BRUSSELS — The huge crowd, estimated at 100,000, overwhelmed the St. Martin church in the Belgian city of Lige yesterday morning. Many wept. A mountain of flowers piled up outside the front entrance.
The outpouring of emotion came at the funeral of two young girls, apparent victims of what police say was a murderous pedophile ring. It culminated an almost unprecedented week of anger and revulsion in this usually quiet and serene country, best known to the outside world for its lace and chocolate.
"The entire country is weeping," headlined the Flemish daily De Standard. The death of the children, Julie Lejeune and Melissa Russo, has provoked, in the words of the daily Le Soir, "beyond the horror, a profound debate on crime and punishment."
With similar anger and revulsion, Europe is beginning to wake up to the existence of dangerous pedophile networks. The growing controversy focuses on how to balance well-intended laws for protecting individual liberties and freedom of speech with the need to crack down on a worsening, worldwide problem.
Next week, an international conference on the child sex trade opens in Stockholm. 10. Organizers say the trade in child sex is thought to involve more than 1 million children worldwide. Queen Silvia of Sweden, the patron of the event, recently made a rare outburst on television against liberal Swedish laws that deal with sex offenses. She said she had seen some pornographic films involving children. "It is torture of the worst kind," she commented afterward.
Most East European countries have no laws covering pornography, allowing the development of an East-West trade to form in the post-Iron Curtain continent.
Belgian police say that at least two Belgian teenage girls abducted by the country's pedophile ring have ended up working in a pornography and prostitution ring in the Czech Republic. Czech police respond that no evidence supports this charge and note that the past few years have witnessed hundreds of Central and East European girls being sold to Western brothels and nightclubs, many in Belgium.
The present controversy erupted in Belgium after police said they freed two kidnapped young girls, Kaetia Delhez, 14, and Sabine Dardenne, 12, last week from an ill-lit concrete bunker under the house of Marc Dutroux, an unemployed electrician and convicted rapist.
National euphoria turned to anger and horror as investigators then found the bodies of the two eight-year-old girls, missing since June 1995, in the garden of Mr. Dutroux's house. The authorities charged his wife, Michelle Martin, with being an accomplice in the kidnapping, along with two other associates.
Officials suspect that Dutroux is part of a pedophile ring that may have been involved in the disappearance of at least 15 girls in Belgium in the last six years. Seven have been found dead and six are still missing. Dutroux officially lived off welfare payments with his wife and three children, but still managed to own several houses, thanks to his child-porn business. In 1989, Dutroux was sentenced to 13 years in prison for the rape of several girls. But he was released after three years on good behavior.
Last summer, the Belgian parliament voted to abolish the death penalty. Even in the aftermath of the present horror, few voices have been raised for its reinstatement. And yet, calls are mounting for increased prison penalties combined with stricter parole requirements. "Abolishing the death penalty was dignified," commented Jean-Claude Vantroyen, an editorialist at Le Soir. "But we must find a better way to defend society."
Justice Minister Stefaan De Clerck said he would review a system that now allows early release of offenders. But he defended his predecessor, who freed Dutroux. "I myself might have made the same choice," he told a crowded press conference. "How can you be sure to make the right decision?"