Two Jesuits Murdered in Moscow

Zwei Jesuiten in Moskau Ermordet

Bata, Otto. "Two Jesuits Murdered in Moscow." Volk auf dem Weg, January 2009, 43.

This translation from the original German-language text to American English is provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado

Otto Messmer (left) and Viktor Betancourt-Ruiz

These days it is unfortunately not unusual that, again and again, we receive messages of people having been murdered in Moscow.

However, the latest murder cases of October of the previous year caused us to pay special heed, for it involves two respected personalities who are well known in ecclesiastical as well as to the profane public. The names Otto Messmer and Viktor Betancourt-Ruiz are those of two priests, who have been torn from their pastoral and intellectual activities by a violent death. And these two members of the Jesuit order in particular, one a German, the other an Ecuadorian, have contributed much in the past several years to the peaceful coexistence of people of varying faith journeys.

After it was determined that Otto Messmer and Viktor Betancourt-Ruiz both died of severe cranial trauma, there were nearly daily protest demonstrations, and a special vigil was held in front of the Russian Federation's Embassy in Berlin. The latter gathering of about 200 people was led by the Jesuit Father Klaus Mertens, who works in Berlin; also with participation by further church representatives all the way up to Archbishop Cardinal Georg Sterzinsky.

In a statement to the press of November 6, Erika Steinbach, chair of the Federal Association of Displaced and Refugees, and human-rights spokesperson for the CDU/CSU's Bundestag [Lower House of the German Parliament] section, demanded that the Russian criminal police and attorney general clear up this case immediately.

How Many Further Victims?

Joseph Werth, S.J., president of the Conference of Catholic Russian Bishops, Bishop of the Diocese of the Transfiguration of the Lord, also Ordinary of the Catholics of the Byzantine Rite of Russia, during a sermon on the occasion of the funeral service for his two murdered co-priests, mourned the fact that their violent death had severely shaken the order of Jesuits in Russia and across the whole world. For himself and his listeners he posed the question, "How many more victims are needed before the Church in Russia awakens from its slumber?" He stated that the number of Catholic priests killed in Russia has gone up in recent times. As an example, he mentioned the cleric Jan Frantkevitz, who was killed in Krasnoyarsk, and two other priests in Astrachan and in the diocese of Moscow.

Father Otto Messmer was the Superior of the Russian Jesuits. He was born into a large family in the industrial city of Karaganda in Kazakhstan. Father Betancourt-Ruiz had come to Russia from Ecuador. He was a teaching professor at the Jesuit-conducted Moscow Institute of Theology, Philosophy and History.

Immediately following the announcement of the two cases of death, representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church and of the Faith Community of Muslims of Russia expressed their deep sympathy and sorrow, and the media in Russia nearly unanimously paid tribute to the contributions of the two Jesuits.

Investigations by the Moscow Police and Russia's state justice system led to the November 6 arrest of a suspect. Although initially there was a certain skepticism among ecclesiastical circles regarding the prospects of success of search, indications are that the 38-year-old unemployed Russian, Michail Oryehov, for whom the order for his arrest was issued, may be the actual perpetrator. The suspected double murderer, who has a criminal history of rape and robbery, after being taken into custody, admitted to the murder of the two clerics.

According to media reports, the suspect stated that, in a drunken stupor he had beaten Betancourt-Ruiz to death, that he did not leave the location of the murder for some time, and that he continued to drink alcohol. Then, when Otto Messmer returned home, he beat him to death as well, to remove him as a witness to his first misdeed.

Meanwhile, autopsy reports state with certainty that the two Jesuit priests were killed within a time span of one to two days, through heavy blows to the head.   In the meantime, the two dead were buried, Messmer in Pullach near Munich, where some of his family members reside, and Betancourt-Ruiz in his Ecuadorian homeland. 

The case against the suspect is soon to begin in a Russian court. If he is convicted for the two murders, the expected sentence is twenty years to life.

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller