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.
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?