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.
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.