I suppose it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think of Michelle (or Michèle, in some articles I’ve seen) Martin as a rough Belgian equivalent of Karla Homolka. She was complicit in the crimes of her husband, Marc Dutroux, who kidnapped and raped six young girls and female teenagers during the mid-1990s. Dutroux killed two of his victims himself, and two more survived the experience and eventually proved brave enough to testify in court. The other two, both eight year old girls, found themselves imprisoned in a cellar when Dutroux was hauled off to jail to serve a three-month sentence for an unrelated crime. Martin was supposed to keep the captives fed, and apparently did slip some food and water into the cellar at one point, but this proved insufficient and both girls starved to death. Martin later explained that she hadn’t made a greater effort to keep the girls alive because she had been worried that they would attack her “like wild animals” if she actually entered the cellar to check on them.
Whether Martin was a vicious abuser in her own right, a psychologically shattered minion of her husband, or just a woman who couldn’t deal with the awful reality of what was down in the cellar, she ended up being sentenced to 30 years in prison. Having been incarcerated for about half that time, much of it spent awaiting trial, she has now been granted permission to serve the rest of her sentence “in a convent of the Poor Clare Sisters in Malonne, near the city of Namur”.
The decision to allow Martin, who is described as Belgium’s “most hated woman”, to move out of the prison has prompted understandable outrage among some Belgians. Perhaps they wouldn’t mind if the convent at Malonne was a forbidding institution like the Carmelite Convent in George W. M. Reynolds’ classic Gothic novel “Wagner the Werewolf”, where hapless women were made to flog themselves bloody in a “Chamber of Penitence” or were even (appropriately enough) “entombed alive”. As it is, however, it seems that the worst thing Martin is going to experience at the hands of the Poor Clare Sisters is being assigned “a 4-hour daily task”. She’ll even be allowed to undertake supervised excursions. Combine that with the fact that protecting her from a potentially vengeful public while in the convent is going to be far more expensive than simply keeping her in prison would have been, and you can see why some people are miffed. One Belgian MP, however, went slightly over the top:
Mr Verstrepen posted a tweet on Twitter saying:”No bull-shitting, if we all fork out (public funding) we will be able to find an Albanian and pay him to top Martin… Candidates?”
He later continued: “Cleared up for a little money, far cheaper than a convent.” “On second thought Albanians are too expensive nowadays; a drug addicted junky will do it for less.”
Mr Verstrepen says that he was being ironic and only wanted to show that there was something wrong with the system: “I’m not that mad that I’d call for a paid assassin on Twitter. As a lawmaker I’m not going to err outside the law by making pronouncements that would damage me.”
Even with the disclaimers, this single example hints that Belgian politicians might be a little more colourful than Canadian ones. Rob Anders tries, bless him, but he simply can’t measure up.
Despite the weirdness of the whole episode, it raises some questions that seem interesting from an atheistic perspective. The most obvious, in my opinion, has to do with secularism. One thing that’s disappointed me about the articles that I’ve read, even taking into account an excellent summary by George Conger of the European newspaper coverage, is that none of them give a clear idea of whether a Belgian prisoner who had committed similar crimes would stand any chance of being released into the care of a secular rather than a religious institution – a women’s shelter, for example, instead of a convent. In other words, how much is the court system deferring to the convent’s religious credentials? If the answer is anything more than “hardly at all”, the Poor Clares are probably being credited with a moral superiority that they don’t really possess. It’s naïve to think that their religious dogma represents a type of wisdom that would be more useful than secular moral reasoning in rehabilitating a character like Michelle Martin.
Beyond that, case studies like this always highlight, at least for me, the arbitrariness of judicial sentences. Is sixteen years in prison too little time for starving two little girls to death? Too much? People sometimes get into furious disagreements over questions like this, but it’s hard to even imagine an objective answer emerging. How much easier it would be to have a divinely imposed set of hard-and-fast rules! One could arrive at a concrete answer by adopting a simple “eye-for-an-eye” approach – which I suppose would require that Martin be “entombed”, Carmelite Convent style, and left to die – but that seems both cruel and simplistic in theory and impossible to properly implement in practice. After all, Martin killed two people that way, and there’s no physiological mechanism for making her starve twice as much. Even if she had starved just one person, there would be no guarantee that she would experience an equivalent amount of suffering in the process of starving to death herself, because some people cope with that sort of thing more easily than others. Another possibility, which has considerable traction in liberal circles, is to move away from the whole idea of punitive sentencing and simply think in terms of the practicalities of rehabilitation and deterrence. However, it’s hard to imagine that that approach would satisfy the strong moral intution in many people that criminals deserve, if not actual suffering, at least some sort of penalty that is inflicted purely to make them pay. That intuition, in my opinion, deserves a fair measure of respect.
A final question is whether it’s even possible to rehabilitate someone like Michelle Martin. Can society ever trust her around children? On this specific issue, I suspect the Mother Superior of the Poor Clares actually has a point:
“Martin is a human being capable, like all of us, of the worst and the best.”
There are probably a substantial number of Canadians who work with children every day and would nevertheless behave more or less the way Michelle Martin (who was once a schoolteacher) did if their spouse had a couple of eight-year-olds locked in the basement. Extreme circumstances bring out “the worst and the best” in perfectly ordinary people. No doubt Martin has already suffered and surrendered a great deal, and I doubt that she represents any particular danger to society. Personally, I’m happy enough to see her in the hands of the Poor Clares, even if they’re not going to send her to the Chamber of Penitence.