Chat-show host goes on trial over 'orphan sex ring'

Portuguese socialites are among seven people who go on trial in Lisbon today accused of preying upon vulnerable children from state orphanages.

Among those accused in the country's worst scandal for decades are Portugal's best-known media celebrity, the chat show host Carlos Cruz, 63, and Portugal's former ambassador to South Africa, Jorge Ritto, 68.

Also charged is Carlos Silvino, 47, a former caretaker employed by the state-run Casa Pia children's homes, who is accused of 669 acts of child sex abuse and of organising the supply of children for use as sex toys by members of Portugal's social and showbusiness elite.

Evidence emerged two years ago that up to 100 children in state care suffered decades of sexual abuse while senior politicians turned a blind eye.

The scandal broke when the mother of a former inmate said that orphanage staff had abused her son. Casa Pia is a 224-year old operation that runs 10 Lisbon homes for 4,500 young people, mostly boys, who have no family or whose parents are too poor to care for them. Former Casa Pia employees claim that abuse dated back to the mid-1970s, but that the authorities covered it up.

Thirty-two alleged victims, some under 16, are to testify in the closed proceedings. The three judges will hear evidence from 700 witnesses in a trial expected to last months.

Adolescents went on television to give testimonies of rape by adults they knew only as "Mr Engineer" or "Mr Doctor". They said Mr Silvino, whom they called "Bibi", offered them sweets and visits to football matches, then raped them in lavatories or dark corridors, and recruited them for sex parties with "important friends". When Mr Silvino was approached by a reporter two years ago, his reply prompted suspicion of a top-level conspiracy: "They can't touch me," he said. "There are too many powerful people involved."

Mr Cruz, a married father of two, vigorously denies charges of sexually abusing minors. "In my case, apart from testimonies from six or seven youngsters, there is not one telephone tap, photo or video or any declaration against me," Mr Cruz said.

Also in the dock today is Gertrude Nunes, 62, charged with providing her country house for encounters between children and their alleged abusers, including a former senior administrator at the orphanage, a doctor and a lawyer.

Last December, 10 people were charged, but charges against three, including Herman Jose, a popular comedian, and Pedro Pedroso, a socialist MP and former minister, were subsequently dropped.

* Spanish police arrested 90 people, including 21 minors, yesterday on suspicion of trading images and videos on the internet of children engaged in "all kinds of sexual acts".