Vatican affirms sanctioning Nobel-winning bishop over sex scandal

Holy See says it received allegations over Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo’s behaviour in East Timor in 2019, and then imposed sanctions.

Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo of East Timor, sings along with participants at the National Catholic Gathering for Jubilee Justice held on the UCLA Campus in Los Angeles, on July 17, 1999.
The bishop is regarded as a hero in East Timor for fighting to win independence from Indonesian rule [File: Neil Jacobs/AP Photo]

The Vatican has confirmed that Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has been under disciplinary sanctions for the past two years following sexual abuse allegations committed during his time in East Timor in the 1990s.

The admission came on Thursday, a day after Dutch magazine De Groene Amsterdammer exposed the claims against the revered Catholic bishop, citing two of Belo’s alleged victims and reporting there were others who had not come forward.

Spokesman Matteo Bruni said the Vatican office that handles sex abuse cases received allegations “concerning the bishop’s behaviour” in 2019 and within a year had imposed the restrictions. The restrictions included limitations on Belo’s movements and exercise of ministry, and being prohibited from having voluntary contact with minors or contact with East Timor.

In a statement, Bruni said the sanctions were “modified and reinforced” in November 2021 and that Belo had formally accepted the punishment on both occasions.

The Vatican provided no explanation for why Belo resigned as head of the Roman Catholic Church in East Timor in 2002 and was sent to Mozambique, where he was allowed to work with children.

The news sent shockwaves through East Timor, where he is regarded as a hero for fighting to win East Timor’s independence from Indonesian rule.

“We are here also in shock to hear this news,” an official at the archdiocese of Dili, East Timor, said on Thursday, speaking to The Associated Press news agency on condition of anonymity.

East Timor's Roman Catholic Bishop and Nobel Prize laureate Carlos Ximenes Belo prays in a ceremony to pay last respects to the former head of the UN Transition Authority in East Timor, Sergio Vieira De Mello in Dili, on Aug. 23, 2003.
Belo has been accused in a Dutch magazine article of sexually abusing boys in East Timor in the 1990s [File: Firdia Lisnawati/AP Photo]

De Groene Amsterdammer said two alleged victims, identified only as Paulo and Roberto, reported being abused by Belo and said other boys were also victims. It said its investigation showed that Belo’s abuse was known to the East Timorese government and to humanitarian and church workers.

“The bishop raped and sexually abused me that night,” Roberto was quoted by the magazine. “Early in the morning he sent me away. I was afraid because it was still dark. So I had to wait before I could go home. He also left money for me. That was meant so that I would keep my mouth shut. And to make sure I would come back.”

Belo won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 with fellow East Timorese independence icon and incumbent President Jose Ramos-Horta for campaigning for a fair and peaceful solution to the conflict in their home country as it struggled to gain independence from Indonesia.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee, in its citation, praised Belo’s courage in refusing to be intimidated by Indonesian forces. The committee noted that while trying to get the United Nations to arrange a plebiscite for East Timor, he smuggled out two witnesses to a bloody 1991 massacre so they could testify to the UN human rights commission in Geneva.

Upon his return on Thursday from the United States, where he addressed the UN General Assembly, Ramos-Horta was asked about the allegations against Belo and deferred to the Vatican. “I prefer to await further action from the Holy See,” he said.

Belo, who was believed to be living in Portugal, did not respond when reached by telephone by Radio Renascença, the private broadcaster of the Portuguese church.

Belo is a priest of the Salesians of Don Bosco, a Roman Catholic religious order that has long had influence at the Vatican. The Portuguese branch of the Salesians said on Thursday that it learned “with great sadness and astonishment” of the news.

The branch distanced itself from Belo, saying he had not been linked to the order since he took charge in East Timor. However, Belo is still a Salesian bishop, listed in the Vatican yearbook by his Salesian initials “SDB” at the end of his name.

“As regards issues covered in the news, we have no knowledge that would allow us to comment,” the Salesian statement said.

It said the Portuguese Salesians took Belo in at the request of their superiors after he left East Timor in 2002 and because he was highly regarded, but said he had done no pastoral work in Portugal.

De Groene Amsterdammer said its research indicated that Belo abused boys in the 1980s also before he became a bishop when he worked at an education centre run by the Salesians.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies