AS SEXUAL SCANDALS GO, the crisis which has recently afflicted the leader of the Portuguese socialist party, Eduardo Ferro Rodrigues, and his political protégé, 38 year-old former employment minister Paulo Pedroso, is perhaps the most serious in modern European history.
Pedroso is an impressive and highly regarded young politician who has often been
spoken of as the natural heir to the leadership of the party and a future prime-minister. On 23 May 2003, however, he was arrested. He remained in custody for more than four months, facing 15 allegations of sexually abusing adolescent boys formerly resident in the state-run Casa Pia network of children’s homes. In October 2003 an appeal court in Lisbon ordered his release and he was re-instated by his parliamentary colleagues. However, the shadow of the allegations made against him still falls over his political future.
The scandal is not a new one. For months, ever since the arrest in November 2002 of a former employee, Carlos Silvino, who allegedly raped young boys himself, as well as acting as a procurer, Portugal has been racked by rumours that the state-run network of Casa Pia children’s homes has been infiltrated by a paedophile ring. This ring supposedly supplies young boys to be sexually abused by well-known politicians and celebrities. Carlos Cruz, one of the Portugal’s most famous television presenters, has already been arrested, as has Jorge Ritto, the former ambassador to South Africa. Also in prison awaiting trial are the lawyer Hugo Marçal; a doctor at the institution, Joao Ferreia Diniz and the former director of the homes, Manuel Abrantes. All are accused of abusing children.
The question which now dominates political gossip in Portugal is whether such distinguished figures are guilty or whether they have become victims of a modern witch-hunt.
It is this latter view which, at least as far as Pedroso is concerned, has been taken by the socialist leader Rodrigues. In a statement released to the press at the time of Pedroso’s arrest he vowed to oppose what he characterised as a campaign of false allegations: ‘I want it to be clear: our fight will be serene but determined and it is, and will only be, directed at those who are responsible for this defamation, whatever their objective is,’ he said. Pedroso himself protested that he was the victim of a calumny: ‘I have never participated in any act of paedophilia or any similar act,’ he told a press conference just before his arrest. Now that he has returned to parliament, he continues to maintain his complete innocence of all the allegations. Those who know him well do not doubt for one moment that he is an innocent man wrongly accused.
He is supported not only by Rodrigues but by his predecessor, the former socialist leader and Prime Minister, António Guterres. A friend of Tony Blair, Guterrres has promised, if necessary, to testify in Pedroso’s favour
As Portugal is racked by this scandal it is perhaps an opportune moment to review what may well be its historical source. For the recent reports from Portugal have a familiar ring. The idea that there is a paedophile ring centred on a children’s home which supposedly supplied young boys to prominent politicians is one which originated in Britain. It was just such an idea which, having first surfaced in 1980 in relation to the Kincora working boys’ hostel in East Belfast, reappeared again in 1991 in order to form a very significant strand of the North Wales scandal which would eventually lead to the North Wales Tribunal. In the now defunct magazine, Scallywag, the journalist Simon Regan ran a story alleging that boys from the Bryn Estyn home in North Wales had been abused by prominent politicians.
In both cases there was a core of reality to the stories which emerged; both at Kincora and at Bryn Estyn, boys were sexually abused by one or two members of staff. But the idea of a paedophile ring which supplied young boys to politicians was always a fantasy. This was no less true in relation to Kincora than it was in relation to North Wales.
The journalist who has written the most substantial book about Kincora, former BBC reporter Chris Moore, has confirmed this. Although Moore is credulous in a number of respects, accepting almost all the allegations of sexual abuse which were made at face-value, he firmly repudiates the most sensational elements of the Kincora story at the very outset of his book:
Since 1980 the name Kincora has been associated in the public mind with homosexual abuse of young men in care, but because of the nature of the media coverage of the story and some wild speculation about the events at Kincora there have been many misconceptions. For example, the word ‘prostitution’ has been used in relation to the abuses at the hostel in East Belfast but it is quite clear from the evidence of former residents that this allegation is without foundation. In statements to the authorities, those abused made allegations only against the three members of staff at Kincora who were subsequently convicted in court. Some made allegations against individuals at other state-run institutions which also resulted in convictions. No one alleged that he was taken to other men for sexual activity or that men came to Kincora to engage in sexual congress with the young men in care there (Chris Moore, The Kincora Scandal: Political Cover-Up and Intrigue in Northern Ireland, Marino Books, Dublin, 1996, p. 7)
As the Portuguese police investigate the supposed paedophile ring in their own country (which, like the imaginary rings featured in the stories of Kincora and North Wales, has allegedly been covered up for years by police officers and politicians who knew of its existence), history suggests that caution should be their watchword.
Of course it may turn out that there is substance to some of the allegations. But the fact that Pedroso was named by his first accuser only after he had been shown photographs of a number of politicians, when set alongside other evidence uncovered by the Portuguese investigative journalist, Jorge Van Krieken, strongly suggests that he is indeed, as he claims, the innocent victim of a series of false allegations.
Wherever the truth may lie, the lesson of Kincora and of North Wales is that allegations themselves, though they might, in theory, be substantiated by hard evidence, can never be substantiated by other allegations, however many may be collected. The further lesson is that paedophile rings centred on children’s homes, and catering for the perverse sexual tastes of prominent politicians, have a tendency to exist more in the imagination than in reality.
The safest presumption that anyone can now make in relation to former employment minister Paulo Pedroso and the other Portuguese celebrities who have also been arrested, is that they are completely innocent.
The difficulty, of course, is that the lurid publicity now being given to the case by journalists who are relying more on rumour than research, makes it very difficult for most people, and even for the courts, to maintain that presumption.