Psychics and Missing Children in Belgium
Belgium has been shaken in the last several months by a series of tragic disappearances of children. Since August 1996, five young girls who had been missing were found dead, victims of sex crimes. The police are still searching for at least half a dozen other children who may also be victims of sexual abuse.
In February the Belgian government confirmed that for this case “paranormal” leads are being examined by the police. The Disaster Victim Identification Team of the Belgian Gendarmerie has received the order to collect all tips coming from psychics.
This news created some commotion, since it is the first time in Belgian history that psychics have been used for official purposes. (The professions of “psychic” and “clairvoyant” are theoretically prohibited in Belgium, although no one is ever prosecuted.) A newspaper sarcastically asked if the Gendarmerie should also burn candles or make a pilgrimage to Lourdes. One senator said that science is discredited by taking psychics seriously. A well-known, free-thinking scholar compared this mixing of the rational and the irrational to a violation of the separation between church and state.
Belgian Justice Minister Stefaan De Clerck tried to moderate the news. He emphasized that information coming from psychics should always be considered supplementary, never decisive. Rumors that one or two psychics were selected as judicial experts were denied by De Clerck. But the police and the parents of the children received hundreds of tips from psychics, and two university professors, presented as “academic authorities concerning hypnosis and parapsychology,” were commissioned to “filter” the reliability of those tips.
It is not clear what criteria will be used to “filter” the tips. One of the two “authorities” told the press that he will not take into consideration psychics who ask for big money or who cannot tell more about the missing children than what one can find in the newspapers. This “authority” is Jean Dierkens, emeritus professor of psychiatry at the University of Mons. For more than twenty years, Dierkens has represented himself as an expert in parapsychology. He claims to have conducted successful experiments in which tables were moved by spirits in his house. The only critical remark I have ever heard him make is that he is hesitant about the value of astrology.
Minister De Clerck also confessed that the Belgian Gendarmerie “has not had much experience with psychics” but that a number of well-known foreign police forces, like the FBI, Scotland Yard, and the Dutch criminal police, have used the services of psychics. The Gendarmerie even stated that Scotland Yard has psychics as official experts. Asked for a reaction, the British skeptic Mike Hutchinson said that “Scotland Yard doesn't have official [psychic] experts” and that “it is most unlikely that any police force has official psychics, although psychics do claim that this is the case.” The reference to the Dutch police seems to be to an article about missing persons and psychics published in a Dutch scientific police review. While this critical paper states explicitly that “the practical informative value of paranormal statements made by psychics can be neglected,” it recommends verification of tips coming from a psychic if the family of a missing person requests it.
It seems indeed that the judicial authorities were embarrassed by the fact that the parents of the missing children were visited by numerous psychics. Since the authorities were (rightly) criticized for not following all the possible leads to the children, they did not want to neglect the psychic tips completely. But each time a child was found, it was obvious that the information coming from psychics was completely worthless. The mother of Julie Lejeune confessed she consulted psychics, fortunetellers, and dowsers by her own initiative. Not one of them came close to identifying the place where Julie was incarcerated for months and where she was buried after she died of starvation. The father of An Marchal, another girl who was kidnapped and assassinated together with friend Eefje, said he was visited by at least eighty psychics. “They saw An and Eefje everywhere in the world, but never in the place where they were finally found.”
Belgian skeptics were never consulted about the “filtering” of paranormal tips — neither about the criteria used in this filtering nor the “authorities” doing the filtering. And it is not just the government that seems to be uncritical in this case. Marc et Corine, a well-known private organization for tracing missing children that has done very good work, warned in its magazine against tips from psychics but published at the same time a very positive article about dowsing.