of thousands, about a third of the entire population, and at one point Bishop Belo was forced to leave after a militia attack burned down his residence, which had become a refuge for people persecuted by the police.

The bishop’s two alleged victims, identified only by first names by the Dutch paper, said in the account that the Bishop had raped them and targeted poor children and possibly orphans, leaving them cash to keep them quiet or coming back. One, identified as Paulo, now 42, told the magazine that Bishop Belo had abused him at the bishop’s residence in Dili, the country’s capital.

“I thought: This is disgusting,” he is quoted as saying. “I won’t go there anymore.”

The De Groene Amsterdammer reported that Bishop Belo had abused other boys starting in the 1980s in the village of Fatumaca, when he was a young cleric at the educational center of the Salesians of Don Bosco. He became a bishop in 1988.

On Thursday, Mr. Ramos-Horta, now in his second stint as president, returned to East Timor after taking part in the U.N. General Assembly in New York, only to be confronted with the stunning accusations against his old partner in peace.

“I prefer to await further action from the Holy See,” Mr. Ramos-Horta said, according to The Associated Press. “I can’t, I do not have, and I cannot have any other comment on that.”

In 1999, the people of East Timor voted in a referendum to break from Indonesia and gained independence in 2002. That year, Pope John Paul II accepted BishopBelo’s resignation as head of the church in Dili.

Hewas only 54, more than 20 years shy of the required age of resignation. To explain his stepping down, a Vatican statement at the time referred to a canon law that allowed bishops under 75 to retire for health reasons or other “grave” reasons, but did not elaborate. Bishop Belo subsequently said he went to Portugal in 2003 for treatment for cancer.

The Dutch magazine reported that in 2004 he worked as a priest in Mozambique, and Bishop Belo himself told a Catholic news outlet, UCANews, in 2005 that he had moved to Mozambique.

“I am an assistant priest in Maputo,” UCANews quoted himas saying. “I do pastoral work by teaching catechism to children, giving retreats to young people. I have descended from the top to the bottom.”

He told UCANews that he went to work with children in Africa after speaking with Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, an Italian prelate who then headed the Vatican’s missionary office.

Cardinal Sepe did not return emails and telephone calls on Thursday.

Bishop Belo’s resignation coincided with the explosion of the clerical sex abuse scandal in the United States. While the Vatican began to focus on and review cases of abuse by priests, it did not do the same for many bishops, a more powerful position in the church hierarchy. They were generally unaccountable until 2019, when Pope Francis introduced a law requiring that accusations of sexual abuse against bishops be reported and investigated internally.

The Vatican declined to comment about whether it had known of accusations against Bishop Belo when he resigned in 2002 or when it later sent him to Mozambique, or whether it had alerted the local authorities in Portugal or East Timor in 2019, when it says the allegations were brought to its attention.

Radio Renascença, a private broadcaster partially backed by the Portuguese church, reported on Thursday that it had reached out to Bishop Belo, who is believed to be living in Portugal, but got no response.

A Portuguese branch of the Salesian order, to which Bishop Belo belonged, took him in at the request of superiors after he left East Timor in 2002, according to a statement on its website Thursday. The Salesians said he hadn’t had “any educational or pastoral positions or responsibilities” with the group in the country

“It was with deep sadness and perplexity,” the statement said, that they learned “what was reported about the suspected sexual abuse of minors” by Bishop Belo, adding that they had no longer had a close association with him.

As recently as May, he celebrated the 20th anniversary of East Timor’s independence and delivered remarks, according to an article on the Salesians’ website.

The news of the allegations, and their acknowledgment by the Vatican, had already begun spreading around East Timor on Thursday.

“We are here also in shock to hear this news,” an official at the archdiocese of Dili told The Associated Press.

Gaia Pianigiani and Elisabetta Povoledo contributed reporting.

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