Ten charged in Portuguese paedophile ring scandal

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The Independent Online

Ten people, including members of the political and media elite in Portugal, have been charged in Lisbon with the sexual abuse of children, more than a year after the scandal broke.

It is Portugal's biggest scandal since the collapse of President Salazar's fascist regime nearly 30 years ago. Some Portuguese claim that the two events pack a similar punch for this insular corner of the European Union.

And with a former ambassador, a former senior government minister and two famous television presenters among those charged, Portugal's justice system - much denigrated by the public - faces its biggest challenge since the arrival of democracy.

In November 2002, whistleblowers inside Casa Pia - a state-run institution that cares for 4,600 vulnerable children, many of them blind or deaf mute, in 10 homes - told Portuguese news media that children in the homes were being sexually abused by wealthy paedophiles.

As details began to emerge, the nation looked on in horrified fascination.

A key figure in the scandal is Carlos Silvino, 46, a caretaker and driver at one of Casa Pia's homes. He is accused of organising a paedophile ring centred on the homes, in addition to assaulting several boys himself.

Mr Silvino went on trial in October on 35 charges of rape and abuse relating to four boys in the homes. His victims are alleged to have included a boy with mental disabilities and a deaf-mute boy.

Taken to court in a convoy of police cars, he was loudly barracked by protesters. One of them shouted: "You deserve to be slowly killed."

Pedro Namora, a former Casa Pia child who is now a successful lawyer, said of Mr Silvino: "I know that he raped 11 children. He would come to their rooms, tie them to the beds, and assault them."

Horrifying as the scandal was, the nation was stunned when famous names began to be called in for questioning about their alleged participation in the paedophile ring.

Those arrested and detained for months include two television presenters, Carlo Cruz and Herman Jose, Portugal's former ambassador to South Africa, Jorge Ritto, and a minister of employment in the last socialist government, Paulo Pedroso. Mr Pedroso, who claims that he is the victim of a smear campaign, insisted on having his parliamentary privilege lifted so that he could prove his innocence in court.

Nine of those charged are men. The tenth is a 61-year-old woman who is alleged to have managed a house in the countryside where boys were taken to be sexually abused.

The nine men are alleged to have abused as many as 100 children in a scandal that covered a number of decades. The victims include some of the most vulnerable children in the country.

Confronting the widespread fear that Portugal's justice system could fail this crucial test, President Jorge Sampaio said in May: "The impunity which for decades on end has made this case a shame for all of us will finally end.

"Faced with the horror that so many children, who were entrusted to us to be educated and cared for, were victimised, it is necessary to declare here that the President is certain that the guilty will be severely punished."

Underlining the challenge the system faces, Marcello Nuno Rebelo de Sousa, a law professor and social commentator, said: "It is not just solving the Casa Pia case, it's believing in democracy. It is believing we belong to Europe, not just because we are in the European Union, but because we have a democratic system where justice works. Portuguese society looked in the mirror and said, 'we are ugly'."