VATICAN CITY – The United Nations and advocacy groups for survivors of clergy sexual abuse are urging Pope Francis to authorize a full investigation of Catholic Church archives on three continents to ascertain who knew what and when about sexual abuse by Nobel Peace Prize-winning Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo, the revered independence hero of East Timor.
The Vatican’s sex abuse office said last week that it had secretly sanctioned Belo in 2020, forbidding him from having contact with minors or with East Timor, based on misconduct allegations that arrived in Rome in 2019. That was the year Francis approved a new church law that required all cases of predator prelates to be reported in-house and established a mechanism to investigate bishops, who had long escaped accountability for abuse or cover-up during the church's decades-long scandal.
But a brief statement by the Vatican, issued after Dutch magazine De Groen Amsterdammer exposed the Belo scandal by quoting two of his alleged victims, didn’t reveal what church officials might have known before 2019.
Belo won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 with fellow East Timorese independence icon Jose Ramos-Horta for campaigning for a fair and peaceful solution to conflict in their home country as it struggled to gain independence from Indonesia. He is revered in East Timor and was celebrated abroad for his bravery in calling out human rights abuses by Indonesian rulers despite threats against his life.
But six years after winning the prize, in 2002, Belo suddenly retired as the head of the church in East Timor, a former Portuguese colony. At 54, he was two decades shy of the normal retirement age for bishops, and he never held an episcopal appointment after that.
He has said he retired for health reasons and because of stress and to give the newly independent East Timor different church leadership. But within a year of his retirement, Belo had been sent by the Vatican and his Salesian missionary order to another former Portuguese colony, Mozambique, to work as a missionary priest. There, he has said, he spent his time “teaching catechism to children, giving retreats to young people.”
He is currently in Portugal, where the Salesians have said they took him in at the request of their superiors. His whereabouts are unclear, and he didn't respond when contacted by Portuguese media.
Advocates for survivors cite the in-house investigation that Francis authorized and published in 2020 into defrocked American Cardinal Theodore McCarrick in calling for a similar forensic study of church archives for Belo.
The McCarrick investigation, which began after new allegations surfaced in 2018 that McCarrick sexually abused a teenage altar boy, exposed how a series of bishops, cardinals and even popes over two decades dismissed or downplayed reports that he slept with his seminarians and allowed him to rise through the church hierarchy.
There is no indication yet that Francis is prepared to authorize a similar investigation into Belo. There doesn't appear to be any groundswell of indignation within East Timor's Catholic community, as there was among U.S. Catholics over McCarrick. On the contrary, in the impoverished, overwhelmingly Catholic country, where the church holds enormous influence, many rallied behind Belo despite the allegations.
Francis did meet Saturday with his ambassador to Portugal as well as the head of the Portuguese Bishops Conference, who himself is reportedly accused of covering up for other abuser priests. The Vatican provided no details about the private meetings, but Francis is expected to visit Portugal next summer for World Youth Day.
Anne Barrett-Doyle, of the online resource Bishop Accountability, called for Francis to order a “full and sweeping investigation of the Belo case including past and present church officials from all ranks and dicasteries and from every relevant region, from East Timor to Portugal to Rome to Mozambique.”
She noted that Belo’s Salesian superiors as well as Vatican officials, up to and including even Pope John Paul II, would have been involved in his 2002 retirement and subsequent transfers. East Timor is and was then under the jurisdiction of the powerful Vatican Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, which handles all church matters in mission territories in Africa, Asia and some other regions. But ultimately a pope decides when bishops retire and whether they are subject to any sanction.
“The Vatican’s suggestion that it first learned of the allegations in the last few years doesn’t pass the smell test. It is wholly implausible,” Barrett-Doyle said in an email. “Signs point to the real possibility that Belo is another McCarrick – an acclaimed churchman whose predations were known to many church officials.”
The United Nations’ spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, also backed a full investigation.
“These allegations are truly shocking and need to be fully investigated,” he told The Associated Press. The United Nations organized a referendum on East Timor’s independence in 1999 and then provided a U.N. peacekeeping force to quell widespread violence that broke out until independence was finally declared in 2002.
The main U.S.-based advocacy group for survivors of priestly sex abuse, SNAP, joined the call for a more thorough inquest, especially given that Belo was allowed to continue ministering to children while in Mozambique.
“We learn from many allegations of sexual abuse against children that there are often more victims. In this tragedy, the Vatican set Belo free to have access to potentially more victims,” said SNAP communications manager, Mike McDonnell.