Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-PORTUGAL: State Ordered to Pay Damages to Child Sex Abuse Victims

Mario de Queiroz

LISBON, Mar 29 2006 (IPS) - In a legal decision that has no precedent in Portugal, the state was found guilty of failing to protect wards of the state who were victims of sexual abuse for at least two decades.

A ruling handed down by the “arbitration court for victims of sexual abuse” ordered the state to pay two million euros (2.5 million dollars) to 44 former residents of the Casa Pía state-run homes for orphans and abandoned or troubled children.

In a unanimous decision on lawsuits involving 46 sex abuse victims, the three-judge panel ruled that the Portuguese state must pay the maximum reparations set by the law, 50,000 euros (60,000 dollars), to 39 victims, and half of that amount to five others..

Cases involving two other alleged victims were thrown out, explained presiding Judge Quirino Soares.

The decision took public opinion by surprise Wednesday, as Portuguese society is accustomed to seeing lengthy legal proceedings against the state end peter out without any resolution, usually because the statute of limitations has expired.

Attorney Ana Vieira da Silva, who represented the 44 victims who are to receive damages, said she was pleased with the decision, which was based on the fact that the sexual abuse suffered by the youngsters was proven “beyond a doubt.”

According to the lawyer, there is a possibility that the indemnification to be paid to 28 of the victims will be expanded, if the public prosecutor’s office is able to prove that the people who are in jail in connection with the Casa Pía scandal are indeed guilty of the crimes of which they are accused.

The defendants face charges ranging from procuring and rape to homosexual acts with adolescents and sexual abuse of minors.

The 28 young people in question are demanding a total of five million euros (six million dollars) for physical and moral damages, with the individual amounts ranging from 150,000 euros (180,000 dollars) to 250,000 euros (300,000 dollars).

Antonio Bagão Félix, who served as minister of social welfare from 2002 to 2004, said Wednesday that the legal decision ordering the state to pay the victims two million euros in damages is “exemplary and historic.” In June 2004, Bagão Félix laid the foundations for the creation of an arbitration court to indemnify the former residents of Casa Pía.

“In a country where the state calls on society, on its citizens, to have a sense of responsibility, this is a fair decision aimed at preventing future abuses, which will serve as a warning that the state will be held accountable for young people.”

The Casa Pía scandal broke in November 2002, when it came to light that children in Portugal’s leading refuge for orphans and abandoned minors had been abused by an “informal” child sex ring for over two decades, with the silent complicity of the state.

In the biggest child sex abuse scandal in the history of this southern European country, charges were brought between 2002 and 2005 against diplomats, doctors, lawyers and journalists.

The only politician who was accused, former social welfare minister Paulo Pedroso, was arrested in May 2003, but was released after eight months of preventive detention due to lack of evidence that he participated in the sexual abuse of minors.

In November 2002, Carlos Silvino, a former resident of Casa Pía who was later hired as a driver and gardener, was arrested and accused of running a child sex ring that mainly preyed on boys.

Three months later, the police arrested Carlos Cruz, Portugal’s most popular television host, and pediatrician João Ferreira Diniz.

Retired diplomat Jorge Ritto was taken into custody in May 2003, charged in 11 cases of paedophilia.

Ritto retired in 1999 after a long and distinguished diplomatic career. His last two assignments were as Portugal’s ambassador to South Africa and to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in Paris.

Silvino’s defence lawyer Hugo Marçal was also arrested in May 2003.

The arrests occurred after 700 residents of Casa Pía homes, which house and educate 3,500 orphans and abandoned children around the country, were interviewed by counsellors, who reported that they discovered 128 minors who had been abused, including deaf-mutes and children with mental disabilities.

In televised testimony, adolescents told how they were offered treats and special outings by Silvino, who himself raped them or recruited them for “sex parties” with powerful “friends.”

The scandal has dealt a severe blow to the credibility of the state and the justice system. Analysts and editorials in Portugal continue to warn that the big loser in the Casa Pía scandal is the state, which will be hard pressed to restore its prestige.

There is evidence that the abuse continued for decades, perhaps even earlier than the 1970s. Grown-up former residents of Casa Pía have given shocking accounts of abuse they suffered there as youngsters.

There have also been signs of a cover-up. In 2003, former government official Teresa Costa Macedo reported that she had provided the judicial police with a dossier containing testimony by victims and photographs proving cases of paedophilia in Casa Pía in 1982, when she was deputy minister of family social affairs.

The police initially denied the existence of any reports from Costa Macedo or young sex abuse victims in their files. But after the former official publicly stated that she had copies of her own, the reports immediately turned up in a police station.

The former official said she had kept her mouth shut because she received death threats after turning to the police in the early 1980s.

In addition, a case that was opened in 1983 was shelved in 1987 due to ”insufficient evidence,” and the files were destroyed in 1993 on the grounds that the statute of limitations had run out.

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