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Société Périllos ©

Saunière’s trial


Probably one of the most controversial aspects of the mystery of Rennes-le-Château is the legal battle that its chief protagonist, Bérenger Saunière played with bishop de Beauséjour, for the better part of a decade. For sceptics, it has been used as the “deus ex machina”, which allegedly is able to explain everything. For believers, it is a period of Saunière’s life that postdates most of what is to them of most interest, namely the enigmatic building works in the village. In truth, it is neither.

The cause of the problem

The problem with his bishop probably dates back to November 19, 1906, when de Beauséjour visited Rennes-le-Château and found that Saunière’s parishioners complained about their priest. The villager’s disgruntlement with the priest went back to his appointment twenty years earlier. Almost as soon as he rose to the pulpit, he spoke out against the Republic; some of his parishioners reported him to the bishop, then Mgr. Billard, and Saunière was reprimanded. The parishioners then found him rummaging about in the cemetery and another complaint was lodged. When a part of the town went up in fire, Saunière got his own back, and refused to allow water from one of his cisterns to be used for extinguishing the fire.
A priest who is not liked by his parishioners is a serious problem; but that was not all. De Beauséjour reported that an underage girl was present in the presbytery. She had no place there. He also found that Saunière was the object of suspicion by his colleagues, because of the presence of “suspect people” in the presbytery, possibly referring to the same or other underage women’s presence.
But what could de Beauséjour do to remedy the situation? He listed that Saunière’s buildings had been excessively expensive, without the existence of a paper trail. Furthermore, there had been numerous demands for masses in the diocese and throughout France, but there seemed to be no guarantee that actual masses had been said.
To any manager, the situation is transparent: four years into his job, the new bishop made the acquaintance of one of his subordinates, and stumbled upon what he felt was a dangerous situation. It is like the employee who has been hiding in a corner – or in Saunière’s case, on top of a hill – apparently without the previous manager never bothering to “manage” that employee. Still, that was not the situation. De Beauséjour’s predecessor was perfectly aware of Saunière, and of his amazing building works; he had been there when Saunière reopened the restored church. He had apparently not questioned where Saunière got his money from; perhaps he knew.

The accusation

The situation lingered, until early 1909, when de Beauséjour and/or his team decided that the easiest solution would be to reassign Saunière to a different parish. Though this was not uncommon, it was somewhat out of the ordinary for a man, like Saunière, who had been the shepherd of his flock for more than twenty years. That the sheep did not really appreciate him, was another point.
The order was received on January 15 and Saunière was given one week, until January 22, to move to Coustouges, his new appoint. In his diary, Saunière wrote: “This exceptionally strong measure, without any warning, has hit me in the beginning of the year, and has troubled me greatly. I am taken aback, a broken man.”
That same week, he receives a letter from the priest of Bages, one of his best friends, who writes: “I assure you that your letter has strangely surprised me. If I could have feared what would happen to you at some point in the past, I did not see it happening now. The death of the poor priest Gaudissard may have awoken bad memories?”
Gaudissard was the priest of Antugnac, who took the position on June 1, 1891. For the previous year, Saunière had been priest of both Rennes-le-Château and Antugnac, until the latter position could be filled. Gaudissard suddenly died on January 9, 1909, at the age of 49. Of course, some, like Jean-Luc Robin, have not been able to refrain themselves from wondering that this may have been a “strange death”. Perhaps it is, but there is at present no evidence to suggest it is.
What is intriguing, is the letter of his friend. He is saying that he is not surprised that Saunière finds himself in this predicament, but he could never have foreseen that it would happen at that moment in time. He wonders whether the death of Gaudissard has made de Beauséjour again aware of the “Saunière situation” and has now decided to act.
On further analysis, it is remarkable that de Beauséjour does not seem to act for many years, but as soon as Gaudissard dies, on January 9, within the week, there is an order by de Beauséjour that Saunière needs to move. And he is hardly given any time – a week, a pathetically small amount of time for a man who has lived in a village for more than twenty years. Could anyone really move that quickly, after such a long time? Yet, de Beauséjour seems intent on forcing the issue.
Rather than delve into the possible correspondence between Gaudissard’s death and de Beauséjour’s action, let us continue with Saunière’s imminent problem. He does visit to Coustouges, but his new parish is not to his liking. He does not move out by January 22, and on January 28, Saunière has obviously made his decision: he resigns from his post as priest of Rennes-le-Château.

You would think that for de Beauséjour, that would be the end of the matter: Saunière had resigned and the issue was resolved. But the bishop did not feel that was the case. The sequence of events would take up the latter years of Saunière’s life, and would be brought to the attention of the pope. The file of the case, both at the Vatican and with the bishop, commences with a letter from the Bishop’s office, dated January 19, 1909, that re-affirms the Bishop’s instruction that Saunière must take up his new appointment at Coustouges. The next letter is dated January 29, in which Saunière is informed that the bishop does not accept his resignation. He urges Saunière to meet him in Carcassonne, to provide further detail as to why he does not want Saunière to remain in Rennes-le-Château. Even though his resignation is not accepted, the bishop says the resignation will be accepted if Saunière refused to go to Coustouges. It is a bizarre twist of reasoning, not uncommon in such dire situations.

Round two

That de Beauséjour would not let this one go became clear, even though it took him more than 18 months to have Saunière officially answer for what de Beauséjour saw were transgressions.
One charge was that Saunière had trafficked in masses. A second point was that Saunière had to produce details of his accounts. A third charge was that Saunière had continued to solicit masses, even though the bishop had instructed him to desist. G. Cantegril, Vicar General and M. Charpentier, Clerk of the Court, ordered him to appear before the Court on July 16, 1910, to answer these charges. Saunière had not wanted to appear before the bishop 18 months before, and now, Saunière did not turn up in court, so summons were issued ordering an appearance on July 23. He missed this session too, and was declared to be in contempt of court. He was thus given a default sentence, namely a suspension of one month. He should also restore the fees for the solicitation of masses, but the court was unable to determine that sum.
This could have been the end of it, but it was not. Saunière must have realised this was a beneficial verdict, but rather than accept, he petitioned the bishop and was reinstated. Going for a default conviction is very much like the speed ticket one gets: you pay and it does not go to court. By going to court, you risk the chance of a higher punishment, even though you may be found innocent. Saunière, it seems, felt he was innocent, or perhaps he was so adverse to de Beauséjour that he felt he would not be defeated by this “man” whom he truly seems to have hated.
Still, if Saunière wanted to challenge the court, why did he not begin his defence earlier? Did he really want to show his contempt for the bishop? Or was he perhaps not at home when the letters arrived, and did he therefore miss the appointments?

In whatever situation, Saunière was asked to appear on August 23, 1910. He had retained Maitre Mis of Limoux as his defence. The date was then changed to October 15, and Saunière had a new council, Dr. Huguet. Though Saunière did not attend the hearing, Huguet did defend his client.
Huguet claimed that there was no evidence that Saunière solicited for masses, but that he merely received requests for paid masses, tasks which he fulfilled between December 31, 1899 and June 29, 1909. Huguet claims that even though this amount seemed to have alarmed the bishop, it was not excessive and that furthermore Saunière officiated these masses. 280 masses per year, he felt, was not an excessive amount.
On the second “charge”, Huguet reported that Saunière had an income of 193,150 francs, which Saunière invested in good works: the restoration of the presbytery and the church were evidence of this, as well as the Villa Bethania. As to the third charge, that Saunière had continued to say masses despite the bishops’ interdiction, Huguet argued that Saunière had stopped as soon as the bishop had ordered him to. Interestingly, Huguet adds that Saunière’s income had come from donations, and that the bishop could not prove otherwise. Bold language for a lawyer, but then they are often reputed for that. Still, the boldness was underlined a basic problem, which is that the donations did not match the total amount of money.
Roughly ten years of 280 masses per year is 2800 masses. These cost between, in the early days, 1 franc, and in the later days, 1.5 franc. The total sum would therefore be roughly 3000 francs. With 1 franc equalling 15 Euros (or ten pounds or 15 dollars), we are talking about 45,000 Euro – or an income of 4500 Euro per year from masses.
But that is not the problem – nor is excessive. The problem is that 3000 francs is a long way short of the 193,150 francs that Saunière declared: roughly 2.9 million Euros.

The court heard the defence and deferred judgment to November 5, when Saunière was asked to appear at his verdict. It was the only time he would attend. The sentence was not particularly harsh. The court felt it strange that faced with the large numbers of masses that Saunière received, that Saunière should give so many fees to other priests and still plead poverty when making requests. What the court was saying was that Saunière did, in their opinion, nothing wrong by soliciting masses. He asked for masses, pleading he needed the money, but he received so many requests, that he was unable to officiate these masses properly, and hence enlisted the help of other priests, to whom he gave the money he had received. What the court was saying was that if he did solicit these masses because he was poor, he should have said a few more masses than the 280 masses he did per year, so that he was less poor. But instead, the court was suggesting, Saunière preferred to remain poor, and thus gave the commission to his colleagues. Of course, the court knew that Saunière was not poor at all, but a legal sentence has got nothing to do with a search for truth… Not on this count at least.
The court noted that he could not provide any proof that he had said these masses, not even a list of any kind. Even though they could excuse a priest for failing to retain a register if he was the only party involved, it was inadmissible that Saunière did not keep a record of the money and masses that he had given to his colleagues. In short, the court stated that Saunière could not have worked out who was what due without some forms of record, and that if Saunière did not keep such records, that was negligence.
Still, Saunière was given the benefit of the doubt. Even if he had retained some money for masses that his colleagues had said, and which was therefore not his to keep, he had indeed, as Huguet had argued, given the money over for good works. As to count three, the court did side with the bishop: Saunière had continued to say masses, despite the bishop’s interdiction.

The verdict

In short, on count 1 and 3, though Saunière was not convicted of trafficking, the court had found him guilty of culpable negligence in his accountancy procedures and disobedient for continuing to solicit masses in spite of the bishop’s ban. He was sentenced to withdraw to a house of retreat, to undertake spiritual exercises, this for a 10 day period, to occur during the following 2 months. The sentence was less harsh than the original one month suspension, which must have pleased Saunière.
However, it was not count 1 and 3, the trafficking in masses, that was the problem. The big problem was count 2: Saunière had not been able to prove his income and the court would not put the issue aside. Saunière was told that within the month he was to present to the bishop details of his account. Though the court acknowledged that the roughly 200,000 francs that Saunière spent on his building works was mostly not from trafficking in masses, but from the faithful of other parishes, the court wanted further detail.
The situation was, as all legal cases, furthermore complicated by the fact that the court argued that the money had been given to the parish priest, and not to Saunière as an individual. This statement was in essence a ploy of the court to argue that it had an important role in the case, as it involved Saunière as a priest in his function as a priest, not Saunière as an individual.
Finally, the court stated that it was strange that Saunière had only now revealed the size of the sums he had spent, still they felt it was not the time or the place to examine his motives or the execution of his works.

The court had deferred count two: the source of Saunière’s income. Largely cleared of trafficking in masses – with a slap on the wrist for not keeping proper records when involving colleague priests in assisting him – Saunière now faced the formidable task of explaining his income… his income of roughly – and at least- 200,000 francs, or almost three million Euros in today’s money.
It is clear that anyone would be stupefied when they hear that a small parish priest was able to spend three million Euros on some building works. How did he get the money?
Some sceptics have argued that the total amount of money must have originated from the selling of masses. This would mean that 200,000 people sent him money. If he started in 1885 and continued until 1910, he would have received 8000 commissions per year. This is twenty requests per day, every day.
Though sceptics may wish to believe this, the court did not. The court did accept that it involved a large number of masses (more than one a day), but that Saunière had dutifully carried out his task. In theory, the court could have argued that Saunière’s total income came from trafficking in masses. But no-one would have believed that a priest, even if he advertised in some magazines offering his services, would have received twenty commissions per day – 8000 commissions per year. They were an intelligent body that had worked out that there was a real problem. But they declined to be the ones who would delve into Saunière’s finances.

André Douzet

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