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The trial of a defrocked American priest accused of sexually assaulting young girls in his East Timor shelter for orphans and children of poor families started on Tuesday.

According to the Attorney General, Richard Daschbach, 84, a former Pennsylvania missionary, faces 14 counts of sexual assault of children under the age of 14, as well as one count each of child pornography and domestic violence. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years imprisonment.

In the Southeast Asian nation of around three million people, where 97 percent of the population is Catholic, it is the first clergy sexual abuse case to arise.

About 100 Daschbach supporters turned up but were refused access to the courtroom for the closed hearings, which split the nation sharply. The case has pitted families and politicians against one another, with tensions so high that accusers believe that if publicly acknowledged, they will be threatened with violence.

In the courtroom with Daschbach on Tuesday, former President Xanana Gusmao was briefly present. The former revolutionary leader is still strong in the nation and some have questioned why he is publicly supporting a man accused of abusing children, including his own children.

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