A mammoth child sex abuse trial in Portugal, ongoing for more than five years, is about to come to an end when judges shortly announce their verdict. Seven defendants face over 800 charges linked to the running of a paedophile ring in a state-run children’s home in Lisbon.
The case has been high profile from the start, with a former TV presenter and a former ambassador among the 7 people accused of abusing boys in state care. Social workers and psychologists estimate that more than 100 children were sexually abused in the Casa Pia, a state-run network of children’s homes founded in 1870. The homes are responsible for looking after more than 4,000 orphans and special needs children, including the deaf and blind, as well as children whose families are unable to care for them.
Incidents of abuse were reported to officials as far back as two decades ago, but nothing was done by the authorities. It took a journalist’s article in the ‘Expresso’ newspaper in 2002 for police to start serious investigations.
During the trial, 32 alleged victims ranging in age between 16 and 22 have given chilling accounts of being raped by adults in dark cellars, cars and secluded houses. Almost all of the young victims identified their abusers by pointing to the men across the courtroom. One of the accused is a former driver at Casa Pia, who claims he was also abused when he lived at the home as a child. The driver has admitted to more than 600 crimes and incriminated the other defendants. If convicted, they could be jailed for up to 25 years.
Insular and traditional as a country, the uncovering of such large-scale abuse shocked Portugal when the story first broke in 2002. Since then the trial has gripped the nation, with much coverage from the media. Such a spotlight is believed to have changed attitudes. There is now much more pressure on authorities to investigate and respond to abuse allegations.
The president of an association set up by psychologists to help prevent child abuse believes that little by little, there is “greater openness form the public, schools and parents” about the issues involved. And victim support organisations receive more calls for help from abused children and adults.
Some doubt whether the sentences passed by the judges will be adequate to do justice to the heinous crimes committed. But whatever the verdicts in this particular trial, the media circus around the case has already done immeasurable good, if it has helped change attitudes in society and encouraged people to come forward who might otherwise have remained silent.