The IAS: funding Scientology's good works
At the beginning of Tuesday’s proceedings, three people stepped forward in a bid to become plaintiffs in the case.
They were two former members of Scientology, John Duignan and Samantha Domingo; and Victoria Britton, from the United States, who explained that she had lost her son in tragic circumstances. All three felt they had information that would be useful to the court.
Judge Yves Régimont, after having established that none of them had been personally affected by the Church of Scientology in Belgium or any of the individual defendants, said he was obliged to refuse them. While their information might have been pertinent during the investigation, the stories they had to tell did not fit the framework of the current trial, he explained.
There was no word, meanwhile, of another man who had turned up a day earlier at the start of the trial to register as a plaintiff: he had been advised to find a lawyer.
For the moment then, there are no plaintiffs attached to the case. What appears to have once been a long list has dwindled to nothing after they either settled their grievances with Scientology or withdrew of their own accord.
But that does not mean that the prosecutors have to discard the stories they told investigators. They still form part of the case files, and as the judge confronted the defendants with those events that concerned them, the court got glimpses of those stories.
The third of the defendants, Hilde N.*, was called to the stand, one of two defendants following proceedings via the simultaneous translation of Flemish interpreters. With other interpreters assisting two defendants with English translations, the proceedings were accompanied by a steady background whisper in the different languages.
Judge Régimont started by asking the defendant to explain how she had got involved in Scientology.
“I worked in a computer company and they sent us to follow courses and that is when I got to know a Scientologist,“ she explained. The woman had been a member a long time and they became friends.
“I admired her attitude to life; the way she faced up to things in life,” she said. She herself had been raised a Catholic, but it was not always easy to respect their rules, she said: translating Catholic values to modern life was no easy task.
“I read several [Scientology] books on how to lead a happy life and that interested me enormously, so she took me to a conference at the Church,” she continued. “And there, I found an approach that suited me better than my Catholic upbringing.
“So I signed up for two basic courses: Overcoming Ups and Downs in Life and How to Raise Your Integrity,” she said. These basic courses gave her what she needed to decide whether or not Scientology was for her.
She decided it was: because while she was young, had a good job and plenty of friends, she still felt that there was something richer in life, something deeper, that she was missing.
And when was this, the judge asked: 1993. And had she been audited? Yes, she had. And while you were doing the auditing courses, were you advised to go further? No, said Hilde, it was me who decided to go further.
“Scientology contains an enormous amount of things, but Mr. Hubbard, in his Bridge to Total Freedom, said that you should take little steps if you really want to advance in this spiritual voyage.”
“Once you have reached a level of superior awareness, you start to take care of things that happen in the world around you.”
It wasn’t until 1999 that she signed up on staff for four years because they had urgent need of a Flemish speaker.
Four years? asked the judge. Not two-and-a-half or five, which he had understood to be the standard terms? That was true, she said: but towards the end of her contract she had had to withdraw because of health problems.
While on staff, she said, she was out at a lot of book fairs and conferences, informing people about Scientology. She and her colleagues had also organised a big Scientology exhibition where they got to show the Church’s activities.
“And in the Church itself I was on reception and did guided tours and I took care of organising Sunday services and monthly festivals, because in Scientology, there are quite a lot of those. And that is what I did in the first year.”
Then at some point, the president and director of the church, Vincent G. resigned. His designated replacement was not yet trained up for the job, so she stepped in as president and director of the Church of Scientology Belgium, for what was meant to be an interim period.
“My intention was only to be there for a few months, but in the end I was there for a year,” she said. But because of the workload she already had, she was supported by three assistants who helped and advised her. After that year, she stepped down to a lesser role.
Having left staff, from around about late 2003 she became active member, attending festivals and every two years going to the centre at Copenhagen or over to Los Angeles for advanced courses.
And how much had she spent on Scientology over the years? the judge asked. Around 40,000 euros, which over a period of 20 years came to around 2,000 a year, said Hilde. And in the years she was on staff she had received courses and auditing for free.
And did that sum include the International Association of Scientologists (IAS) payments? No, she said: the sum she had mentioned was what she had paid for religious services, auditing and Scientology materials such as Hubbard’s writings.
Judge Régimont wanted to know more about the IAS. Hilde explained it was an organisation of members dedicated to raising money to help the Church pursue its religious programmes.
“Once you have reached a level of superior awareness, you start to take care of things that happen in the world around you,” she explained.
The IAS was a non-profit, and the money it received was used to sponsor socially useful programmes: anti-drug campaigns, supporting human rights and action to combat illiteracy.
“What is important for me is to be able to contribute to the humanitarian works that the IAS does.”
“And how much did you invest in the IAS?” the judge asked. Around 25,000 euros over 20 years, Hilde replied.
But that was back in 1993, when she was already listed as a Patron of the IAS in Church publications, said the judge. “And you get to be a Patron of the IAS from which point?” he asked.
There were different levels of membership, she said: you could be a member for free for six months; and you could be a Life Patron for $20,000.
But she had paid $5,000 more than that, the judge noted. And that was only up to 1999. At that time, she said, she and Vincent G. were together, so they were listed as a couple. but they later separated.
“So you are no longer a Patron?” asked the judge. That struck Judge Régimont as a little unfair. “You should make a claim about that,” he suggested.
Hilde demurred. “What is important for me is to be able to contribute to the humanitarian works that the IAS does.”
The judge wanted to know whether Hilde had held the posts of director of the Church of Scientology Belgium and religious director in the Scientology Org chart. The first post is one of the legal requirements for running a non-profit in Belgium (Association Sans But Lucratif, ASBL); the second is one of the positions set out in the administrative structure devised by Hubbard, which all churches are required to follow.
Hilde replied that it was often the case that one person held both posts and she had too: on top of that, she had also been responsible for public relations. Her exceptional workload was one of the reasons she had three people helping her with her duties.
So when she was director, how did that work? The day before, Vincent G. had said that when he was in the post of president he had simply applied the writings of the founder, L. Ron Hubbard: he had not, he said, been receiving “mystical orders” from Los Angeles.
Hilde explained that at the time they had been a very small team “...and not everyone was always there. But I had a lot of people helping me.”
“The decisions you took, did you take them alone, or not?” the judge asked.
“All the decisions I took were always taken in consultation with my colleagues,” she replied.
That depended on what was being decided, said Hilde. “If it was a little decision -- who took care of reception, or cleaned the hallway -- that was a decision taken by a few people. And for more important decisions, such as paying the bills, there were my three advisors.”
Then Judge Vérimont turned to the heart of the case as it concerned her.
* 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 reasonable to respect that practice.
Photo of the Palais de Justice Interior, Brussels, Lawrence F White, CC Licence.