Forgiving monsters: The Dutroux Case

One of the most notorious criminal cases in modern European history has returned to the public eye, dominating the front pages and leaders of Belgium’s newspapers. A judge has agreed to release Michelle Martin from prison on the condition she enter the Convent of the Les Soeurs Clarisses de Malonne (Poor Clares) and remain under police supervision.

The news of the parole has prompted an appeal by state prosecutors, public protests, outrage in the press — and the mayor of Namur has ordered police to guard the convent. Why such a fuss? The opening paragraphs of a solid AP story tells us why.

BRUSSELS — The ex-wife of a notorious pedophile who aided her husband’s horrific abuse and murder of young girls – and who let two children starve to death while her husband was in jail – was approved Tuesday for early release from prison, infuriating the victims’ parents and reopening a dark chapter in Belgian history.

Michelle Martin, who is now 52, received a 30-year prison term in 2004 for not freeing girls her then-husband Marc Dutroux held captive behind a secret door in their decrepit, dirty basement in Marcinelle, 40 miles south of Brussels.

Dutroux, 55, is serving a life term for kidnapping, torturing and abusing six girls in 1995 and 1996, and murdering four of them.

During those years, Dutroux also spent four months in jail for theft, leaving it to his wife to feed Julie Lejeune and Melissa Russo, a pair of friends imprisoned in the basement. Martin let the girls starve to death. They were 8 years old.

Bumbling police work and claims by Dutroux that he was part of a wider pedophile network that included politicians, judges and police officials prompted public protests in Belgium and nearly led to the fall of the government. King Albert intervened and ordered a reorganization of the criminal justice system. The Dutroux affair had a profound effect on Belgium’s national psyche, some have argued, damaging public trust in the country’s civil institutions. Sixteen years into her 30 year sentence, Michelle Martin may be leaving prison to enter a convent.

While this has been a gruesome true crime, political intrigue and corruption story, it has now become a religious liberty story with faith taking center stage in this drama. The AP article closes with these paragraphs:

Under the terms of her release, Martin will have to remain at the convent and be assigned a task daily. Moreau, Martin’s lawyer, said it took some time for the convent to agree to have her live there. But in the end they realized that no one else would take her in, he said.

“They accepted because their vocation is to welcome people nobody wants,” he said.

The convent’s decision to give refuge to Michelle Martin has not been warmly received by the Belgian press, some of whom cite the clergy sexual abuse scandal as evidence of its institutional failings. The coverage of the Michelle Martin parole is a great example of the strengths and weaknesses of European advocacy style journalism. Working from the same fact base, the European press can give widely diverse interpretations of events. While you may not find a single truth in the diversity of accounts, a European reader will come away much better informed of the events and issues at play than an American reader.

For example, in its articles the liberal national daily Le Soir has taken an outraged stance. Its editorial argued:

There is great doubt, if not total disbelief about the chosen place of [Martin's] reintegration into society. .. . Certainly, the gesture of the Poor Clares is a remarkably generous. But a convent, cut off from the world and managed by women who have voluntary withdrawn from real life and any professional activity, should become a place for rehabilitation is breathtaking. That the Church – which has not shown great courage or clarity in recent years when confronted with deviant behavior – will serve as the monitor and guarantor  of Martin’s reintegration adds to the disorder.

Objections to her release were founded upon a belief that Michelle Martin was the incarnation of absolute evil — “l’incarnation du mal absolu” — the conservative national daily La Libre Belgique  reported. But no person was beyond redemption, the newspaper argued, saying the law must not “deprive anyone, not even the most heinous criminal, of any hope of getting out of jail. To challenge this principle based upon hatred of the criminal would be unreasonable.”

The Sudpresse‘s editor disagreed, saying this was “un impossible pardon”. The Belgian judiciary in complicity with the Catholic Church had committed a coup against the Belgian people: “mauvais coup (de la justice belge), perpétré avec la complicité de l’Eglise catholique”.

However, De Standaard has endorsed the church’s intervention. Its editor said the news of the parole had led him to experience two feelings at the same time: horror over the crimes of Michelle Martin and respect for the Catholic convictions of the Poor Clares.

De Standaard printed a letter from the Abbess of Malonne, where the sisters explained their decision to give Michelle Martin a home. They stated they had agreed to take her in as she has no family and no half-way house or other institution would have her due to the notoriety of her crimes. They stated that while she would be residing at the convent under the supervision of the judicial authorities, she would not be a entering the order but would be the guest of the Poor Clares. And, they felt it was their Christian duty to act as they did.

Nous avons la profonde conviction qu’enfermer définitivement le déviant dans son passé délictueux et l’acculer à la désespérance ne serait utile à personne et serait au contraire une marche en arrière pour notre société. Michèle Martin est un être humain capable, comme nous tous, du pire comme du meilleur.

Ideology plays its part in the coverage of this story. Self-identified Catholic newspapers have stressed the theme of penitence and redemption. Some secular newspapers have objected to the intrusion of Catholic sensibilities into the parole of a “monster”, but others have advanced ethical theories of crime and punishment. No one newspaper encompasses all of these views, but collectively the debate over the parole of Michelle Martin is an example of the best of the European press.

Can Michelle Martin be forgiven? Is parole a form of forgiveness? Should the church be accorded a custodial role in a secular state? All great questions. What say you?

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About geoconger
  • tioedong

    There are convents who routinely accept ex convicts ( the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, who worked with delinquents, used to have a cloister that accepted ex prisoners called Sisters of the Cross).When this is done, those seeking to enter religious life have to undergo a long session of “candidacy” that helps those seeking to enter to work out their psychological and moral problems. But the Poor Clares are not one of them. So I worry they are being “conned”…

    and it’s unclear if she will merely board with them, or will enter into a formation period to become a sister.

  • MJBubba

    I find your contention that the European model of the press leads to European readers being better-informed to be quite plausible. It seems that the whole field of journalism in America is tilted strongly to the left/secularist point of view, leaving small-circulation and niche publications to provide a semblance of balance. The internet-driven changes to the whole news industry are still uncharted; we may in fact end up with the European model here in the states within just a few years.

  • Julia

    Re: European model of newspapering

    The St Louis dailies in my younger years were a morning paper that tilted right – the Globe Democrat, and an evening paper that tilted left – the Post Dispatch. The smaller local papers mostly did neutral reporting on local events. So we got the whole picture, mostly.

    Now the only St Louis paper is the left-leaning Post Dispatch. And, glory be, my hometown paper, the Belleville News Democrat is starting to provide a serious right-leaning balance. We even have a famous editorial cartoonist, Glenn McCoy, who wins national awards every year but stays put. The paper also yearly wins big awards for investigative reporting, having a real impact on Illinois legislation, and has now established a respected media presence in the metro area.

    Looks to me that many other small-town papers are doing well focusing on excellent local coverage and leaving the national news to the big guys on the coasts and Chicago.

    There is such a wealth & variety of national coverage with all the broadcast and cable channels, in addition to Politico that leans left and Daily Caller that leans right.
    Large dailies outside of NYC, DC, LA and Chicago just can’t
    afford to have their own reporters in DC or London any more.
    I remember when the Pulitzer family’s Post Dispatch had their very own man in Washington and another in Viet Nam, for that matter. Those days are gone forever.

  • Julia

    Re: Dutroux case

    It’s not so much about forgiving this wretched woman as it is allowing her a way to perhaps atone for what she has done. It’s not necessary that the nuns forgive her – she didn’t do anything to them.

    We need to remember that “penitentiary” was a term used by reformers in the 1800s in our country who thought miscreants could actually reform their lives, if given a chance. It’s only been lately that we’ve leaned more towards warehousing bad people just to get them off the streets.

    Convents used to take in all kinds of people back in the day. Some of you might recall that in Cyrano de Bergerac, Roxane is accepted as a guest in a convent after the death of the man she thinks she loves. At the end of the play, Cyrano visits her at her convent home.

    Convents took in widows who didn’t expect or want to re-marry, unmarriageable daughters, poorer women without a dowry to get married, and women hiding out from the bad opinion of the public. This is very interesting that they are taking up the task of refuge that used to be a regular part of what convents did.

  • The Old Bill

    We often confuse forgiveness with letting someone off the hook. Crimes need to be punished; horrific crimes need to be punished severely. Perhaps, as Tioedong fears, the Poor Clares are getting conned. But this woman isn’t getting off scot-free. Nor will she ever be walking the streets. She is being offered a path to redemption. If she takes that path, her punishment will be intensified by knowledge of her own guilt. There’s a human soul inside that monster. The Poor Clares are taking in someone no one else wants. And God bless them for that.

    A few years ago, Jerry posted something that I reflect on often: Jesus didn’t say, “After you. You go first.”

  • John Penta

    I’m confused. I thought the Belgian King was, like the British sovereign, someone who “reigns but doesn’t rule”.

    And yet here the King orders the reorganization of the criminal justice system? Uh, isn’t that Parliament’s job?

    • geoconger

      The King’s powers are limited by the constitution, but he does have the moral authority to press his ministers (the government) to act on issues.

  • Jerry

    Your point about a wide variety of reporting forming a picture is true, but only if someone pays attention to the variety rather than focusing on the media outlet that confirms his or her bias.

  • John Penta

    Geoconger: Ah, thanks.

    Jerry: Also, the statement presumes someone has the *time* to read all of the various publications.

    I can’t be the only person who, despite having time on their hands, is doing good if I can keep up with *one or two* newspapers.

  • Jerry

    One thing that a reporter would get a gold star for mentioning: the significant event that happened in the life of St. Clare 800 years ago this year: the founding of the Poor Clares.

  • Karen

    When I lived in Italy in the late 1960s the political stances of the newspapers affected reporting even of the facts. If we wanted to know how many people attended a demonstration we would add up the number in the communist Unita’ with that of the conservative Corriere della Sera and divide by two.