IM this article to a friend!

February 23, 2004

Evial at home the darkest discovery

From: The Australian, Australia - Feb 23, 2004

By Peter Wilson, Europe correspondent

VISITORS to Lisbon invariably find their way to the Monument of the Discoveries, a huge sculpture over the city's waterfront that celebrates Portugal's early sailors.

Limping along today as one of the poorest nations in Europe, Portugal can be forgiven for dwelling on its past. When the rest of the world thought the horizon led only to chaos and dark terror, navigators such as Vasco da Gama pushed beyond it to make Portugal the world's first truly "global" power, in the 16th century.

But just 300m from that monument Portugal has made another series of discoveries - painful revelations that suggest that the gloomiest evil lies not over the horizon but within 21st century Portugal. Tucked behind the national maritime museum, is the headquarters of the Casa Pia orphanage, an institution that has long made the Portuguese proud.

Founded in 1870 to care for the nation's most vulnerable children - orphans, children with hearing problems and other handicaps, or those whose parents simply could not afford to raise them - it is an attractive network of homes with three tennis courts, a soccer pitch and modern classrooms for the 4600 children in its care.

Casa Pia, which means "Pious House", has long prided itself as, in its own terms, "the nation's very first establishment of popular education and the most significant institution of assistance to minors".

But it is now clear that in the locker-rooms and dark corridors of Casa Pia, scores of young children, mainly boys, have for decades been sexually molested, with some even claiming that they were often taken to outside parties to have sex with some of Portugal's media and political elite.

The thought of the most vulnerable people imaginable - boys as young as eight, many deaf and mute, some mentally handicapped - being raped by the most powerful in society has become the most disturbing scandal since the country returned to democracy in 1974 after nearly five decades of repressive right-wing dictatorship.

That scandal has shaken the country's faith in its authorities, who allegedly covered up the crimes for more than 20 years, and in its outdated legal system, which is struggling to deal with the scale of the allegations.

The country's best-known television star, the deputy leader of the opposition Socialist Party, a former ambassador and seven others are in jail or have been charged over the scandal, although all have denied the charges.

Just as shattering for the public's faith in their legal system, it is clear that many powerful people, including a former president, the police and the state broadcaster, knew of the allegations but covered them up or did nothing about them.

In almost any other country in western Europe, the Casa Pia scandal would have attracted a lot more publicity around the world - like Belgium's child murders in recent years - but not a lot of attention gets paid to Portugal, the poorest country in the European Union.

To understand the extent to which the scandal has rocked faith in the nation's cultural elite, it helps to consider the status of one of the accused, Carlos Cruz, who has been in jail for a year on child sex charges.

Known throughout Portugal as "Mr Television", he is the country's biggest media celebrity. Cruz, 62, began on radio 40 years ago and then hosted television game and talk shows.

His 26-year-old stepson, Martim Louro, who lived in Melbourne in 1999 while studying marketing at RMIT, told Worldwide there was nobody on Australian television with the sort of fame that his father has in Portugal.

Cruz headed the committee that won Portugal the right to host this year's soccer European Cup, one of the world's biggest sporting events. He was the face of the campaign to introduce the common euro currency to Portugal and has long been used in commercials for the country's top banks because of his trusted, popular image.

"That is one reason these charges don't make sense," said Louro, who has interrupted his studies to work full-time on his father's defence.

"If he spent years going to orgies and hanging around with children from Casa Pia, then people would have known about it and talked about it - he can't even drive down the street with his window down without somebody seeing him and telling their friends about it.

"More than a hundred children have been abused, so there were a lot of abusers, but the police have decided to go for somebody famous so they don't have to arrest all the real culprits."

The scandal came to light in late 2002, when investigative reporter Felicia Cabrita received an anonymous phone call telling her that the mother of a child at Casa Pia had complained to police that he had been sexually abused.

"I still don't know who that call was from but I started to investigate it anyway," Cabrita said. "I was just amazed by how deep it went. I found evidence of abuse going back to 1975, but I believe it was happening at Casa Pia even in the 1960s and 1950s."

Cabrita broke the story in her newspaper, the weekly Expresso on November 23, 2002, reporting that Carlos Silvino, a former resident at the school who had returned to work there as a driver and gardener, was accused of abusing children and procuring them for rich and powerful people.

Silvino was allegedly paid to bring children - mainly, but not exclusively, boys - to homes in Lisbon and small villages for sex parties.

He reportedly chose the most vulnerable children, enticing them with pocket money, sweets and tickets to football games.

"I am convinced these crimes are real. I have spent a year working on it full-time and have spoken to more than 40 victims. There is just too much evidence. We have been hiding this for 30 or 40 years but nobody can close their eyes again," Cabrita said.

Television reporters followed up the story and broadcast interviews with adolescent former Casa Pia residents, their faces blacked out and their voices altered, in which they told about being raped by adults in dark cellars, and night-time car journeys to secluded houses used by an alleged pedophile ring.

Silvino, a 46-year-old known as Bibi, was arrested and initially charged with molesting four children, including one boy with mental disabilities and another who is deaf and mute.

After doctors and counsellors had questioned and examined more than 600 children in Casa Pia,the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, which is responsible for the home, announced last February that a staggering 128 children, mostly deaf mutes, showed physical signs of having been repeatedly abused.

Casa Pia director Catalina Pestana, who was appointed after Cabrita broke the story, said most of the victims were aged between 10 and 13, and many had suffered severe internal injuries, with muscle and tissue damage. For years, she said, there had been a "blanket of silence" at the "Pious House", with senior staff at best in denial, at worst complicit.

"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."

"Mr Television" was arrested in February after five teenagers made accusations against him.

In May, the police detained Paulo Pedroso, the deputy leader and official spokesman of the Socialist Party, who had been the minister responsible for Casa Pia from 1999-2001 and was widely seen as a future party leader.

Two 14-year-old boys identified the divorced 38-year-old MP from photographs, saying that while he was still minister he abused them on several occasions at a country villa in Elvas, near the Spanish border.

Intrusive police powers left over from the days of dictatorship had allowed his phone to be tapped, producing hundreds of pages of transcripts that have been used to embarrass senior Socialist Party figures who are not accused of taking part in the crimes.

Former prime minister Antonio Guterres visited Pedroso in jail to show support, and the Socialists claim they have been targeted by a political plot and that Pedroso is the innocent subject of a smear campaign.

The police also arrested Herman Jose, a popular television comedian and chat-show host; Hugo Marcal, Mr Silvino's former lawyer; and Jorge Ritto, a former ambassador to South Africa and UNESCO.

Viso magazine reported that Ritto had been transferred from his job as consul in Stuttgart in 1970 after German officials complained about an incident with a young boy in a park.

Two former officials at Casa Pia were detained - one-time assistant director Manuel Abrantes and doctor Joao Ferreira Diniz, who allegedly carried out medical tests on the children before they were sexually abused.

As doubts swirled about how such systematic crimes could have been covered up for so long, a former minister of family affairs, Teresa Costa Macedo, admitted that she had known about the scandal for 20 years.

Costa Macedo told parliament that she had reported the allegations in 1982 but that they had been covered up.

"Silvino was just one element in a huge pedophile network that involved important people in our country," she said. "It wasn't just him. He was a procurer of children for well-known people who range from diplomats and politicians to people linked to the media."

Insisting that she had stayed silent because of anonymous death threats, Costa Macedo added the explosive claim that the police, then president General Antonio Ramalho Eanes and a former foreign secretary, Jaime Gama, all knew of the sexual abuse.

She said the state television broadcaster had also interviewed six boys who had told Eanes about the abuse, but had not broadcast the footage.

Police initially denied her claim that two decades earlier she had sent them "photographs, an account of the methods used to spirit children out of the orphanage and testimonies of a number of children" but they eventually produced the material. Charges were finally laid last month against 10 people, including Francisco Alves, a prominent archeologist, and Gertrudes Nunes, a 61-year-old woman who owns a country villa where some of the abuse allegedly took place.

Silvino, the driver, faces 697 charges of child sexual abuse for offences dating back to 1975.

No date for a trial has yet been decided but the enormous publicity has already led to a surge in reports of child sex abuse and forced Portugal to address issues it has previously preferred to ignore.

Only in the 1990s did Portugal make sex with under-14s a crime punishable by jail. The penalty for sex with 14-16 year olds remains a fine.

Martim Louro believes the real scandal is an outdated legal system that has allowed his father to be held for a year before being charged on allegations he insists are false.

"Two weeks ago, when they finally gave us the details of his supposed crimes, we presented an enormous amount of information proving they were not true," he said.

"Once we had the dates and locations of what he was supposed to have done we gave them his work schedule, plane tickets, credit card details, even mobile phone records which showed he just wasn't in the places they (the police) say.

"He doesn't even know the people he was supposed to be conspiring with and his phone records show that ...

"It is incredible that my father's human rights can be abused like this in a European country in the 21st century."

The current president, former Socialist Party leader Jorge Sampaio, has urged people to trust the justice system, saying"the guilty will be severely punished". But one way or another, the public faith in Portugal's justice system and modern democracy will be shaken by what is already clear proof of institutional corruption and negligence.

The trial will either vindicate the criminal charges, confirming that the nation's most cherished institutions and some of its elite members have for decades been rotten to the core, or it will shoot down the charges against "Mr Television" and his fellow accused - meaning the real criminals have escaped.

© The Australian