Sat, Nov 27, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Tight security in Portugal as pedophile trial begins

DECADES OF ABUSE Seven defendants face charges stemming from an investigation into sexual abuse at homes and schools for troubled or orphaned children

AFP , LISBON

Seven people, including a popular TV star and a former diplomat, went on trial on Thursday in Portugal in a high-profile child abuse case involving minors from a network of state-run children's homes.

Dozens of people yelled insults at the six men and one woman as they left the downtown Lisbon courthouse under tight security at the end of the first day of proceedings in what is billed as the nation's biggest-ever pedophile trial.

The case has dominated headlines since September 2002, when whistleblowers triggered an investigation into allegations of decades of sexual abuse at the Lisbon-based Casa Pia, the nation's best-known network of homes and schools for troubled or orphaned children.

Among those standing trial are Jorge Ritto, a former Portuguese ambassador to South Africa; Carlos Cruz, a television presenter whose career spans more than three decades, and a former director of Casa Pia, Manuel Abrantes.

The accused face charges ranging from child sexual abuse to procurement and rape involving 32 victims, with a former driver at the children's homes, Carlos Silvino, alone facing 600 different charges.

Silvino, who is accused of supplying minors from Casa Pia who were under his care for wealthy child molestors, wore a bullet-proof vest to the hearing.

The 62-year-old woman is charged with allegedly allowing her house to be used for the encounters between the children and the accused. An eighth person was also standing trial, but on weapons charges.

"I have never lied and I don't intend to start to now," said Cruz, 63, as he arrived at the court to the glare of television cameras, photographers and journalists.

Once the country's highest paid TV personalities, he faces five charges of abusing minors and homosexual acts with an adolescent.

Social workers at Casa Pia, a 224-year-old institution which looks after some 4,000 children at 10 facilities, have said that more than 100 children currently show signs of having been sexually molested, including many who are deaf-mutes.

Most of the sexual abuse allegedly committed by the men involved boys between the ages of 12 and 16.

"I hope the truth is revealed and justice is done," one of the alleged victims and a key witness in the case, identified only as Joel, told SIC television in an interview where his face was never shown.

The first session was dominated by procedural questions, with lawyers for one of the accused demanding a suspension and the removal of one of the prosecution lawyers.

The panel of three judges hearing the case decided to move the trial to a larger courthouse for the next hearing scheduled on Dec. 2.

The case has shattered public trust in the authorities, especially after reports surfaced that children had complained about the sexual abuse since the mid-1970s, including to a former Portuguese president, and yet no action was taken.

The many delays in the start of the trial and the fact that an appeals court dropped charges against three other accused, including a former government minister and a TV comedian, have led many to conclude that a cover-up is under way.

According to a poll published on Thursday in newspaper Diario de Noticias, 64.3 percent of those questioned do not believe justice will be done in the case, while only 22.5 percent express confidence in the justice system.

Lawyers have said they expect the trial to last at least until the middle of next year. More than 700 witnesses are expected to be heard, including several under 16.

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