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Cozy Belgium Shaken to Core By Sex Scandals, Separatism

By William EchiksonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 7, 1997


Until recently, Henri Van Ranst enjoyed a quiet, calm, and prosperous life common here in Belgium. He rose from waiter to owner of the famed Villa Lorraine, a temple of haute cuisine, where an average meal costs $150 per person.

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But these days, the murder of several teenagers and the accompanying series of judicial and child-sex scandals have stunned Mr. Van Ranst and his fellow good-living 10 million Belgians.

Elsewhere, murders and corruption may be the main course of daily news. But Belgium, which enjoys one of the world's highest standards of living, has long believed that it is beyond the reach of the sordid.

The shock has been such that more than 300,000 citizens - the proportional equivalent of 10 million Americans - recently marched in Brussels demanding reform.

Our entire system "is corrupt," complains Van Ranst, looking out over his Old World-style dining room. The political and social crisis threatens to undo the country's recently recovered fiscal good standing, confirmed by the passage of a new budget.

Worse, the scandals could further aggravate the country's two linguistic groups, the Dutch-speaking Flemish and the French-speaking Walloons, leading to the possible split of this small kingdom in the heart of Europe.

"When I moved here, I thought I was coming to a quiet, nice country," says Tom McGuire, an American consultant in Brussels. "People thought their children were safe. They trusted their police. They trusted their judges."

Belgium's security, plus its central location and home to the European Commission, has helped make the country a mecca for foreign investors. In 1996 alone, major American companies such as Manpower, UPS, and Chrysler all established new European headquarters here.

None are reconsidering their decision, but Chrysler Vice President Hans Tjun was shocked to learn that a grisly triple murder had taken place in his neighborhood restaurant. "We couldn't imagine Brussels to be anything like Detroit," he says.

One scandal after another

The country's crisis of confidence first erupted this summer after police freed two children who had allegedly been abducted by convicted pedophile Marc Dutroux. Police also discovered the bodies of four small girls buried below Mr. Dutroux's various properties and are continuing to search for more. The atrocities were compounded by claims by the parents that Dutroux might have been intentionally protected by politicians and police.

Although he had been convicted in 1989 of raping several young children, his 13-year sentence was shortened twice in general amnesties granted by the king. Then, in 1992, Dutroux was released for good behavior.

He allegedly proceeded to build an entire pedophile ring by registering himself and his wife as invalids and collecting monthly checks of almost $3,000 from the Belgian social security system.

Public disquiet over these revelations was further fueled in August when police arrested five people, including a former Socialist cabinet minister, for the 1991 murder of Socialist leader Andri Cools.