The seal of confession: how a priest put his life on the line

The seal of confession: how a priest put his life on the line

Clem Lack

The following article was sent to 'AD2000' by one of our readers. The story - originally published in the Brisbane 'Daily Telegraph' of 12 July 1952 - was so edifying that we thought it worth reproducing. We searched the Internet extensively for further background and verification, but without success. Perhaps some 'AD2000' readers might be able to shed light on this remarkable story and its central character?

In 1891, three years before Captain Alfred Dreyfus was made the victim of corrupt French politicians and banished for life to Devil's Island, off the coast of Cayenne, as a traitor who had sold his country's military secrets to Germany, one of his countrymen, who also had been sentenced for life for a crime he had not committed, was liberated from New Caledonia after serving three years in the hell of Ile Nou.

The case of Abbé Doumoulin paralleled in its tragic miscarriage of justice the notorious Dreyfus affair.

Abbé Doumoulin was a gentle, kindly soul, and a priest of the diocese of Aix. He was beloved of his flock, and his only interest in life, apart from the people for whom he laboured, was his rose garden next to his tumbledown presbytery. Yet, with tragic, bewildering suddenness, he was caught inextricably in a net of circumstantial evidence which landed him in the dock as a murderer.

One fateful afternoon in March, 1888, Madame Blanchard, a wealthy and benevolent lady of Aix, whose life was devoted to piety and good works, called at the presbytery occupied by the Abbé to receive from the priest $800 which he had collected on her behalf as contributions for a religious society of which Madame Blanchard was the patron.

Madame Blanchard was observed to enter the presbytery at midday. On her way to and from the presbytery she had to pass through a ruined and deserted monastery. Nobody saw her alive again.

When she did not return home that day her family reported her disappearance to the police, to whom they mentioned Madame Blanchard's expressed intention of visiting the Abbé. A thorough search was made, and four days afterwards the body of the murdered woman was found in one of the cells of the old monastery.

The woman had been stabbed repeatedly, and her murderer had taken the money with him. The priest told the gendarmes he had handed the money over to Madame Bianchard in a sealed canvas bag.

There was no reason for suspecting the Abbé who had a wide reputation for sanctity and humility, but purely as a matter of form, a perfunctory search was made of the presbytery.

The gendarmes were dumbfounded to find most incriminating evidence. There was in the kitchen a table knife stained with what, upon analysis, proved to be human blood, and a pocket handkerchief, identified as belonging to Madame Blanchard, was also discovered.

Nobody had seen the woman leave the priest's house, and the Abbé was the last person known to have seen her alive. He was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to transportation to New Caledonia for life.

Confession

Beyond denying his guilt, the Abbé meekly accepted his fate. He sailed for his distant exile with more than 100 felons, offscourings of the French jails, garrotters, cut-throats, thieves, and pimps, cooped in the great iron cages in the hold of a transport.

The gates of the grim prison of Ile Nou clanged upon him and he was forgotten by all except the grieving, bewildered folk of his cure, who had loved and trusted him.

Then, one day in April, 1891, Kloser, the sexton of Abbé Doumoulin's church, crept into the police station at Aix, and haltingly confessed that he was the real murderer of Madame Blanchard. The priest was innocent.

Grovelling and weeping, Kloser said his conscience would not let him rest. He must make his peace with God by expiating his terrible sin. He had sinned in double measure because he had allowed an innocent man to shoulder the responsibility for his crime.

He had seen Madame Blanchard making her way to the presbytery and knew the object of her mission because she made visits at periodic intervals to collect contributions. He awaited her return, lurking in the shadow of one of the cloistered arches of the monastery.

When she passed his place of concealment he leaped upon her, stabbed her several times with a tableknife which he had obtained from the priest's kitchen and dragged her body to one of the disused cells. Then he had hidden the money and sneaked back to the kitchen to replace the knife so that it would not be missed.

Before he could wash off the stain, he had been disturbed by approaching footsteps and had run away, leaving the knife on a shelf.

Then, upon the day that the body was discovered, he went to the Abbé and confessed the crime. When the priest was arrested, his secret was safe because the Abbé kept his lips sealed, mutely allowing himself to be condemned rather than break the sacred seal of the confessional.

As a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth! Kloser had not the courage publicly to acknowledge his guilt, but crept away to live for three long years in his own private hell of misery and remorse.

So the gates of Ile Nou opened for a shabby little priest, in the ragged, stained soutane he had always kept with him, and clutching his much-thumbed breviary he returned to the soil of his native land which had cast him out.

By way of form, the Supreme Court of France ordered a new trial of the Abbé. He was acquitted and reinstated to his cure in the diocese of Aix, where he was received by his flock with a tumult of rejoicing as one returned from the dead.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.