Vatican sanctioned Nobel Peace Prize laureate bishop after Timor accusations

The Vatican said Thursday that it imposed disciplinary sanctions on Nobel Peace Prize-winning Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo in the past two years, following allegations that he sexually abused boys in East Timor during the 1990s.

Abuse claims revealed in Dutch magazine

Carlos Ximenes Belo, Nobel Prize laureate and the then-bishop of East Timor, 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 this August 2003 photo. Belo has been accused in a Dutch magazine article of sexually abusing boys in East Timor in the 1990s. (Firdia Lisnawati/The Associated Press)

The Vatican said Thursday that it imposed disciplinary sanctions on Nobel Peace Prize-winning Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo in the past two years, following allegations that he sexually abused boys in East Timor during the 1990s.

The Vatican admission came a day after a Dutch magazine, De Groene Amsterdammer, exposed the claims against the revered East Timor independence hero, citing two of Belo's alleged victims and reporting there were others who hadn't 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. They included limitations on Belo's movements and exercise of ministry and prohibited him from having voluntary contact with minors or contact with East Timor.

Accepted punishment

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 two decades early, in 2002, and was sent to Mozambique, where he was allowed to work with children.

News of Belo's behaviour sent shockwaves through the heavily Catholic, impoverished Southeast Asian nation, where he is a 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 Thursday, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

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 as telling 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."

Peace campaign during independence struggle

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

Belo displays his certificate and medal during the Nobel ceremony in Oslo, Norway, on Dec. 10, 1996. (Bjoern Sigurdsoen/The Associated Press)

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.

Ramos-Horta went on to become president of East Timor, a former Portuguese colony in Southeast Asia. Upon his return Thursday from the United States, where he addressed the UN General Assembly, Ramos-Horta was asked about the allegations against his co-Nobel laureate and deferred to the Vatican.

"I prefer to await further action from the Holy See," he said. "I can't, I do not have, and I cannot have any other comment on that."

Belo, who was believed to be living in Portugal, didn't respond when reached by telephone by Radio Renascenca, the private broadcaster of the Portuguese church.

Member of influential order

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 in a statement Thursday that it learned "with great sadness and astonishment" of the news. The branch distanced itself from Belo, saying he hadn't been linked to the order since he took charge in East Timor.

"As regards issues covered in the news, we have no knowledge that would allow us to comment, leaving that to those who possess responsibility and knowledge" of the matter, the statement said.

Belo kisses the hand of Pope John Paul II at the end of a mass at the holy shrine of Fatima in Portugal in this May 2000 photo. (Inacio Rosa/Reuters)

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 it said he had done no pastoral work in Portugal.

Belo has a low-profile presence on the Portuguese website of the Salesians, which carried an article from May noting that he attended a 20th anniversary celebration of East Timor's independence and delivered a greeting. While the order said it had no links with Belo, he is still listed in the 2021 Vatican yearbook by his Salesian initials "SDB" at the end of his name.

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

Neither the Nobel Committee nor the United Nations immediately responded to requests for comment.

Paulo, now 42, told the Dutch magazine he was abused once by Belo at the bishop's residence in East Timor's capital, Dili. He asked to remain anonymous "for the privacy and safety of himself and his family," the magazine said.