organisers of last Thursday’s European conference in Lisbon on the disappearance and sexual exploitation of children decided to invite Portugal’s president to open the event, they knew they had a good chance of success.
The conference, organised by the Institute for the Support of Children, and indeed addressed by head of state Jorge Sampaio, is the latest sign of a major change in Portuguese attitudes to child abuse – once all but ignored by families and the authorities alike.
The issue has dominated Portuguese headlines since last November, when a newspaper published allegations of long-running abuse of children at the string of state-funded orphanages and schools run by the 200-year-old Casa Pia foundation. As fresh revelations emerged, a former secretary of state for the family spoke of a “network” that procured children for outsiders.
Carlos Silvino, the Casa Pia driver alleged to be at the centre of the ring, was arrested on suspicion of sexually abusing pupils. He has been charged on 35 counts of abuse, with prosecutors considering further charges.
As police continued investigations a dozen suspects were formally named, seven of whom were arrested and taken to prison to await charges. Among them were Paulo Pedroso, an MP and number two in the opposition Socialist Party; Carlos Cruz, one of Portugal’s most popular television journalists and retired ambassador Jorge Ritto.
Meanwhile, details of the horrific scale of the abuse emerged. Pedro Namora, a 39-year-old lawyer who said he narrowly escaped being abused by Silvino at the age of 11 , was deluged with phone calls from victims, after he went on television to denounce him. “People were calling in even from abroad, often only when their family was out because of the shame,” he said. “One in particular would just cry and cry.”
Casa Pia director Catalina Pestana, who took over after the scandal broke, says doctors found more than a hundred of the 4500 current pupils had been repeatedly sexual abused, most aged between 10 and 13. In many cases, she adds, their muscle and tissue were so damaged that they suffered internal injuries.
Pestana believes these may be the tip of the iceberg. For years, she says, there was a “blanket of silence” at the Casa Pia, with senior staff at best in denial, at worst complicit in the wrongdoing. “Staff said they never noticed anything, but I don’t believe them,” she said. “The priority was not the quality of individuals’ lives, but the institution’s good name.”
The affair has prompted accusations of a cover-up in Portugal’s tight-knit establishment. President Sampaio has said he is sure the guilty will be severely punished, and promised an end “to the impunity that for decades made the situation at Casa Pia a disgrace to all”.
That investigation has been painfully slow, prompting suspicions that even if Silvino, whose initial trial has been twice postponed, is found guilty, better-connected abusers may go free.
Lawyers for the other suspects last month prevented the investigating magistrate from questioning witnesses for the court record. And on Thursday , an appeal court ordered that Pedroso be released to await charges in freedom. The magistrate had ordered his arrest on the basis that tapped phone conversations between party leaders pointed to an attempt to pervert the course of justice. Outraged Socialist leader Eduardo Ferro Rodrigues claimed there was a politically motivated smear campaign against his party.
The Casa Pia affair has had one major positive effect in hugely raising public awareness about the sexual abuse of children. The number of incidents reported to police has soared, and last month thousands marched through Lisbon and three other Portuguese cities, calling for more action against child abuse .
At last Thursday’s conference the Institute for the Support of Children pledged to produce a report on the phenomenon in Portugal, to be presented to the European Union. 12 October 2003