September 16, 2007 / 2:55 PM / in 11 years

Branson pledges cash for McCann legal bills

LONDON (Reuters) - Billionaire Richard Branson is to donate 100,000 pounds to create a fund to help the parents of missing girl Madeleine McCann pay their legal bills, his spokeswoman said on Sunday.

Kate and Gerry McCann walk to the Catholic Church of Sacred Heart in Rothley, September 16, 2007. REUTERS/Darren Staples

The Virgin Group boss hopes other wealthy individuals will add to the fund as Gerry and Kate McCann try to clear their names after Portuguese police named them as formal suspects in the disappearance of their daughter.

Since their return to England last Sunday, the McCanns have faced intense media speculation about their role in the case.

“In the midst of all of this speculation and rumour, we must remember there is a family in pain and a little four-year-old girl is still missing,” Branson said in a statement. “We must not lose sight of this fact. It is the only solid fact we know.

“The search for Madeleine must not let up for one moment.”

The couple have denied any involvement in their daughter’s disappearance. She went missing while on holiday in southern Portugal on May 3. They are convinced she is still alive.

Branson has closely followed the case and is keen to “relieve the burden” from the McCanns, his spokeswoman said.

Well-wishers have already donated more than a million pounds to a fund to help find the girl. However, the trust’s directors decided last week that the money should not be used to pay the couple’s legal bills.

The McCanns, both 39-year-old doctors, have hired lawyers in Portugal and England to defend them in case they are charged.

Portugal’s public prosecutor has passed the case against the McCanns to a criminal judge who will decide whether there are grounds for a trial.

A spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office gave no details of the evidence or what accusations the McCanns might face.

On Sunday, the McCanns held hands as they walked to church in their home village of Rothley, Leicestershire, watched by TV cameras and photographers.

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