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American ex-priest convicted of child sex abuse in East Timor, sentenced to 12 years

Trial underway in a courtroom
Defrocked American priest Richard Daschbach, center right, sits in the defendant’s chair during his trial in Oecusse, East Timor, on Tuesday.
(David dos Santos Gusmao / Associated Press)

A defrocked American priest accused of sexually abusing orphaned and disadvantaged young girls in his care in East Timor was found guilty Tuesday and given a 12-year prison sentence in the first case of its kind in the staunchly Roman Catholic nation.

Richard Daschbach, 84, who spent decades as a missionary in the country’s remote enclave of Oecusse, faced charges of child sexual abuse as well as child pornography and domestic violence.

The trial began in February but was postponed several times before concluding last month. During the proceedings, victims complained about threats and online attacks. Daschbach maintains strong backing from some, including former President Xanana Gusmao, who went to the court Tuesday. East Timor is the most Catholic place outside the Vatican, and Daschbach is revered for his role during the tiny Southeast Asian nation’s fight for independence.

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The church and foreign donors who once supported the shelter said Daschbach confessed to the abuse, but the former priest and his lawyers have at various times declined to comment. They did not make their legal strategy public, and court proceedings were closed.

Daschbach, the son of a Pittsburgh steelworker, was ordained in 1964 by the Society of the Divine Word at its headquarters outside Chicago. He arrived in the country now known as East Timor several years later, setting up a shelter in the 1990s named Topu Honis, which means “Guide to Life.”

Hundreds of children passed through the shelter under Daschbach’s care. More than a dozen people came forward with abuse claims, but only nine were registered in the case because of legal technicalities.

A landmark French report says there have been about 330,000 victims of child sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church in France over the last 70 years.

The Associated Press spoke with five of the accusers. They recalled their experiences in vivid detail, saying that Daschbach kept a list of young girls on his bedroom door and that every night one of those girls would sit on his lap, surrounded by a ring of children and staff members praying and singing hymns before bed.

They said that the girl on his lap would then sleep with him that night and that various types of abuse — from oral sex to rape — would occur, sometimes involving other children. The accusers have not been identified because of fear of retribution.

Daschbach’s lawyer Julio Farma said they were disappointed with the court’s verdict and plan to appeal the decision issued by the three judges.

“Evidence provided by the shelter matron and former students who lived in the orphanage were ignored by the court,” Farma told reporters, adding that some accusers changed statements made earlier to authorities in Oecusse when they were examined in the capital, Dili, and the new statements became the sole basis for the judges’ decision.

Pope Francis has changed church law to explicitly criminalize the sexual abuse of adults by priests.

“We cannot accept this and will appeal,” Farma said.

Dozens of Daschbach’s supporters, including several children brought by Gusmao from Dili, wept, and some screamed as it became clear the court would send the ex-priest to jail.

In a statement Tuesday, JU,S Jurídico Social, a group of human rights lawyers representing the accusers, applauded the verdict but said it would appeal, arguing that the sentence should be harsher. Under the law, Daschbach faced more than twice the prison time he received.

“The history written today is a bitter history for the entire nation,” the group said. “Our children were subjected to horrendous crimes for such a long time because we, as a society, were blinded by the belief that [such] a figure as the defendant in this case would not commit such crimes against children.”

Separately, a U.S. federal grand jury in Washington indicted Daschbach in August. He faces seven counts of engaging in illicit sexual conduct at the shelter. If convicted in the U.S., Daschbach could receive up to 30 years in prison for each count, but the Department of Justice has not said whether it plans to try to extradite the ex-priest.

Daschbach also is wanted in the U.S. on three counts of wire fraud linked to one of his California-based donors, which accused him in a court case of violating an agreement to protect those under his care. An Interpol “red notice” has been issued internationally for Daschbach’s arrest.


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