LISBON (Reuters) - A Portuguese court will render its verdict on Friday in one of the country’s highest profile legal cases, a shocking story of alleged child abuse at a state orphanage that has gripped the nation for over half a decade.
Seven defendants, including a well-known television presenter, are charged with participating in a network that systematically abused children from the Casa Pia state home for orphans.
Weekly newspaper Expresso first broke the story in late 2002 when it reported that a driver at Casa Pia had been abusing children at the institution for years.
Soon more alarming reports appeared alleging the driver had taken children outside the premises of the orphanage to be abused by a number of wealthy individuals.
Before the Casa Pia case, Portuguese media had long shied away from reporting on issues like child abuse. But blanket coverage was planned for Friday, when a Lisbon criminal court judge is due to read out a verdict at 9:30 a.m. (8:30 a.m. British time).
“The reading of the sentence in the Casa Pia case will be historic for the Portuguese justice system, whatever the verdict,” said daily Publico in an editorial on Thursday.
“Born from a subject which was taboo in Portugal until then — paedophilia and child abuse — the case opened the way for new mindsets, procedures and prevention mechanisms.”
Carlos Cruz, a popular TV presenter and producer, Jorge Ritto, a former diplomat, two doctors, a former Casa Pia director and the driver Carlos Silvino have been accused of around 900 crimes in total.
Silvino has confessed to some of the crimes but all other defendants say they are innocent. If found guilty, they could face prison sentences of up to 10 years each.
Many Portuguese believe convictions would send an important signal to abusers, but others feel the case has been blown out of proportion.
Few disagree that the trial has highlighted the inefficiency of Portuguese courts, which have shown themselves to be incapable of handling a trial of this scale — 920 witnesses were heard in 460 court sessions — with reasonable speed.
The case reached the political arena soon after it was first reported when Paulo Pedroso, a high-profile member of parliament for the Socialist Party, was arrested. His party said it was a political attack and Pedroso was later cleared of all charges.
Reporting by Shrikesh Laxmidas; editing by Axel Bugge and Noah Barkin