The real drama behind the release of Michelle Martin

A lead news story in many European dailies today concerns the outrage in Belgium over the early release of the ex-wife of a notorious child killer. Michelle Martin, 51 (pictured here at her trial) was an accomplice to Marc Dutroux, Europe's most notorious serial murderer and paedophile, and arrested with him in 1996.

A 14-year-old girl was found alive two days later cowering in the basement of his Charleroi house along with a severely emaciated 12-year-old. The bodies of two more girls were found buried in the garden of Dutroux's main residence in the southern town of Sars La Buissiere. Less than a month later, two more bodies were found in another property owned by Dutroux.

Advertisement

The couple stood trial in 2004. He was given life imprisonment, she a 30-year jail sentence for kidnapping and imprisoning six girls who were raped by Dutroux.  He killed two of the girls; she was found guilty of allowing two others to die of starvation.

Under Belgian law, convicts can appeal for early release after serving a third of their sentence. The justice authorities have finally acceded to her repeated requests to be released on grounds of good behavior, allowing Belgium's most hated woman to serve the remaining 10 years of her probation period in a convent in France.

The convent, naturally, has not been named. She will live under an assumed name. But interestingly, the idea that she be allowed out into the convent came from her. "It is part of her proposal for probation, which has been evaluated over time and was accepted yesterday," Justice Minister Stefaan De Clerck told Reuters yesterday.

The story for the media, naturally, has been the "outpouring of rage" of the parents of the murdered teenagers, and the furious reaction from ordinary people at the release of a "monster" into society.

But the far more interesting story, to me, is that she is to go to a convent. What kind of an extraordinary journey has this woman undergone -- spiritually, psychologically -- that would lead her to want to be in a convent, presumably to dedicate herself to prayer? None of the news reports asks that question.

And what of the convent that has agreed to take her -- if indeed one has? According to AFP, "De Clerck told Belgian radio on Tuesday that Martin hoped to retire to a convent in France if freed, a process which would take time to work out." It's not clear whether that means that a convent is yet to be found. But I would find it surprising if the justice minister would have approved the idea if one hadn't.

It means, therefore, that the members of a French community of nuns has likely visited Martin, and assessed as sincere her desire for the religious life. Even if she does not take vows, she must be earnestly seeking a monastic routine of prayer: ten years is a major commitment both for her and for the community concerned. 

Consider the witness implied in this: first, the possibility of redemption open to a sinner of this degree of notoriety; second, the courage of a convent that dares to take into its fold a woman whom the crowds would like to stone to death.

It's also brave given that Belgium, more than any other European country except Ireland, has been in the frying pan over clerical sex abuse of minors; and that it was only a month ago that the Vatican sent the former bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, to a French monastery to undergo "spiritual and psychological treatment" after he admitted -- in a lighthearted way that showed no repentance  -- abusing two of his nephews (the abuse had taken place too long ago for him to be convicted in the courts). Vangelhuwe subsequently disappeared from the convent, run by the Jerusalem sisters at the community of Magdala, at La Ferte-Imbault in the Loire Valley, after three days. The bishop of the diocese concerned later complained that he had not been consulted -- the move had been arranged by the nunciature in Belgium -- and would have been against it.

I doubt very much the same mistake has been made in this case. One does not casually arrange for the transfer to a convent of a notorious figure without squaring it with the local bishop.

What an amazing film this would make. A woman who had been led into the depths of evil, displaying a total inability to empathize  -- she told the court in 2004 that she did not feel "the reflex to save" the girls as they lay starving in the couple's cellar while Dutroux was being held on suspicion of stealing cars -- later turns to God, and spends her life in expiatory prayer, in an enclosed community.  Extraordinary.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Beth Cioffoletti
6 years 11 months ago
Not really so extraordinary, Austen.

Having been around prisoners for the last 2 decades, I am humbled by the profound spirituality of those who are "doing time".

What is extraordinary to me is that the justice system of Belgium can recognize and respond to these conversions.

The politics of revenge is so predominant here in the USA that I can barely imagine such a thing happening. 

The story of this woman reminds me very much of that of Jens Soering, convicted of a horrendous murder in Virginia in the 1980s.  It is different in that Jens proclaims that he is innocent of the crime, but the conversion story is similarly compelling.  Jens was introduced the "Centering Prayer" while in prison and has become a deeply spiritual man.  His book, "Way of the Prisoner",  re-introduced me to the practice of Contemplative Prayer.  Jens is now seeking repatration to his native Germany - the German state WANTS him - where his life sentence would be reduced to 2 years.  After serving out his sentence in Germany, Jens would like to join a contemplative monastery.

But it's doubtful that will ever happen here in the USA.  We have to keep him locked up forever, like countless other inmates, innocent or guilty, who have reformed their lives and are no danger to anyone. 
Bill Collier
6 years 11 months ago
I don't mean to be cynical, and I hope she has a heartfelt desire for redemption, but I think the film should be put on hold for at least a couple of decades.
Beth Cioffoletti
6 years 11 months ago
Oh come on, Walter.  When you are around people for awhile, don't you know who is authentic and who is not?

For one thing, do they tell the truth about themselves?  Are they honest?  Do they acknowledge guilt when they have done wrong?

There are thousands (probably tens of thousands) of people doing HARD time (25+ years) in the United States for non-violent (drug) crimes.  The sentencing itself is unjust to begin with.

You can look at a person's prior criminal record as well as their behavioral record while in prison and determine that the vast majority of these people are no danger to anyone.  Yet we keep warehousing them.

Then there are people who were wrongly convicted, and there are many more of these than you think.  Take a look at the Felony Murder Rule (google it if you don't know what it is). 

I don't know where in the world one would find the statistics that you request.  I only know of one person (Murph the Surf) who was released because he convinced the powers that be that we was a born again Christian.  He turned out to be a manipulator and con artist, but he hasn't committed any more crimes.

Better yet, go to a prison and get to know some of the people and their families who are living this nightmare.  Only then can you begin to understand what justice and spirituality are all about. 

I am the first to acknowledge that there are dangerous criminals who do need to be imprisoned.  But they are such a small percentage of who is incarcerated in this country.
Austen Ivereigh
6 years 11 months ago
Beth, thanks for those thoughtful words.  I agree, one of the striking things here is how the Belgian justice system is capable of resisting the punitive demands of the tabloids. This woman is the Belgian equivalent - mutis mutandis - of Myra Hindley, another accomplice of a serial murderer (the Yorkshire Ripper). While serving her 30-year sentence, Hindley by all accounts became a deeply changed woman, a regular Massgoer, practising Catholic etc. And she was reccommended time and again for early release. Not only did the Home Secretary (UK equivalent of the justice minister) under successive governments refuse to grant her release, they even refused to let her out after she had served her full term. She died in prison. The home secretaries in each case were simply too afraid of the political fallout from releasing a woman whom the tabloids branded a "monster". And yet we talk grandly of the rule of law replacing mob rule.

Thanks too for alerting me to the Jens book. You're right, these stories are all too common, and they need to be told.
Marie Rehbein
6 years 11 months ago
Is there justice for the victims when the criminals are not required to serve out their full sentences due to a religious conversion?  I think not.  Maybe if the victim has a religious conversion and chooses the path of God-like forgiveness in addition to the criminal's change of heart, then the justice system is jusitified in no longer holding the criminal to his or her sentence.
Beth Cioffoletti
6 years 11 months ago
There is much wisdom in what you say, Marie.  Justice for the victim demands that a criminal do his time.

But I have never heard of a person (other than Murf the Surf, who was playing to a biased board) who has gained release from a sentence because of a religious conversion.  It is not the norm anywhere.

The problem in this country are cruel sentences that do not fit the crime.

In Austen's article, Michelle Martin had served her legally mandated time in prison.
John Barbieri
6 years 11 months ago
Forgiveness is very difficult. Perhaps it is even more difficult than love.
Forgiveness requires mutuality on the part of the transgressor and the transgressed. Is that the case here? If it is, very well and very good. Mercy is a decision to go beyond justice, but at the same time is not a replacement for it. The murdered cannot offer forgiveness, but perhaps, if they so choose, their families can.Otherwise, let justice prevail.
Crystal Watson
6 years 11 months ago
I don't know what the prisons in Belgium are like, but I'd assume a monastery would be a better place to live, even with its restrictions.   I guess I'm kind of cynical too - how does a person who feels no "refelx to save" starving children in a celler  come to acquire compassion or empathy?  In a psychological sense, I'm not sure that can be done.
Luisa Navarro
6 years 11 months ago
Curious reminder of the famous 17th C affaire des poisons... Mme de Brinvilliers... 
Beth Cioffoletti
6 years 11 months ago
I would think that the nuns who accepted Michelle Martin into their convent would know the real deal when they saw it. 

If we can't believe in, know, and trust this kind of human transformation, what hope is there for any of us?
Beth Cioffoletti
6 years 11 months ago
One more comment, Austen, and then I'm done.

"Belgium's most hated woman" ...

What must it be to be the most hated woman in Belgium?  What must it be to be accepted by a community of nuns as that most hated woman?

The risk that those women (the nuns) take reminds me of the Algerian Trappist monks.
Crystal Watson
6 years 11 months ago
When I said I was skeptical about her transformation, I didn't mean that she was worthy of hatred or that she was beyond forgiveness, but after reading this ...

"she told the court in 2004 that she did not feel "the reflex to save" the girls as they lay starving in the couple's cellar while Dutroux was being held on suspicion of stealing cars"

.... I do wonder if she has the capacity to change her ability (or lack thereof) to empathize with others.  Some psychological conditions aren't that changeable, though behavior is.
Beth Cioffoletti
6 years 11 months ago
Thanks for clarifying that, Crystal.  I understand what you were saying now.

We all have those psychological characteristics that seemingly are permanent parts of our makeup.  Like you, I don't know that they can be changed, but I know that you can get some distance from them so that you can see them for what they are, and not get tripped up by them.  Thank God.
Crystal Watson
6 years 11 months ago
Beth, maybe the reason  I reacted  the way I did is that I worry about myself,  how I'll ever figure out how to become a good person.  To convert me, the Catholic Church's way of forgiving pretty much anything still seems too good to be true.
Beth Cioffoletti
6 years 11 months ago
What I find difficult, Crystal, is trusting that God loves me exactly as I am, sins, flaws and all.  I believe that our need to "hate" criminals comes from our inability to face and integrate our own individual darknessess.

Like you, I'll never figure it out.  More and more it seems that I can only surrender to God's love.

That's probably why this story of Michelle Martin and the nuns who have opened their community to her seems so important to me.  It really is extraordinary and a breakthrough of human consciousness.

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

 Pope Francis speaks during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on April 18. (CNS/Paul Haring)
The appointments are part of an ongoing effort to give a greater role to women in the work of the Roman Curia offices, the central administration of the Catholic church.
Gerard O’ConnellApril 21, 2018
Ivette Escobar, a student at Central American University in San Salvador, helps finish a rug in honor of the victims in the 1989 murder of six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter on the UCA campus, part of the 25th anniversary commemoration of the Jesuit martyrs in 2014. (CNS photo/Edgardo Ayala) 
A human rights attorney in the United States believes that the upcoming canonization of Blessed Oscar Romero in October has been a factor in a decision to revisit the 1989 Jesuit massacre at the University of Central America.
Kevin ClarkeApril 20, 2018
Journalists photograph the lethal injection facility at San Quentin State Prison in California in 2010. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)
In California, Catholic opponents of the death penalty are trying to protect the largest population of inmates awaiting execution in the Western Hemisphere.
Jim McDermottApril 20, 2018
Photo: the Hank Center at Loyola University Chicago
Bishop McElroy said that Catholics must embrace “the virtues of solidarity, compassion, integrity, hope and peace-building.”