A court in East Timor has jailed a defrocked American priest for 12 years after he was charged with sexually abusing several orphaned and disadvantaged girls in his care.
The sentencing of Richard Daschbach took place on Tuesday.
The case against the 84-year-old marked the first time that allegations of sexual abuse perpetrated by a priest have gone to trial in the staunchly Catholic country.
Daschbach, who founded in the early 1990s a shelter for orphans and vulnerable children, was accused of 14 counts of sexual abuse of children younger than 14, as well as one charge of child pornography and domestic violence.
The trial began in February in the district of Oecusse, 200 km (125 miles) west of the capital, Dili, and near his Topu Honis shelter. Court proceedings were closed to the public, and the trial was postponed several times before concluding last month.
Responding to Tuesday’s ruling, Daschbach’s lawyer, Miguel Faria, said he did not accept the sentence and would coordinate with the defendant and his family to prepare an appeal.
Faria said the verdict was based on the testimony of four victims but had not taken into account the testimony of other witnesses.
Lawyers representing the victims from the group JU,S Juridico Social applauded the verdict but said they would also appeal.
In a statement, the group said that considering the gravity of the crimes, Daschbach should have received a maximum sentence of 30 years.
“The history written today is a bitter history for the entire nation,” the group said. “Our children were subjected to horrendous crimes for such a long time because we, as a society, were blinded by the belief that a figure as the defendant in this case would not commit such crimes against children.”
The Vatican defrocked the Pittsburgh-born priest in November 2018, but Daschbach maintains strong backing from some, including former President Xanana Gusmao, who went to the court on Tuesday.
East Timor is generally the most staunchly Catholic place outside the Vatican and Daschbach is revered for his assistance during the Southeast Asian nation’s campaign for independence from Indonesia
The church and foreign donors who once supported the shelter said Daschbach confessed to the abuse, but the former priest and his lawyers have at various times refused to comment. During the proceedings, victims complained about threats and online attacks.
Al Jazeera’s Jessica Washington said the case has divided East Timor.
“Timor Leste is a very religious country, with around 98 percent of the population identifying as Catholic. The church has played a very important role in the history of this young nation. Many still feel a sense of gratitude for the Catholic Church for the support the church gave to the people during the Indonesian occupation. It provided food, shelter, and safety during what was a very difficult time for many Timorese people. And as a result, many people still feel a sense of discomfort at anything that discredits the institution of the Catholic Church,” Washington said from Jakarta in neighbouring Indonesia.
“In Richard Daschbach, we have a figure who was not only a priest but a very influential one at that. He had support not only within the country, but also international donors who saw the work he was doing as the director of this orphanage and other shelters that he himself set up, and believed that he was doing amazing work for the local Timorese people.”
Tuesday’s sentence was “hugely significant”, Washington said, adding that the guilty verdict “could become a catalyst for further cases, for further victims of sexual abuse to come forward”.
Daschbach is also facing charges in the United States.
A federal grand jury in Washington, DC indicted Daschbach in August on seven counts of engaging in illicit sexual conduct in a foreign place.
If convicted in the US, Daschbach could receive up to 30 years in prison for each count, but the Department of Justice has not said whether it plans to try to extradite the ex-priest.
Daschbach is also wanted in the US for three counts of wire fraud linked to one of his California-based donors, which accused him in a court case of violating an agreement to protect those under his care. An Interpol “Red Notice” has been issued internationally for Daschbach’s arrest.