The case against Richard Jude Daschbach refers to the now defrocked priest who allegedly committed systematic sexual abuse over a period of at least twenty years against girls living in the shelter home which he had set up in 1992 in Timor-Leste’s enclave of Oecusse. In November 2018, the accused was dismissed from the clerical state by Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In September 2020, Timor-Leste’s Public Prosecutor charged Daschbach with14 counts of child sexual abuse, child pornography and domestic violence. Public facts reveal that every young girl who lived in the shelter was scheduled to take turns in sleeping in Daschbach’s bedroom, where he – being the priest and director – sexually abused them. This is the largest sexual violence case in the history of Timor-Leste, in terms of the number of victims, the length and the systematic nature of the abuse.
The quest for justice has not been easy. Initially the Public Prosecutor was reluctant to investigate and prosecute someone who was still regarded by many as a priest. The Catholic Church is highly respected as it played a crucial resistance role against Indonesia, which brutally occupied Timor-Leste from 1975-1999.
Timor-Leste’s restoration of independence was a triumph for its people and the international community. The 2002 Constitution secures a strong human rights-based framework. Timor-Leste has also acceded to all core human rights treaties. A major battle for the rights of women and children was won with the Domestic Violence Law in 2010. While not a perfect legal document, it paved the way for the development of key protection mechanisms for survivors of gender-based violence. A National Action Plan to Combat Gender Based Violence was approved in 2017.
Considerable progress has been achieved in this regard. Previously domestic violence and sexual abuse were considered as a private matter to be solved within the family context. Now it is generally accepted that these abuses need also to be dealt with as a crime – thus being a State concern. It is important for the nascent Timor-Leste justice sector that criminal law deals with abuse, complemented with support services and restorative justice efforts. Timor-Leste also has a survivor support system based on a referral network composed of police, government agencies and civil society organizations, offering access to safety and shelter, health and psychosocial support, as well as legal representation. However, the legal framework for child protection lags behind. Institutional care oversight and powers of social services, for instance, are not provided in law.
Most sexual violence cases before the courts are ‘simple’ cases, where the majority of suspects admits to the crimes. The court therefore usually does not require much time to render a verdict. The downside, however, is that the Public Prosecution feels less urgency to develop its skills to investigate and effectively prosecute sexual offences. Alongside courts, Timorese culture continues to play a large role in dispute resolution, with local level mediation often being applied to mend relations, restore harmony and determine compensation for wrongs.
The Daschbach case is a highly sensitive and complex sexual abuse case, not only because the accused is an ex-cleric and considered by many as a national hero, but also because the crimes were allegedly committed in a privately-run shelter, still managed by a fervent supporter of the accused. The lack of a child protection framework prevented authorities from effectively supporting the children and young people still living in the shelter. As a consequence the facility has become a source of intimidation targeting Daschbach’s survivors who speak out and silence those who have not.
In many ways the Daschbach case is a first. It is the first time Timor-Leste is dealing with historical and collective sexual abuse of children, with a shelter as the crime scene and its director as the accused. It is also the first time a priest is prosecuted for sexual abuse. And it is the first time lawyers have actively demanded a survivor centred approach from both the prosecution and the Court.
Unquestionably, all these aspects have challenged and pushed the system. Now it lies in the hands of the Court to show whether Timor-Leste is ready to write history and deliver justice.