By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
The bodies of two Catholic priests were found in a Moscow apartment at around 9:00 p.m. on Oct. 28, both victims of severe physical trauma. According to the Vatican Press Office, the two priests were murdered separately at an interval of several days.
The victims are Fr. Otto Messmer, S.J., 47, a Russian national who headed the Russian Independent Region of the Society of Jesus, and Fr. Viktor Betancourt, S.J., 42, of Ecuador. The two Jesuits lived in the apartment where their bodies were found, which was also the headquarters of their community in Moscow.
AsiaNews is reporting that Fr. Igor Kovlevsky, general secretary of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Russia, said that when the priests “did not answer telephone calls . . . their brothers . . . went to the apartment, where they found them already dead.”
Nothing is known at the present time as to why the two were killed, but police have one lead. Apparently, the two priests were involved in a fight with a Hispanic man of about 40 years of age. Eyewitnesses say they saw a man fitting such a description near the area with a blood-soaked shirt.
In a statement, the director of the Vatican Press Office, Fr Federico Lombardi, said the priests had apparently been killed with “blunt objects”. But in his view, “the attack on Father Betancourt is believed to have happened at the end of last week as he did not turn up for Mass as usual on Sunday. Father Messmer had [instead] returned to Moscow from Germany on Monday evening and was probably killed shortly afterwards.”
Fr Igor Vyzhanov, secretary of the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, personally knew Fr Otto Messmer and remembers him as a “very calm and deep person.”
Another friend, Mr. Victor Khroul, former editor of the Russian Catholic Weekly The Light of Gospel said Father Otto came from a very religious family. His brothers became priests, sisters and nuns. One of his brothers, Nikolai, became a bishop and is now the apostolic administrator for Catholics in Kyrgyzstan. Another brother, Victor, now works in Kazakhstan.
In a press release the Secretariat of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Russia said that the “Catholic Church in Russia suffered a heavy loss.” Two “ardent pastors loved by believers died.”
A statement from the Archdiocese of Our Lady in Moscow expressed hope that “Russian law enforcement agencies will be able to find the criminals and that society and the courts will give an impartial legal and moral judgment.”
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