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Questions of Privacy

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Jonny JacobsenBrussels
Questions of Privacy
Day Two of the Belgian trial of Scientology: the judge questioned one defendant closely about the highly personal information investigators had found in members’ files.

Having listened to the defendant Hilde N.* outline her progress through Scientology during her 22 years with the Church, Judge Vérimont turned to the heart of the case, as it concerned her. She was accused of violating the rules regarding Belgium’s privacy laws. Did she have anything she wanted to say to that?

There was no data gathered or recorded, said Hilde.

Quand même!” the judge exclaimed: clearly he did not agree. There were the Preclear (PC), files, the Life Histories – and investigators had also found sensitive information in computer files, he said.

Preclear files contain the notes taken by Scientology’s auditors, or counsellors, during their auditing sessions with other Scientologists. Their contents often contain the kind of deeply personal information one might find in a therapist’s notes (or, to use an analogy that Scientologists would doubtless prefer, the kind of thing a Catholic priest might hear during confession). Life histories can also contain the intimate details of a Scientologist’s private life.

Hilde explained that she was not an auditor – the kind of Scientologist who dealt with such files – but she had read the writings of Mr. Hubbard about how to arrive at a higher religious awareness.

But the judge was more concerned with whether Belgium's privacy laws had been breached. “So if Mr. Hubbard says in one of his books … that things should be done in one way, then never mind what the law in a particular country says, is that it?”

“I think the Church way is that everything is done respecting the law,” she replied.

The judge reminded her that investigators had seized masses of documents during their searches of the Scientology offices and found private information on Scientologists both in the physical documents and in computer files. “So for you everything was in accordance with Belgian law?”

She mentioned another defendant, Myriam Z., saying that she had worked with specialist lawyers at the time to ensure that everything was in order. “For my part,” she added, “I have full confidence that everything was done according to the rules – and I should say that the Preclear files are written down and there is only one computer for mailings.”

Preclear files, she explained, were for the auditing notes: the things people had confided during the sessions. “I myself have never been an auditor but I have often been audited.” She could assure the judge that these people were professionals. She was quite comfortable confiding her intimate secrets to them and she had full confidence in the support the auditor provided.

It was nevertheless astonishing, said Judge Régimont, that the Church of Scientology seemed, in 1999-2000 to be completely ignorant of privacy laws passed back in 1992.

And what she was saying now was not quite what she had told investigators back in November 2002, he added. Back then she had said that, so far as the collection of legal, medical and sexual information on members was concerned, it had never been the aim to gather them for the Church. So that rather suggested that data was indeed being collected.

Hilde suggested that Myriam Z. might be better able to explain the system that had been put in place. But in any case, she wasn’t sure she saw the problem: given the nature of auditing after all, everyone knew what was in their file.

In auditing, as she had experienced it, she explained, “...if there is a good contact between the auditor and the person being audited, I can tell details of my private life, sexual life and my concept of life and the auditor can know it but I know what he knows because it was me myself who told him and it was with the aim of advancing spiritually.”

Obviously then, she knew the contents of her PC folder because it was what she had told her auditor, she said. But, she added: “I only told him what I wanted to tell him.”

“What you want to tell or what he wants you to, to reach a spiritual level?” asked the judge.

“When you start in Scientology, they tell you in advance how things are done, the how and the why of things,” she replied. “And I know that when I start an auditing session the auditor will put a number of questions and it is for me to answer or not answer.

“When the auditor puts these questions, it is most of all to help you understand yourself better and to help you find your own answers. Scientology is there to help people – and you can always help people. You can give someone who is hungry a fish, or you can teach them to fish,” she added.

“That’s Catholicism!” said the judge, to laughter.

“I’m not sure about that – because the court has to look at your credibility,” said the judge.

Did Scientologists use consent forms? he asked. Without doubt yes, replied Hilde – and in case of need there was a witness. And nobody was forced to go further than they wanted to. “I also have friends who have shown some interest, but have said they didn’t want to be audited and so they have done a book or a course,” she added.

Then Judge Régimont got down to specifics. Did she know of the BZ family? This would have been between 2000 and 2003, he said. She said she did remember them and recalled they had been Scientologists for years.

One of the family’s children, it seemed had wanted to take the Personality Test at a time when she was minor. Hilde it seemed, had had her sit the test: but since the girl concerned was still a child, by law, this required the prior consent of the parents.

Hilde said she had no memory of the incident with the Personality Test, but if a minor had taken the Personality Test then it would have been with the consent of the parents.

She also wanted to add that the family concerned were French-speakers, while she herself was a Flemish-speaker, which meant she would not have been dealing with them. “So it was not me. It was another Hilde.”

And the person who had shown the girl one of the introductory films at the centre, the judge asked: that wasn’t her either? At the time, she said, she did not speak enough French to be able to deal with a French-speaking family, she said. She named another colleague who would have taken care of them.

“The father and the mother and the brother did courses with us,” she recalled. In the meantime, the youngest, a girl, was getting bored. “I remember she helped us put mailings in an envelope and then she asked to see a film, because she was bored.”

“That is not what you said at the time,” said Judge Régimont. Years earlier, when she had been questioned by investigators, she had given a more detailed explanation of how one of the sons had seen a film on Dianetics, become interested and come to her to ask about details; and that she had started him on it after getting the consent of his parents.

“Now, for someone who didn’t speak French, that is a fairly detailed statement,” the judge remarked.

What the judge had to bear in mind, she said, was that between Scientologists a lot of the communication was done in English. But in any case, she said, the incidents in question dated back more than 13 years, so she could not remember in which language she had spoken to them, English or French.

“I’m not sure about that – because the court has to look at your credibility,” said the judge.

“The declaration dates to 2006,” said Hilde. “The events date to even further back. I saw these people at the Church and I perhaps spoke to these people but I certainly didn’t actively take care of these people.”

So the facts alleged against her as the prosecution had laid them out: so far as she had concerned, this was pure fantasy, nothing to do with what happened?

Monsieur Le Président, as a good citizen and a good Scientologist, if I committed a fault I want to assume my criminal responsibility. But in my soul and in all good conscience, as a Scientologist I have always tried to be a good person and I will continue to do so.

“Scientology has been enriching for me. I have become a better and more complete person: and the only thing I wanted to do was to transmit that to other people.”

After a 10-minute break, it was the turn of the prosecutor, Christophe Caliman to put his questions.

* 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.

See here for a complete list of the coverage so far.

Image credit: Palais De Justice, Brussels via free images(license)

#Scientology, #Belgium, #trial, #privacy