Pieces of the Scientology Puzzle
The questioning of Vincent G., a former president of the Church of Scientology in Belgium, continued. And each time the court tried to focus in on specific elements of the case, he urged them to put things in context: to look at the bigger picture they were missing.
Judge Yves Régimont asked him much money had he put into Scientology, he asked. Vincent said that between 1994-99 -- when he was not on staff and so had had to pay for his courses -- he had paid around 15,000 euros in payment for services. And also donations.
But there were also his donations to the International Association of Scientologists (IAS), which came to substantially more, the judge suggested. “Everything is relative,” Vincent replied.
The judge was interested in the IAS and how it connected to the Church of Scientology Belgium. Vincent explained that it was set up by Hubbard to bring together Scientologists around the world. Each church of Scientology was independent, he explained: but the IAS brought a certain cohesion, helped bind them together.
While the Church of Scientology existed to promote the writings and philosophy of its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, the IAS was there to help society, said Vincent. It did this by promoting drug awareness campaigns and supporting the work of Scientology’s Volunteer Ministers, who were active in New York, for example, in the aftermath of the 2001 September 11 attacks. The IAS also supported Criminon, a rehabilitation programme for prisoners.
“They are connected to Scientology but totally independent of the churches, which apply the writings of Hubbard.”
“And when you are a Scientologist, do you have to be a member of the IAS?” asked the judge. “Is it automatic?” Not necessarily, said Vincent.
But a lot of Scientologists appeared to be members, said the judge: so as well as paying for their courses and materials, they were paying for IAS membership, which almost made it look as if they were paying twice over.
Pressed by the judge, Vincent said he had donated something like $40,000 to the IAS over 25 years. (At first he had said euros, but later corrected himself.) But membership was not compulsory, he repeated.
“Why pay all that money when you could spend 25 euros on a sauna?”
Judge Régimont asked about the Purification Rundown, a programme devised by Hubbard himself designed to clear the body of toxins: it comprises sessions of running, the consumption of increasing quantities of vitamins and minerals and periods in a sauna.
And was the Rundown indispensable for a Scientologist? Vincent explained that Scientology had what was called the Bridge to Total Freedom: the Purification Rundown was one of the steps on that bridge.
And how much did it cost? Around 2,000 euros, said Vincent.
And why did it involve taking such high levels of vitamins and minerals? “The effects are not insignificant, and people have had problems with this,” said Judge Régimont.
Certainly, some people have said that they felt very good afterwards, he added: but there, you were moving towards the practice of medicine. (Illegal practice of medicine is one of the charges the Church of Scientology in Belgium is fighting.)
“I have done the programme and I am fine,” said Vincent. He described the routine he had followed: he would start at 1:00 pm with 20 minutes running, then go into the sauna -- which would be at 60-65° C, he was careful to add -- then shower, before repeating the process until 4:00 pm.
Hubbard wrote that the programme helped you sweat toxins held in your body over long periods of time, and Vincent cited one example of that he believed he had experienced. He had re-experienced the sensation of the dental anaesthetic used on him when he was 15, as it had been sweated out during the Rundown, he said.
Judge Régimont was sceptical. Having established that Vincent had been 23 years old when he had done the Rundown, he did not see how anaesthetic absorbed all those years earlier could have been eliminated during the process.
And then there was the cost: did Vincent not think 2,000 euros was excessive for a few grammes of vitamins and a few hours in the sauna?
In fact, you had to buy the vitamins separately, said Vincent. But so far as the cost of the Rundown was concerned, the question of whether it was expensive was entirely subjective, he added: the programme formed part of his [religious] beliefs.
“The vitamins and minerals extra?!” exclaimed the judge. “Ah!”
Judge Régimont returned to the question of the Personality Test used by Scientology, also known as the Oxford Capacity Analysis (OCA) test. The investigators had talked to people who had turned up at Scientology’s building and the first thing they had been asked to do was to fill in this questionnaire. He wanted to know more about the role it played inside the movement.
The test, said Vincent, was a way of showing people how they might improve But newcomers could just as easily start off with a book or an introductory film, he added.
So there was the personality test and then the graph with the results came out of a computer; and then you did a course; and then the Rundown, said the judge. He was still troubled by the price. “Why pay all that money when you could spend 25 euros on a sauna?”
Vincent explained that the Rundown was not something you would do as soon as you had entered Scientology, but after you had done a few courses: perhaps a year or two down the road. It was part of one’s progress through Scientology.
“Is it a progressive path?” asked the judge. “Or is someone taken by the hand?”
Vincent resisted any suggestion that people were being pushed into things. “What is true is what is true for you,” he said, quoting one of Hubbard’s dictums. But he added: “If you are the only one who believes it, you could well pass for a madman.”
He had had the good fortune to observe at first-hand what Scientology was and the effect he had, he said. “Scientologists are completely alert and self-determined,” he said. They were nothing like the zombies they were sometimes portrayed as.
"No one has ever been forced"
After a pause, Monday afternoon’s proceedings resumed, and Christophe Caliman for the prosecution got his turn to put questions, documents to hand. It wasn't long before the temperature began to rise.
He started by going back to an issue that the judge had already touched on: were the purchases in Scientology made freely, or were people pushed into it, he wanted to know.
The purchases were made freely, of course, Vincent replied. “How could someone contribute without wanting to? I don’t see how.”
Caliman began quoting from one of the thousands Scientology documents seized during the investigation. It appeared to be an internal discussion of how to get someone to buy more courses, and the terminology was less than ecclesiastical. There was talk of using the results from the personality test to “handle” someone and “close” so that they paid up; of getting someone “routed for regging” for the Bridge.
There was mention of someone who was ex-directory, so the instruction was to get them in and signed up for an auditing package, “...and then you close for the full auditing bridge.” He was not to be allowed to leave until he had got all the credit together for a full loan, the memo continued.
Caliman quoted a policy letter from Hubbard, the gist of which was that you got someone’s money and then you got them to take out a loan for the rest.
Vincent recognised the first document as one he had signed. But it had to be put in context, he said: he had written it as a wish-list for the weeks to come, the next stage on the Bridge to Total Freedom for the people mentioned. “This document has no other use but to bring it about that people advance up the Bridge.
“It is poorly phrased,” he acknowledged: and not in religious language But it was written for the benefit of parishioners, some of whom were in the courtroom, he said. He had checked back over the records, he added: none of the people mentioned in that document had bought anything in the weeks that followed.
Judge Régimont stepped in. What about the phrase, “You have to give him a hard time…”?
Again, Vincent conceded that it was poorly phrased. Better would have been: “You have to make his mouth water…”
“But that means forcing them,” said the judge.
“No one has ever been forced,” Vincent replied. “It is always the choice of the person.”
Judge Régimont did not seem convinced. “This looks rather like a list of people who have reached a certain level … and you have to make them pay more. It is not really a question of the free will of these people.”
“It is a bit of a religion for the rich”
“Of course it is the choice of people to do it or not,” Vincent insisted. But like any church, Scientology was confronted with economic imperatives: it had bills to pay.
“Now we are getting to it,” said the judge. “It has to keep coming in.”
“The Bridge to Total Freedom takes a certain number of stages,” said Vincent. Different religions had different ways of raising money: some required a 10 percent tithe of members’ income, for example. Scientology’s system of finance was completely different. But it was still the choice of individuals as to whether or not they did these courses.
“Is this not a bit contradictory?” Judge Régimont asked, referring back to their earlier discussion about how much it cost to practise Scientology. “It is a bit of a religion for the rich,” he suggested.
“You can do it for free,” said Vincent insisted.
“That is the theory,” the judge replied.
The prosecutor, Caliman, resumed his questioning.
“What happens when you want a refund?” he asked. “Is it looked on favourably or is it a suppressive act?” (Suppressive acts are the most serious offences in Scientology’s system of ethics.)
“Neither one nor the other,” said Vincent. “But I have never had to give a refund.”
Judge Régimont stepped in again. Could one say that the more one pays, the faster one rose in Scientology? Not necessarily, Vincent replied.
The prosecutor, Caliman, referred to a document in which a Scientology official was responding to a request for a refund. In the reply, the official said that what he was asking for was a suppressive act and that if he did not withdraw his request it would be sent upstairs to AOSH (Advanced Organization Saint Hill).
This looked very much as if the request for a refund was being met with the threat of being declared suppressive -- an enemy of Scientology -- and expelled, said Caliman. What were the “serious consequences” mentioned in the letter?
Vincent said he could not comment as he had not been working there at the time in question. But in general terms, he added: “For the application of the ethics code, personally that does not seem to me to be correct. There are an ensemble of factors to take into account to help someone in ethics.” In this case, he felt that the ethics guidelines had not been respected.
A ‘head on a pike’?
Consulting another document, the prosecutor asked him about a clash he had had with a colleague, Jacky Vaquette, back in 1999, which was when he was serving as an ethics officer. Vincent had summoned Vaquette for an ethics interview for having failed to carry out a designated task. Vaquette, apparently, had made it clear he had no intention of attending.
Caliman wondered if it was not so much the infractions that were the problem but the policies that created them.
Again, said Vincent, it was a question of perspective. “Ethics should be seen as a whole, “ he argued. “If you take one incident out of context, you only have one piece of the puzzle.” As for Vaquette, he said: “It is true we clashed on this, but we get on well now.”
Caliman persisted, referring to his documents. Vincent had called a committee of evidence on Vaquette, a kind of Scientology disciplinary hearing against him. In it, he had required other Scientologists to write up knowledge reports on the accused -- tell Scientology what they knew about Vaquette. And anyone who did not do that, the document continued, would be considered an accomplice and there would be “sanctions”.
“There is a piece of the puzzle,” said Caliman. “What is the meaning of this general call for denunciation?” Or was it, as Hubbard had once put it, to “put a head on a pike”? That last remark provoked rumblings of protest from the defence lawyers.
“There was no committee of evidence and Jacky came back to the right path,” said Vincent. Scientology had ways of resolving this kind of disagreement, he added. Jacky had initially refused to follow this system, “...and then he decided this was not a game worth playing and he came back on the path.”
But in reading out that document, said Vincent, the prosecutor had chosen instead to stress the most negative aspects of the affair.
Judge Régimont stepped in again: “You keep giving a different presentation of what is written. ‘That is not something that we meant to say’.” Perhaps then, people should take more care with what they were writing. The meaning of these documents seemed fairly clear to the investigators, he added. “Or are you going to keep saying, ‘That is not what we mean’?”
“Jacky refused to do something,” said Vincent. “Ethics was applied to the point at which things returned to normal."
“We’re speaking French here ... not Scientologese.”
Caliman resumed his questioning: had he joined staff freely?
“I always do something of my own will,” Vincent. Then, perhaps rattled by the prosecution’s portrayal of Scientology ethics, he offered a personal anecdote to show how it had put him on the right path. When he was running his own business he had submitted a false tax declaration. But once he considered the matter in Scientology terms -- once he had applied ethics on himself -- he had written to the tax office to turn himself in.
But for the judge, that was neither here nor there.
“You are not accused of defrauding the tax office,” he said. ”But you are accused of defrauding a certain number of people.”
Vincent had chosen his life in Scientology, said Régimont. But not everyone chose to stay in the movement and some appeared to have had great difficulty leaving.
“I don’t think you can take as an example three or four people out of thousands,” said Vincent.
“So they are liars, then?” asked the judge.
“No, discontented,” Vincent replied. “You can listen to them but you need also to listen to the thousands of happy Scientologists.”
Caliman, the prosecutor, broke in again. “You haven’t answered my question. Do people join staff freely?” And he referred to another document, in which it appeared as if a Scientologist was being lined up for recruitment.
The instruction in the document was that she be “handled” by an ethics officer to join staff.
The woman concerned was in the courtroom, Vincent replied. “I can’t answer for her.” But referring to the document, he conceded: “We could have been more clear.”
But Judge Régimont was losing patience. “We’re speaking French here, we’re not speaking Scientologese.” Each time a passage from a document was read out, he was saying it was poorly phrased, that it wasn’t like that, the judge continued. Well, duly noted.
Nevertheless, as was his habit at points during the questioning, he dictated an observation to the clerk, sitting to his left. In certain documents, he said, the terms are unfortunately phrased and don't necessarily mean --
-- what the Monsieur the Prosecutor thinks they do. This last was from Xavier Magnée, something of a legend in the Belgian legal world. The eminence grise was one of the bigger guns in a heavy-calibre arsenal of defence lawyers.
"We are talking about a church… a religion"
Vincent's own lawyer, Maître Pierre Monville, took over the questioning. Did he have any regrets about his time in Scientology?
“I am entirely responsible for my actions,” his client replied. “I make my decisions and I take responsibility for them."
“So for you,” said the judge, “the charges of extortion, fraud, the illegal practice of medicine and violation of privacy are nonsense. I suppose that is your position.”
Vincent expressed his concern at the line the prosecutor was taking the case. (Earlier, he had already expressed shock at the fact that the police, during their investigation of the case, had seized large numbers of personal information on Scientology members: the PC files that contained intimate details from their counselling, or auditing, sessions; and the ethics files.)
Each church had its own method of financing itself, he repeated: the Catholic Church had, for example, amassed considerable wealth.
“I think it’s a fair sum, in any case!” Judge Régimont remarked. But Scientology wasn’t doing so badly, considering its relative youth. He referred to the photos he had seen in the case files, of grand-looking buildings being opened.
But his point was that the Church of Scientology could only run thanks to contributions from its members, Vincent continued.
Did he regret anything? No, said Vincent. Nor did he feel he was controlled by Scientology. His church had its own way of doing things, and that might seem strange; different to other religions. But there were a lot of similarities too.
Maître Adrien Masset, who is defending Scientology’s European Office for Public Affairs and Human Rights, intervened. “The question of church financing has been put to very many different jurisdictions, with quite clear results. We need to judge a modern church in a different way than the Catholic Church,” he said.
“We are talking about a lot money here,” said the judge.
Maître Masset did not entirely agree. “We are talking about a church that is a religion, and if you leave that out then you are missing the point.”
And with that, the first day’s proceedings ended.
* 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.
Photo of Brussels court interior courtesy of Jean Housen, Creative Commons licence