Belgium

The fog shrouding the flat fields of Flanders lifted recently to reveal more than just a peaceful Breughel landscape: a macabre tale of drugs, religion, sex and accusations of murder unfolded and there in the midst of it was Sister Godfrida.

Set in Wetteren, a small, tightlipped community near Ghent in Belgian Flanders, the saga now unfolding in the courts and the newspapers has startled and fascinated the Belgian public.

Sister Godfrida, 44, a Roman Catholic nun with an addiction to morphine and a taste for vintage wine and the best cuts of meat, is formally charged with killing three elderly patients in a nursing home by injecting them with overdoses of insulin.

Authorities say she has confessed the killings and the director of the hospital has accused her of stealing $30,000 from the patients to support her drug and other habits.

But Sister Godfrida, who said she killed the patients "sweetly" and painlessly because they were difficult at night, has been ordered to undergo psychiatric tests and, if she is found mentally unstable, she will not stand trial.

The affair was uncovered by three nurses who worked under Sister Godfrida at the Institute Marie-Felicite, a home for chronically ill, incurable geriatric cases.

Nearly a year ago, the nurses told hospital officials of bizarre happenings and their suspicions. They then began documenting their observations and, early this year, found a ready listener in Dr. Jean-Paul De Corte, a general practitioner who sits on the insitiute's board.

"The nurses told me how one day last summer, Godfrida had been seen leaving a ward with a syringe in her hand," De Corte related recently.

"They entered the ward to be told by the invalid that he had just been injected by Sister Godfrida. Two hours later he was dead, and later three empty vials of insulin were found."

Armed with this evidence, De Corte went to police, although he says one member of the hospital board asked him not to.

The effect of De Cote's revelations hit Belgium like a thunderbolt, and the 29-year-old doctor has achieved instant recognition as the man who blew open the Wetteren scandal.

Since then, hospital officials, co-workers and people in the village have told stories of Sister Godfrida's purchases of expensive wine and meats, of sexual liaisons with men and women, including a retired missionary priest.

But now concern among Belgians is switching from Godfrida herself to her position of responsibility - one of life and death. How could it have been maintained unquestioned for so long under these circumstances? people are asking.

De Corte replies that "there was just no one who thought a nun could do such things." But he also feels strongly that authorities were lax in not following up earlier tips from hospital workers.

Meanwhile, the tale of the plump and cherub-faced nun - born Cecile Boombeek in Wichelen, a farming village near Wetteren - is still a source of fascination for a Belgian public more used to reading about the country's unending political crisis.