BRUSSELS, Belgium -- The adviser to aging nuns who sold their convent for $1.4 million and left in a Mercedes for the south of France was freed from jail Friday, saying the sisters knew exactly what they were doing.
Ronny Crab had been accused of conning the eight nuns into selling the Order of the Poor Clares convent in Bruges. His release after 39 days in jail 'shows it was a trumped-up case all along,' his lawyer said.
'The nuns wanted the proceeds from the convent to go to their families rather than the church after they all died, so they changed the statutes of the convent,' lawyer Clive Van Aerden said.
Under the old bylaws, the diocese of Bruges would have received the property and goods of the convent after the death of all the sisters, ages 62 to 93.
The nuns changed the bylaws several months ago and sold the convent to textile firms, said the lawyer, who spoke for Crab at a news conference outside the jail in Ghent.
The convent has the status of a non-profit association, so it is governed by its own bylaws.
The proceeds from sale of the convent were used to buy a chateau in the south of France and a farm. The nuns' other new-found assets include 11 horses and six luxury cars, among them three Mercedes-Benz models equipped with telephones and televisions.
Most of the sisters rode last month to their new home in France in a $110,000 Mercedes limousine. The 93-year-old nun, who cannot see, hear or walk, tailed behind in an ambulance.
The appeals court did not give a reason for its decision to free Crab, 35, but his lawyer said the judges 'realized it was a blown-up case.'
The lawyer charged that church officials 'used their powers to provoke a criminal inquiry because it wants reasons for a civil trial to obtain the goods of the convent, or what's left of it.'
A spokesman for the bishop of Bruges denied the accusation.
'The church has never wanted the goods of that convent,' the spokesman said. 'The bishop was only interested in the welfare of the sisters.'
The lawyer for Crab said he read, in investigatory files, a deposition given in the south of France by one of the elderly nuns, Sister Josephine, whom he described as 'very clear of mind, not senile.'
'She declared to the police that she knew her convent was on a list where the bishop didn't allow any new nuns to come in,' the lawyer said. 'So she said, 'Why should we just let it bleed to death and let the diocese get all the goods back?''
The bishop's spokesman said one problem in the modern-day church is a lack of young women wishing to join the sisterhood, but maintained the Order of the Poor Clares could still have been around for a while.
'They (the eight nuns) were old, but they could have lived for many more years,' he said.
Crab's lawyer said proceeds from the convent's sale are invested in the property in France, the automobiles, 'and the rest in bank accounts.'
'The court knows exactly where all the money went,' the lawyer said.
He says the convent's old bylaws prohibited all luxuries, and Crab was proud to teach the nuns a new lifestyle.
But why the six showy cars, considering that none of the nuns can drive?
'They wanted them, so they bought them,' the lawyer said. 'It's as simple as that. That's why this whole inquiry is so silly.'