Friday, September 3, 2010

6 years on, Portugal child sex trial reaches end

6 years on, Portugal child sex trial reaches end

Bernardo Teixeira, one of the alleged victims of child sex abuse at a state-run children's home in Lisbon called Casa Pia, pauses during an interview with the Associated Press Thursday, Sept. 2 2010 in Lisbon. A verdict is due Friday in the major child sex abuse trial in Portugal that has lasted almost six years, produced chilling testimony from dozens of alleged victims and shaken public trust in the country's institutions. (AP Photo/Armando Franca)
LISBON, Portugal -- A child sex abuse trial that has lasted nearly six years is drawing to a close after producing chilling testimony from dozens of alleged victims and shaking public trust in Portugal's institutions.

Six men, including a national television celebrity and a retired ambassador, and one woman are accused of sexually abusing minors and adolescents, raping children and running a pedophile ring at a state-run children's home in Lisbon called Casa Pia. The court is to rule on more than 800 alleged crimes in a verdict due on Friday.

The trial, believed to be Portugal's longest, has included testimony from more than 800 witnesses and experts, including 32 alleged victims who have given gruesome accounts of rape by adults in dark cellars and nighttime car journeys to secluded houses used by the alleged sex ring during the 1990s.

The Casa Pia is a 230-year-old institution caring for roughly 4,500 needy children, most of them living in dormitories at its premises around the capital.

Bernardo Teixeira, one of the alleged victims who says he was repeatedly abused while living at Casa Pia between the ages of 13 and 15, says he never reported it for fear of not being believed and being punished by the institution.

When a whistleblower broke the scandal in 2002, and police opened an investigation that lasted more than a year, he came forward. Then, girding himself against fear and shame, he testified at the trial.

"It's traumatic going over it all again," Teixeira, now 22, said in an interview. "But in the end it was like getting a weight off my chest."

He published a book last year about his ordeal called "Why Me?" It recounts gut-wrenching episodes, including the first time he was raped in the back of a van.

"In despair I grabbed my own arm and bit down on it, hard. Maybe that way I could relieve the pain gripping my entire body," he wrote.

Almost all those who allege abuse - now aged between 16 and 22 - identified their alleged abusers by pointing to them across the courtroom.

Miguel Matias, the lead attorney on the four-person prosecution team, says the pressure of being at the center of the most notorious case in recent Portuguese history took its toll on the accusers, driving some to attempt suicide. One jumped off a second-floor balcony; one stabbed himself in the stomach; another took rat poison.

Even so, Matias says most of them will be in court to hear the verdict.

"They are eager to see whether (coming forward) was worthwhile," he told the AP.

A 53-year-old former driver at the Casa Pia, Carlos Silvino - who claims he was also abused as a child at the home - has confessed to more than 600 crimes and has incriminated the other defendants.

They include Carlos Cruz, a popular television presenter with a three-decade career in show business, and Jorge Ritto, a decorated career diplomat and former UNESCO ambassador. Three other men are also charged with child sex abuse, including a doctor and a former Casa Pia ombudsman. A 68-year-old woman, Gertrudes Nunes, is charged with providing her house for meetings between the children and the alleged pedophiles.

They face jail terms of up to 10 years for each count of abuse, though Portuguese law stipulates that the maximum jail time a person can serve is 25 years.

The six have denied the charges and say their lives have been ruined by the allegations.

The claims that a pedophile ring had preyed on children at the state institution for years rocked the public's faith in the authorities, who appeared unable to protect the most vulnerable members of society.

The protracted trial has also fueled outrage about Portugal's notoriously slow legal system.

The president of the Portuguese Bar Association, Antonio Marinho Pinto, said "nothing justifies the length of time (the trial) has taken."

"What's bad is the slowness of judicial decision-making," Marinho Pinto said in an interview.

Teixeira, the alleged victim, said that whatever the outcome at Lisbon's main courthouse, the abuse he suffered is hard to put behind him.

"The memories won't go away. I'll live with them forever," he said.

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