For weeks, I've been stewing about a disturbing story about child sexual abuse from Portugal. The New York Times reported that on September 3:
Six people were convicted of child sexual abuse in a Lisbon court ... in a trial that lasted nearly six years...
A three-judge panel found the defendants guilty of raping and sexually abusing minors at a state-run institution for needy children, and of running a ring for pedophiles. A seventh defendant, charged with allowing her home to be used for sexual abuse, was acquitted.
The charges involved the rape and sexual abuse of 32 children who were residents of the home in Lisbon, part of a network of institutions for children called Casa Pia. The crimes took place in the 1990s, but they first came to light in 2002.
The details are lurid. An orphanage caretaker helped smuggle children out of Casa Pia in the dead of night. The children were then shuttled to private homes for abuse by Portuguese politicians, diplomats and TV stars. This disgusting arrangement was apparently an open secret among the country's elite for years, and it seems likely that some guilty parties remain unpunished. UK media outlets have speculated about links between the prominent pedophile ring and the disappearance of 4 year old Madeliene McCann , who was abducted from a Portugese hotel room in 2007 while her parents were on holiday.
Where to begin? First of all, while this case is particularly shocking because it involves a conspiracy among Portugal's ruling class, the scenario is hardly unique. A quick Google search of "child sexual abuse orphanages" yields an avalanche of depressing results.I have personally heard similar disgusting stories about systemic sexual abuse in public and private orphanages in elsewhere in the world. Children lacking parental care are at elevated risk of every sort of abuse imaginable, period.
As I've thought about the Casa Pia story, E.J. Graff's recent report on th collapse of the US intercountry adoption agreement with Vietnam has been flickering at the back of my mind. According to Graff's review of State Department documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, US officials uncovered evidence of a conspiratorial network of Vietnamese government officials, police, social workers and orphanage personnel engaged in trafficking children for adoption abroad. Both in Portugal and Vietnam, we have evidence of collusion among a group of societal elites to exploit children. International adoption critics point to Graff's work as evidence of the corrosive impact international adoption tends to have on a society...yet Portugal has no such program. What's really at the root of all the evil done to children?
A few points to consider about Portugal:
- the country has not quite 10 million citizens
- UNICEF estimates that 82,000 Portugese children were orphaned in 2007 alone
- SOS Children's Villages, an NGO that provides long-term care of children who can no longer grow up with their biological families, operates three Children's Villages and four SOS Youth Facilities in the country; many more government and private orphanages exist all over the country, though statistics are hard to come by
- Portugal has no practical legal framework to permit international adoption
- domestic adoption statistics are not easy for this non-Portuguese speaker to locate
Exactly how many children live in Portugese orphanages today? There's no way to know. Once again, we see how the lack of international transparency and accountability around issues of child welfare leaves children tragically, criminally vulnerable.