In October last year, the small Belgian town of Dendermonde, in East Flanders, was shaken from its tranquility by renovations to the convent of Saints Vincent and Paul, adjoining the Catholic school.
The works have become the center of attention of the inhabitants, not because of an architectural question, but because of the permanent presence of police and forensic experts during their realization. excavations inside the convent and also in the garden.
The reason was not long in being known, the Belgian Justice had decided to take advantage of the work to revive a “cold affair” which had been shrouded in mystery for nearly forty years: the disappearance of the nun Germaine Robberechts56, who vanished overnight without a trace if not a trail of rumors ranging from runs away with a lover to the possibility of murder.
The oldest neighbors remembered the Sister Gabriellaor Sister Gaby, as she was called at school and in town, because she was a woman who distinguished herself, not only by her affable character and her sociability or by the lessons she gave at school, but because she was “a modern nun”skillful driver who used to cross Dendermonde’s uncrowded streets without slowing down.
With studies in plastic arts, in addition to teaching drawing and aesthetics, she was a very good photographer, she did ceramics when she was not playing the accordion, she was almost never silent and was always ready to drive his old Peugeot as a driver for his convent sisters and run errands.
It had been so until March 6, 1982, when she was no longer seen.
Rumors and more rumors
The first version broadcast, while a few days had passed since his disappearance, was that of a removalalthough there are no clues that make it plausible.
There has also been a lot of talk about the possibility that there is run away with a lover. As a result, the much-admired “modernity” of Sister Gaby becomes suspect. Her liberal character made her seem compatible with that of a recollected nun.
Sister Gabrielle’s family never believed this version and her mother, now an older woman, was outraged when she learned that it had spread from the very bowels of the convent. He went to ask for explanations and the Canon Gaston Morniesuperior of the Catholic school, told her that it was true, that Germaine – she did not call her “Sister Gaby” – she had fled with a peasant from a nearby town and even gave him the name.
Despite her years, Germaine’s mother decided to confirm this on her own and searched for the house of the alleged lover. He was the peasant himself who opened the door, invited her and introduced her to his wife and children. He told her yes, that of course he knew the nun who drove the Peugeot, but that he had never even spoken to her.
Despite the evidence, the Church and especially Canon Mornie remained firm on their version. As the days passed, it became clear that with this they were trying to embarrass Germaine’s family – very religious people – into burying the story.
Even the bishop under whose jurisdiction the convent was sent sent a letter to the nun’s mother telling her that Germaine “left the convent voluntarily”.
The suspect cannon
At the same time, there were other rumors that did not suit the Church or the convent, and in particular Canon Mornie. One of the clues received by the police stated that a few days before his disappearance, the nun had had a strong argument with the superior of the school.
Mornie and Sister Gaby knew each other well. The canon did not know how to drive and the nun was always ready to drive him if needed.
During these car rides, the nun could have seen and heard things that did not suit the canon and which could have cost him his life, rumor said and the police suspected that this could be true.
Gabrielle would have discovered that the canon executed illegal financial transactions this served him to pay for his vices, which were not few in number. Investigators suspected -and verified- that when Mornie asked the nun to take her to “Spiritual Retreat” I was actually going to a neighboring brothel.
They also learned that shortly before Sister Gaby disappeared, Mornie had found on his pillow an anonymous which pushed him to abandon his deviations and lead a life according to Christian values.
It didn’t take long for them to verify that the only person who had the key to the canon’s room – and all the keys to the convent – was the missing nun. They added two plus two and guessed that after receiving the anonymous letter, which only Sister Gabrielle could have left on the pillow of her bed, Mornie had killed her and made her body disappear to silence her.
With all these suspicions, the police questioned the canon, who denied everything. They asked him to submit to lie detector and accepted: the ordeal could not have turned out worse.
The matter seemed resolved, but suddenly it froze.
Despite the results of the police investigation, Justice decided not to charge Mornie.
Two months after the disappearance of the nun, the prosecution had not brought any charges or questioned the suspect. The newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws published an article explaining why: the prosecutor in charge of the case belonged to the same circle of wealthy Catholic men from Dendermonde that Canon Mornie frequented.
Justice then did not investigate the first sexual abuse allegations against Mornie who were beginning to emerge from the religious school.
The Church, for its part, decided to close the deal and remain silent. The bishopric remained firm on the “official” version according to which Sister Gabrielle had left the habit without telling anyone to run away with a lover. And that he had done it so as not to embarrass his family.
The bishop also resolved to support Canon Gastón Mornie in his post at the convent and as director of the Catholic school which depended on him. Nothing happened here.
And another eight years passed without anything happening, until a scandal that was impossible to hide broke out.
In 1990, a journalistic investigation into the magazine Aktuell put the cannon in the eye of the cyclone by connecting it to the drug dealing in bars. The publication of the memo brought another wave of complaints, with testimonies from children and young people – many of them former pupils of the school run by Mornie – accusing him of having sexually abused them, inside and outside the convent.
The magazine also recalled the case of Sister Gabrielle and linked the new complaints to the disappearance of the nun. It was impossible not to: the common denominator was Mornie.
The police intervened, questioned witnesses and recorded audio recordings with testimonies from the canon’s former students, who recounted their abuse in detail.
During questioning, Mornie denied the abuse and again said he had nothing to do with the disappearance of nun Germaine Robberechts. The lie detector again showed that nothing he said was true.
However, justice returned in favor of the canon. The prosecution held that testimonies of sexual abuse were not enough to prosecute him.
Regarding the disappearance of the nun, the prosecutor’s office said there was no convincing evidence that would allow him to be brought to justice. And the “body of the crime” has still not appeared.
Canon Gastón Mornie did not spend a single day behind bars even if, after this second scandal and its public impact, the bishopric had no choice but to remove him from office.
Morniel was assigned to a convent with the order to be quiet. He spent a few years there until he was sent to a psychiatric institute in Zelzate, where he remained hospitalized until his death in 2011.
forty years later
The story, forgotten for decades, resurfaced last year, when Belgian justice decided to take advantage of the redevelopment work at the convent of Saints Vincent and Paul to try to close the case completely.
By order of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the work was carried out in the presence of police officers and forensic experts with a specific objective: find the remains of Germaine Robberechtsif they were buried somewhere in the convent.
It would be a symbolic closure: the crime, if it was a homicide, had been prescribed years ago and the presumed culprit, Canon Mornie, had been dead and buried for ten years.
But even this ending was not possible: Sister Gabrielle’s body was not thereas the mystery of his disappearance once again hung over the quiet streets of Dendermonde and the memory of its inhabitants.