ROME – Amid vast public controversy surrounding the revelation of allegations against a bishop and Nobel laureate in East Timor for the sexual abuse of minors, the Vatican’s envoy to the country has urged faithful to respect the restrictions imposed by the Holy See.

In an Oct. 4 interview with state television network RTTL, Monsignor Marco Sprizzi, the Vatican’s representative in East Timor, urged Catholics shocked by the revelations against Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo to respect the sanctions imposed on him for “the serious crimes” he committed, and to maintain loyalty to the church.

“This is a decision made and accepted by the bishop and that we just have to respect it, respect the bishop and respect the Vatican’s decision,” Sprizzi said, according to UCA News.

He urged Timorese Catholics, “who are so loyal to the Pope, to the Vatican, to follow Vatican guidelines, just as Bishop Belo followed Vatican guidelines,” saying Belo also accepted the Vatican’s decision regarding his case.

The former bishop of Dili in Timor-Leste, Belo won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 alongside another East Timor independence icon, Jose Ramos-Horta, for his efforts promoting a fair and peaceful solution to conflict inside the country as it struggled to gain independence from Indonesia.

Belo was widely acclaimed both at home and abroad for his courageous condemnation of human rights abuses committed by East Timor’s Indonesian rulers, despite threats against his life. His defiance to the Indonesian regime was seen as heroic, and in addition to his Nobel prize, he was also awarded honorary doctorates by several universities around the world, including Yale.

He stepped down unusually early in 2002 at the age of 54, more than 20 years before the typical age of retirement at 75, without a clear explanation, making vague references to problems related to health and stress. He was then sent to Mozambique, where he conducted ministry.

Last week a shock was sent through the Catholic community in East Timor when Dutch magazine De Groene Amsterdammer published accusations against Belo for the sexual abuse of minors, citing two alleged victims and reporting that there were others who had not come forward in East Timor, a Catholic country where the church holds enormous influence.

A day after the report was published, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said the office that handles clergy abuse cases, the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, had received allegations “concerning the bishop’s behavior” in 2019 and had imposed the restrictions within a year.

Those restrictions, Bruni said, included limitations on his movement and the exercise of his ministry, barring him from voluntary contact with minors or with his home country of East Timor.

Bruni said the sanctions against Belo were “modified and reinforced” in November 2021, and that Belo had accepted both the 2019 and 2021 decisions.

However, Bruni did not provide an explanation for Belo’s unusually early retirement in 2002, or the reasons for which he was sent to Mozambique, where he was in contact with children.

News of the allegations against Belo have shocked East Timor’s Catholic community, which still regards Belo as a hero for his efforts in favor of independence, and many have voiced support for the bishop, despite the allegations and restrictions against him.

In his interview, Sprizzi said the Vatican’s decision is “the proper official position of the Holy See on this matter,” saying the alleged crimes Belo committed “are serious” and that the restriction of his ministry “wasn’t because of the Dutch newspaper article.”

Sprizzi said this does not mean that Belo’s contribution to East Timor’s independence are forgotten, and that “no one can deny” the actions that led him to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996.

“We have great respect for him, for his history, for his contribution to the struggle for liberation, for his closeness to the people, especially those on the front line to defend freedom, the liberation of Timor-Leste,” Sprizzi said, but asked that Catholics respect the Vatican’s decision.

He told Catholics not to demonize media that reports on the allegations and restrictions, saying they “only give news about what the Vatican has decided.”

Sprizzi also urged Catholics to show support for the church’s efforts to fight sexual abuse, and pointed to the decision of the East Timorese bishops to publish their safeguarding guidelines for minors and vulnerable adults.

After the news about the Belo allegations and restrictions went public, East Timor’s bishops decided to publish their safeguarding guidelines, which according to UCA News were approved by the Vatican last October and confirmed in December.

The 75-page document is signed by Timorese Bishops’ Conference (CET) President Bishop Dom Norberto do Amaral of Maliana; the late Bishop Basilio do Nascimento of Baucau; and neo-Cardinal Dom Virgílio do Carmo da Silva, the current archbishop of Dili, who got his red hat from Pope Francis in August.

According to UCA News, the guidelines among other things provide a form to fill out when cases of clerical abuse arise, and they also mandate that documentation be sent to the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Faith for any case that arises.

Seminary officials are also required to establish an in-depth personal knowledge of candidates for the priesthood, and “particular care” must be shown when admitting candidates to seminaries and other formation houses.

The bishops’ conference, the guidelines say, has the duty “to promote, in an effective and concrete way, a healthy and safe environment for all, but especially for the youngest, the most vulnerable, and those most in need of care and protection.”

Pope Francis in 2019 put the issue of child protection and bishop accountability in the global spotlight when he convened a high-profile summit on child protect at the Vatican, requiring the participation of the presidents of all bishops’ conferences around the world, as well as the leaders of religious communities and a swath of other officials and experts.

In the aftermath of the summit, Pope Francis published a groundbreaking piece of new legislation titled Vos Estis Lux Mundi creating reporting mechanisms for bishops accused of either abuse or negligence in handling abuse cases; however, experts have disputed the effectiveness of the law, saying it has yet to be applied in a meaningful way.

The Vatican’s Commission for the Protection of Minors has also worked with bishops’ conferences and individual dioceses around the world to draft and implement safeguarding guidelines, however, it is still a work in progress.

Regarding Belo’s case, Da Silva sent a communique published by the Timorese Bishops’ Conference CET saying that it will “respect and cooperate with the judicial process.”

“Until now, in Timor-Leste and in the Catholic Church, the principle of ‘presumption of innocence’ still applies,” the statement said, citing article 34.1 of East Timor’s Constitution. Because of this, “the CET has not been able to take a stand on the case.”

The communique also stated that, so far, the church in Timor-Leste has not received any formal report against Belo.

In the Catholic-majority nation of about 1.3 million, only one case of clerical sexual abuse made it to court. That case involved American missionary priest Richard Dascbach, 84, who was jailed for 12 years last December for abusing girls in an orphanage he founded.

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