Scientology's 'Gentle Ethics'
Day One: Judge Régimont and a former president of Scientology in Belgium could not agree on what role the movement’s system of ethics played in the organisation.
With the start of Monday afternoon’s session, a former president of the Church of Scientology, was called to the stand.
Vincent G., 48, dressed in a light-grey suit struck a more confident figure than his predecessor at the stand. In his replies to the Judge Régimont, he was courteous to a fault: but he stuck to his vision of Scientology despite persistent and pointed questioning from the bench.
Vincent G. denies membership of a criminal association and all the other charges against him.
He started by explaining how he had become involved in Scientology as a young man, when he was studying chemistry and microbiology back in 1990.
“I had a friend with whom I didn’t always get on,” he explained. “One day he came along and something had changed [about him]: he explained that he had met some people who had given him communications courses.
“The next day, I went to the Church of Scientology and took some courses, and I found a group, a true group, and I really liked that.” Fairly quickly, he said, he committed to being a staff member.
So were the courses you took charged for? asked the judge
A few thousand Belgian francs, replied Vincent.
“And that didn’t bother you?”
He explained that for years he had studied similar subjects at school and college: he had much preferred what he had learned in Scientology courses such Overcoming the Ups and Downs in Life. “The fact that I was asked to make a contribution did not seem to me to matter.”
He worked as a course supervisor: “He is there to make sure the student can advance,” -- and trained as an auditor, the person who conducts Scientology’s style of counselling.
And was he still active in Scientology? Judge Régimont asked. Absolutely, said Vincent, in Lausanne. And as a staff member you don’t have to pay for services?
“I understand your question,” he said.
He had seen from the court files he had consulted -- and what he had heard that morning -- that a great emphasis had been put on the paid services in Scientology. But only recently, as a minister of Scientology, he had celebrated a wedding in France for nothing.
“There is an enormous number of services that are free,” said Vincent. “Of course, if you are only looking at the bills, you will only see the paid services.”
It was quite possible to study at home and do correspondences, he continued, just as you could train yourself in Scientology using check-sheets.
“So it’s possible to be a Scientologist without spending any money,” said the judge. Quite possible, Vincent replied. Only the other day he had met an old friend he had not seen in 20 years who had told him he was a Scientologist, but inactive.
"Scientology ... is very badly misunderstood"
Vincent summarised his different roles through Scientology. He had started out working in the bookshop for a year, before going to the United States for a year. Between 1994-99 he had left staff to run his own business before rejoining at a more senior level.
At this point he took responsibility for Divisions One and Two of the Church’s activities and also served as the ethics officer: part of his duties were to ensure that everyone was doing their job properly. Then in 2000 he took on the role of president of the Church of Scientology of Brussels, “...and I did everything I could to make things work correctly.”
And while he was president of the Church, as required by the legal structure of a non-profit association (ASBL), he was also its religious leader.
And who did he get his orders from? asked Judge Régimont.
“As a director I received my orders instructions from Hubbard.”
The judge almost managed a double-take. “Not Hubbard! --” Scientology’s founder had, after all, died in 1986.
“There are his writings,” Vincent explained. “He took a lot of trouble to set out his beliefs in writing.” Hubbard had wanted to ensure that everything had been explained so that services were delivered in an orthodox manner.
And what did it mean, the judge asked, when he read in the case files about the need for expansion?
“Scientology is a very modern religion,” said Vincent. “And that is perhaps why it is very badly understood.” So among the ways it got its message across to the public was through the distributions of leaflets and the sale of books.
“Does expansion mean more members and so more money?” asked the judge. Yes, Vincent replied.
And was he getting this message from “on high” somewhere, the judge asked facetiously. Not all, Vincent replied: though Scientology did have the notion of God as present in the Eighth Dynamic.
“I assumed the responsibility to ensure that things went well,” he added. “I didn’t receive any mystical orders from Los Angeles.”
“You have to get your instructions from orders,” said the judge. “Or do you just do what you feel are Hubbard’s instructions?” Did he receive orders from the European centre in Denmark, for example? No, said Vincent: for him it was simply a question of applying what was written in the works of Ron Hubbard.
During the time when he wasn’t active in Scientology, he had run his own business, he said: so he knew how to make decisions.
But were there quotas imposed from high, the judge wanted to know. And what would happen if, for example, people just stopped coming in.
“That hasn’t happened, thank God,” said Vincent. That was a hypothetical situation he had trouble getting to grips with.
And what about Scientology ethics, the judge wanted to know. One got the impression that for each thing there was a prescribed way of doing things -- and a prescribed list of sanctions too for every offence, whether it was being rude or failing to listen to an auditor. And it would all go in your file.
“How does that square with the mission to help people?” asked Judge Régimont.
“I would agree if that was the case, if that was what had happened,” said Vincent. But, he added: “I have never seen the kind of thing that you speak of in 25 years of being a Scientologist.”
Scientology ethics "...is something very gentle, progressive and is designed to help people advance to superior levels"
But these were in the case files, from Hubbard’s policy letters, Judge Régimont objected. He might not think that this was part of Scientology, but the complaints that had been filed in this case by numerous people suggested otherwise.
Vincent stuck to his guns. “Ethics is a set of rules to help you know how to live and work in harmony in a group,” he explained. It was all set out in Hubbard’s writings.
As for the sanctions that the judge had mentioned, they had to be put in context.
“It is something very gentle, progressive and is designed to help people advance to superior levels,” he explained. “If you take one case out of context you are going to reach the wrong conclusions. But if you take the ensemble of cases, you get a quite different picture… Ethics is only a tiny fraction of Scientology.”
He regretted that he had not been observed, working in his “natural habitat”, he added. “You can only understand these files if you see them as a whole.
“So these hundreds, these thousands of files are just a few bits of the puzzle and we haven’t understood the whole story,” said Judge Régimont, with more than a hint of scepticism.
When he looked at the list of offences on the charge sheet, he said, whether or not it was just part of the puzzle, it was serious.
Vincent tried to explain the different gradients of ethics with an example.
The first time someone was late for a course, the supervisor might just make a point of looking at his watch; the second time he might make an observation; but the third time he would have to take him aside and confront him about the problem. And at that point, he said, you would reach an agreement with that person to be on time.
But was that person going to be expelled? No, he said.
The judge did not appear to be satisfied.
“Is it absolutely necessary to put everything into ethics files?” he asked. What was the point of such a file, he wanted to know. Wasn’t it a bit like a criminal record, with the penalties increasing each time, he suggested. “And if someone wants to leave, is the file there to say, ‘Watch out, we have a file on you,’?”
Not at all, said Vincent. “I have an ethics file. It also has positive things,” he said: things that showed him in a good light. “There are lots of positive things.”
Like the fact that someone denounced another student for having arrived late? the judge suggested. “Sorry to go on about it, but it is revealing, after all. Is the act of denouncing someone in that way normal?”
“We don’t deal in gossip,” said Vincent. “If you see something that is not right, your write it up -- and each report is in duplicate -- and that avoids gossip, as that creates a bad atmosphere.
“In the book Introduction to Scientology Ethics [by the movement’s founder, Hubbard] there is a chapter on objecting to an ethics note, and if it is not justified then it is destroyed.”
And who decided that, asked the judge. The ethics officer, said Vincent.
“Then he is a party [to the dispute] and its judge at the same time!”
“The system is totally transparent,” Vincent insisted. “Anyone can check by reading the books.”
And was it not the case that parishioners did not get access to their ethics files and preclear folders? the judge asked. And could he give a concrete example of the good things to be found in an ethics file?
Vincent mentioned one occasion when he had taken the time to distribute copies of a Scientology booklet, The Way to Happiness, “That is something positive that would be in my ethics file,” he explained.
“So something positive is doing what is expected of you,” said the judge. And what other examples: denouncing someone for being late?
Vincent protested: he had not proposed that as a positive element, like the example he had given.
“But it is in the file,” said the judge. “I spoke earlier of a criminal record: there are no positive elements there.” They went back on forth on this a few more times, but Judge Régimont did not seem satisfied with the defendant’s attempts to portray the ethics file in a more positive light.
* While Belgian law allows me to identify the defendants, most of the news media here choose not to do that. After consulting with local colleagues, I was told that the convention is to wait until the judgment. It seems only fair to respect that convention.
Palais de Justice de Bruxelles, la coupole, by Brischi (Wikimedia Commons, public domain)