As Judge Yves Régimont’s questioning of the defendant Patricia R.* drew to a close, Maître Pascal Vanderveeren stepped forward.
Vanderveeren represents the Church of Scientology in Belgium. He commands a certain respect among his peers as someone who has served as bâtonnier, whose job it is to moderate disputes between his fellow lawyers – not to mention his work with the International Criminal Court. So when he had something to say, the court was more than usually attentive.
“We are at the heart of religious practice insofar as these things are concerned and there was some consternation in court during the discussion,” he told the judge. Maître Vanderveeren appeared to be indicating not just the defendants, but some of the Scientologists in court to support them seated on the public benches behind him.
The suggestion appeared to be that the judge’s questioning of Patricia R. regarding the e-meter – the device used by Scientologists during their counselling, or auditing sessions – had upset some of the Scientologists present. Judge Vérimont had not appeared convinced of the e-meter's efficacy.
This, he said, was why he had wanted religious experts to be able to come to court to explain these matters. “I am the lawyer of the Church of Scientology, but I have to remind the court that for now the Church of Scientology is a religion.”
This of course was a reminder that the prosecution regarded his clients as a criminal organisation. The suggestion appeared to be that the judge’s line of questioning was leaning too far in that direction – and away from consideration of Scientology’s status as a religion.
Judge Régimont stood his ground. Maître Vanderveeren may well be defending the Church, he said: but the defendants were on trial for a certain number of criminal offences, he said.
But would he have done the same if they had been Catholics, Vanderveeren wondered. “Would you debate the secrets of the confessional?”
The judge replied that he thought it perfectly reasonable that he put these questions in a bid to better understand the case.
But this particular defendant had not been in the Church of Scientology for 10 years, said Maître Vanderveeren.
Already at the start of the trial the previous day, Maître Vanderveeren had offered to give a 20-minute presentation to explain exactly what the Church of Scientology was.
Judge Régimont had turned him down, saying he would have all the time he needed to set out his case. “The court does not have to be taken by the hand,” he had told him.
Then on Tuesday morning, at the start of proceedings, some of the defence lawyers had raised another issue with the judge.
He had, they said, been asking some defendants general questions about how Scientology operated that had little bearing with the charges they personally faced.
Judge Régimont replied that the defendants had already been questioned during the investigation about the facts as they concerned them: he had the relevant transcripts.
What he was interested in finding out in court was how the Church of Scientology worked – precisely because the Church in Belgium was itself among the accused.
He could always handle this case à la Flamande, he added: simply establishing the defendant’s identity and their reaction to the charges before moving to legal arguments. But personally he preferred to dig deeper, to try to understand.
Now however, Maître Vanderveeren, was offering the judge what he called une mise en garde sympathique – a friendly warning – regarding his line of questioning.
“The defendants here feel that their religion is on trial...”
Judge Régimont however, was running out of patience. “The court is trying to find its way,” he said, clearly irritated. If the defence wanted, of course, he could always switch to the basic approach: name, plea and legal arguments. “I have no problem with that,” he added (though clearly he did).
Maître Vanderveeren gestured apologetically to his colleagues: “I am not in this alone,” he replied.
Then the second of the two prosecutors, Jean-Pascal Thoreau stood up. Up until this point, the court had not heard from Thoreau. His colleague Christophe Caliman, who had followed the investigation for more than a decade, had put all the questions.
Thoreau however was angry and he did not mince his words.
“I am somewhat astonished at your intervention,” he told Maître Vanderveeren. The defendants were being asked perfectly appropriate questions considering the facts of the case and the offences listed on the charge sheet.
“She said she was an auditor and that she handled the Purification Rundown, “ said Thoreau of the defendant, Patricia R. So the questions put did not seem to him to be unusual.
For Maître Vanderveeren to stand up and tell the court that they were dealing with a religion did not, then, strike him as at all helpful, “... and if you want to talk about lack of objectivity –”
“– I don’t think I asked any questions that were outside the file,” said Judge Régimont, breaking in on the prosecutor’s verbal broadside. “These questions seem to me to be legitimate and they seem to be pertinent.
“The court’s job is to decide this affair,” he added. “It is our job to decided if the case stands. If I cannot put questions that are perhaps difficult, then I can stop putting these questions and I can just take note of the names and ask for their reaction to the charges. That is okay with me.”
But as one defence lawyer pointed out, since the judge had closely questioned three of the defendants, he could hardly switch to a more cursory examination of the others.
“The defence will have plenty of time to correct the line of fire,” said the judge. “Either you let me put my questions or not.”
Another defence lawyer intervened. Everyone here was of good faith, and wanted the trial to proceed in a tranquil and transparent manner. But frankly the way the investigation had been taken over by the prosecutor’s office…
Thoreau tried to intervene again, and again Judge Régimont headed him off.
Another defence lawyer stood up: he too was only interested in a tranquil and transparent debate. But frankly, the given the way the prosecutors had gone after the defendants… if they had been Catholics or Muslims it would have been indefensible.
“The difference is criminal association,” the prosecutor growled.
Once more, Judge Régimont broke in to try to restore the tranquility and transparency that everybody insisted they wanted.
Maître Vanderveeren and his colleagues had made their points, he said. But he was not going to let the reaction of Scientologists in the courtroom determine his line of questioning.
Maître Cedric Vergauwen, Patricia R.’s own lawyer, was still not happy. “The defendants here feel that their religion is on trial,” he said. “So it is understandable that people feel hurt.”
He offered by way of example the way the e-meter had been discussed, and the word “dérision” came up: which means much the same in French as it does in English.
Thoreau, for the prosecution, objected that it was perfectly normal to ask questions about the e-meter.
“Be careful how you put your questions,” Maître Vergauwen replied.
"I did not want to do anything illegal"
There were a few more exchanges between the defence lawyers and the prosecution and the main thing that emerged was that for Scientologists, the e-meter was a religious instrument, a sacred object: so the defence team was calling for a little respect.
Finally, Judge Régimont drew a line under the debate, which was threatening to flare up once more. He was sorry, he said, if his line of questioning had shocked anyone. And with that, he adjourned the proceedings for lunch.
When the court reconvened in the afternoon, he finished off his questioning of Patricia R. What did she have to say in response to the charges she herself faced: of fraud, non-respect of the country’s privacy laws, belonging to a criminal association and criminal conspiracy?
“I am very disturbed by a lot of things that concern me in the file,” the defendant replied. “I don’t feel I’m a crook. I’m not a crook.” If it turned out that she had done illegal things then she would have to accept that. “But I don’t feel I’m a crook.”
“So you acted in good faith?” asked the judge.
“If it is really illegal then I did it … but I did not want to do anything illegal.”
Her lawyer, Maître Vergauwen, wanted to know about her departures from Scientology: she had been in and out of the Church several times.
When Judge Régimont asked her about that, it emerged that she had several times dropped out of Scientology for periods since first joining it in the late 1970s: but it had always been her choice and she had never been put under any pressure to return, she said.
Then in 2005, she had quit as a member of staff in the wake of the criminal investigation because she wanted to be clear on what she did – and did not – have the right to do.
“I want to know,” Patricia told the judge. “I don’t understand.”
The judge dictated another memo to the clerk of the court. “Madame says she left all her posts in the Church of Scientology in 2005, wanting to know at the end of this trial if the acts that she had done in the Church of Scientology were legal or not.”
And had she been under any pressure to withdraw? Not at all, she replied. The judge made a note of that, too.
The prosecutor, Caliman, asked her few questions, but he had an elaborate way of framing them that confused her, so he did not get the clear answers he was seeking.
She could not help him with his final question either: Were there procedures that you had to go through before you got your money back?
“I don’t know,” said Patricia. “I don’t understand.”
* 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 reasonable to respect that practice.
Photo of the e-meter courtesy of 'Salimfadhley', Wikimedia, Creative Commons licence.