After Kate and Gerry McCann prayed for a miracle at Fatima, the holiest Roman Catholic shrine in Portugal, on May 23, they embarked on an international tour to publicize the disappearance of their daughter Madeleine. The 3-year-old (by now she'd be 4) vanished from the family's holiday apartment in southern Portugal on May 3, while the McCanns dined with friends in a tapas restaurant just 100 yards away. The Roman Catholic community in Fatima wrote a special prayer for the occasion of Kate and Gerry's visit: "Dear God, please change the hearts of the people who have Madeleine to give her back." Surrounded by crowds of Portuguese who wept when the couple lit a candle, and who sent their own children to kiss Kate's cheek, the two British doctors, both devout Roman Catholics, were treated like honorary Portuguese. Back in Praia da Luz, the tiny vacation resort where Maddie had disappeared on May 3, the family was given their own key to the village church, allowing them to seek sanctuary at any time. Locals plastered shop windows with FIND MADDIE posters.
All these months later, the prayers at Fatima have been far from answered, as Madeleine's parents have become the target of ever-growing suspicion and even hostility in Portugal. To the incredulity of many following the search for Madeleine from afar, last week the police named the McCanns as suspects in the disappearance of their own daughter.
The shockwaves were almost palpable. This was the same couple that had seemingly done nothing since Madeleine vanished except try to find her. They'd raised more than $2 million for a "Find Madeleine" foundation. They'd won the support of numerous celebrities, including "Harry Potter" author J. K. Rowling and soccer star David Beckham—not to mention the pope, who granted an audience to the McCanns at the Vatican in late May. In July, Gerry McCann even met with U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales prior to setting up a YouTube channel in collaboration with the International Center for Missing & Exploited Children. And yet when Kate McCann was led into a Portuguese police station for questioning, she was jeered by some of the spectators who had gathered behind police barriers.
The Madeleine story, which has echoes of the sensational JonBenet Ramsey case in the United States, is as big in Portugal as it is in Britain. With the McCanns under suspicion, the media sometimes seem to be taking sides in a saga that has highlighted a cultural divide in Portugal's Algarve Coast, which in recent years has been colonized by British holidaymakers. "It's probably the biggest story since Princess Diana," says Matt Drake, a reporter for Britain's Sunday Express, who has been reporting from Portugal. For several weeks now, the Portuguese press has been chock-a-block with fact and fiction about Kate and Gerry McCann's alleged role in their daughter's disappearance, including some unsavory and unsubstantiated claims about the parents.
To the consternation of British reporters who descended on the Algarve, some of the leaks have come from the Portuguese police despite Portuguese segredo de justica (secrecy of justice) laws that are supposed to prevent the release of information in a criminal investigation into the public domain. The police's apparent willingness to speak off the record to the Portuguese papers, but not to the British media, adds to the sense of a cultural battle. A remarkably detailed description of Kate McCann's police interrogation found its way into the Portuguese newspaper Diario de Noticias last Sunday, including a vivid account of her emotional state on being confronted with various pieces of evidence. If based on a police leak, such revelations would seem to defeat the segredo law, which also prevents the McCanns from making any counterstatement about their police interviews.
Also feeling wronged, the Portuguese media complain that the McCanns and their inner circle of supporters have favored the hometown news teams. On Sunday, the Jornal de Noticias complained that news of the McCanns' departure for England that day "was transmitted to British journalists by Justine McGuinness"—one of the McCanns' spokespersons—"during a meeting which the Portuguese press were not allowed to attend." The newspaper went on to accuse McGuinness of being deliberately misleading: "Shortly afterward, she told Portuguese press that no activity was foreseen for that day."
The media sniping has not only fueled the sometimes jingoistic rivalry between battling press corps, but also created inevitable confusion as fact collides with rumor. The most controversial leaks published in the Portuguese media involve DNA evidence reportedly discovered in a Renault Scenic rented by the McCanns some three weeks after Madeleine's disappearance. According to the Portuguese press, police found three samples of DNA in the car—one of blood, one of unspecified bodily fluids and some hair—and laboratory tests (conducted by specialists in Britain) linked the DNA to Madeleine. The suggestion, also bandied about in the Portuguese press and picked up by the British media, is that one or both of the McCanns killed Madeleine by accident before hiding her body. Some Portuguese papers have printed excerpts of what they say is Kate McCann's diary. The BBC reported late Thursday that Portuguese police have a photocopy of her diary—which apparently would not be admissible in court.
The McCanns left Portugal last Sunday, but the war of words continued as the Portuguese police turned their case over to local prosecutors. The McCanns said this week that they were considering running their own tests on the Renault. Members of "Team McCann," as the high-octane McCann support group has come to be known, have made it clear that Madeleine's parents believe they have come under investigation only because the police were insufficiently rigorous in the early days of the search for Madeleine. John McCann told the BBC that his brother Gerry thought the Portuguese police had "gone up a cul-de-sac" and, having run out of leads, turned on the McCanns.
But it's not only the police who may have had a change of heart. Even in the early days of the investigation, many Portuguese citizens were quietly reproachful of the McCanns for having left Madeleine and her younger twin siblings behind in their vacation apartment to join friends for dinner nearby. As one restaurant manager in Praia da Luz, who did not wish to be named for fear of alienating British customers, tells NEWSWEEK, "There is a phrase for the way we look after kids in Portugal: we are 'chicken parents.' That is, we protect our children like a mother hen protects her chicks. We keep children very close. Maddie's parents are condemned because they left them alone. People feel that whatever happened to the girl, it was the parents' fault for leaving her alone in the first place."
Some British-Portuguese issues are simply lost in translation. One of the best-read papers in Portugal, the Correio da Manha, ran this headline last Saturday: MADELEINE'S GRANDFATHER ADMITS PARENTS USED SEDATIVES. Well, not exactly. The newspaper's claim has become popular with the locals in Praia da Luz but is in fact based on inaccurate reporting. Madeleine's grandfather did indeed tell reporters that the McCanns gave the children Calpol, but Calpol is nothing more than a solution of liquid paracetamol (known as acetaminophen in the United States), marketed specifically for the treatment of children with flu-like symptoms or teething problems. It is one of the most common child medications in Britain, is available over-the-counter at pharmacies and is a common feature in most family medicine cabinets.
For their part, the British media rallied universally behind the McCanns in the first weeks, loudly criticizing supposed holes in the Portuguese investigation and focusing on the couple's status as helpless victims in a foreign land, locked into a judicial system they did not know or understand. The head of television news at the BBC defended the network's extensive coverage of the case and denied charges that the BBC was biased in favor of the McCanns in a blog posting this week. The British press has been fortunate in that McCann defenders have been eager to speak to them. "I feel helpless and furious because Gerry and Kate have bent over backwards to help the police," Gerry McCann's sister Philomena told the BBC, "but none of us were happy with the initial stages of the investigation." Such criticism of the police—not unheard of in Portugal—can prompt a sometimes fiery backlash when it comes from outsiders. "Of course everyone feels for the baby," one Praia da Luz resident tells NEWSWEEK. "But I think that in our hearts, the Portuguese wish the McCanns were guilty. Because then the English would really have to shut their mouths."
That's just one person's opinion, but there's no doubt that the gulf between the McCanns and many Portuguese has grown over the summer. Even the couple's overt religiosity has come back to haunt them. Like the McCanns' other two children, Madeleine was conceived through in vitro fertilization. On Wednesday the Portuguese newspaper 24 Horas ran the headline IVF IS ALWAYS CONSIDERED A SIN over a front-page story. The paper reported that the bishop of Portugal's armed forces, Dom Januário Torgal Mendes Ferreira, had commented on the "immorality" of the McCann's use of IVF treatment, which the Roman Catholic Church officially condemns. All the talk of religion makes the latest rumor swirling around Praia da Luz seem particularly ghoulish: that the police will dig up the ground around the Nossa Senhora da Luz (Our Lady of the Light) Church because Madeline's body may have been buried there.
For now, the McCanns have left Praia da Luz. As the Portuguese prosecutor sifts through a reported 4,000 pages of evidence, the knocker on the door at Nossa Senhora da Luz is still festooned with the yellow ribbon that became Madeleine's emblem. Alas, the color has faded, the ends frayed.