Carlos Cruz, a popular TV presenter, said he would appeal against the verdict [AFP]

A Portuguese court has sentenced six people to up to 18 years in jail for abusing children from a state orphanage in a marathon court case that has shocked the nation.

The defendants on Friday were given prison sentences of from just under six years to 18 years for their participation in a network of abuse of children at the Casa Pia state home.

One defendant, who had been linked to a house where abuses took place, acquitted.

Prosecutors had called for a minimum sentence of five years.

"The stories that I heard were the most terrible of my life," said Catalina Pestana, who was put in charge of Casa Pia after the crimes were first reported in 2002.

The court heard that Carlos Silvino, who received the longest sentence, had sexually abused several underaged boys in the orphanage garage and then given them money.

Silvino had confessed to some of the crimes but all the other defendants had pleaded their innocence.

'Special evenings'

Silvino admitted to more than 600 charges of child sexual abuse as well as aggravated rape and procuring minors for wealthy clients.

The defendants, which included Carlos Cruz, a popular TV presenter and producer, Jorge Ritto, a former diplomat, two doctors, a former Casa Pia director and Silvino, were accused of around 900 crimes in total.

"There is no proof of my guilt," Cruz told journalists, pledging to appeal the decision. "This brings back memories of Portugal under dictatorship."

The weekly newspaper Expresso broke the story in late 2002 when it reported that a driver at Casa Pia had been abusing children at the institution for years.

Other residents and former residents then came forward to tell of rapes and "special evenings".

During the trial, which began in 2004, the court heard from nearly 1,000 witnesses and experts in 460 court sessions - figures that have led many to say that it exposes the slowness and inefficiency of the Portuguese courts.

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.

Claims that a paedophile 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.

Source: Agencies