In September of 2016, Elizabeth Wettlaufer checked herself into a mental hospital in Toronto, Canada. Like many people who seek psychiatric care, she was looking for someone who would listen. But her story was unlike any other.
Wettlaufer confessed that, over the course of the previous nine years, she had killed eight people in southern Ontario and had attempted to kill six more.
Wettlaufer, who worked nursing homes, deliberately injected her victims with overdoses of insulin. She claims that her crimes were motivated by a feeling she described as a “red surge” that she thought might have been God attempting to communicate with her.
But the most shocking part of the story isn’t the crime, or the delusions of the criminal.
Wettlaufer claims that she actually told numerous people what she had done. Some failed to take her seriously. Others did, but kept her secret anyway. Ultimately, it fell to this serial killer to stop herself from killing again.
Worst of all, at least two of the people she told occupied positions of great trust in the community, and ought to have known better than to let this woman go free.
The year after Wettlaufer committed her first murder, she says she told a girlfriend that she had deliberately taken the lives of two of her patients. The woman replied that she would turn Wettlaufer in if it ever happened again. Evidently, she never did.
Plagued by guilt, Wettlaufer also told authorities that she confessed her crimes to her pastor in 2013.
“I went to the pastor and I told him what had happened,” she said in her 2-hour confession video. “And he prayed over me because he said that was the last thing he would have thought out of me.
“And his wife there, too, and they prayed over me, and they said to me how this is Gods grace…but if you ever do this again we will have to turn you in to the police.”
Wettlaufer also purports to have told a lawyer about her misdeeds in 2014. According to her account, he told her that she should “take it to the grave” and seek psychological help.
She also allegedly tried to confide in her Narcotics Anonymous sponsor and her ex-boyfriend, but neither of them seem to have taken her at her word.
So… how does something like this happen? Who is responsible?
Obviously, Ms. Wettlaufer is fundamentally responsible for her own actions. Whether she heard voices, cracked under pressure, or just wanted to kill for her own sick pleasure, her recurring bouts of remorse are evidence of a guilty conscience.
But if the details of her confession are true, if she told half a dozen people that she was a serial killer and they did nothing to stop her from killing again… Then they bear a share of the responsibility too – morally, if not legally.
Maybe we can understand how romantic partners or friends might chock an ominous comment up to a tasteless joke or a histrionic outburst. But how can we explain the actions of the lawyer and pastor Ms. Wettlaufer mentions in her confession?
Whatever confidentialities may bind attorneys and priests to their clients, they can’t possibly compare to the lives of innocent people.
If Ms. Wettlaufer’s pastor thought he was helping her by absolving her sins and keeping her secrets, he was hurting her victims and their families instead. They’re the ones who needed protecting from her. Religious leaders may claim the power to deliver their adherents to divine forgiveness, but that doesn’t mean they have any right to circumvent the secular laws of the land.
Ms. Wettlaufer should have been in jail a long time ago. How many lives could have been saved if someone had simply been willing to pick up the phone?