A Sacred Science
Judge Yves Régimont turned to the next of the defendants, Bernadette P.* She had worked on various staff posts, starting in 1990 as a case supervisor. Between 1998 and 2001 she had served in a more senior post: executive secretary of the Church of Scientology in Brussels.
Bernadette seemed much more sure of herself than the previous defendant; more alert and more willing to defend herself.
Asked by the judge to summarise her time in Scientology, she explained that she had trained as an auditor and then as a case supervisor. Auditing, she explained, was a kind of pastoral counselling.
“I want to put things in a more religious context,” she said, picking up a theme advanced the previous day by fellow defendant Vincent G.
“Why does what we do have to do with religious, or spiritual procedures?” she asked rhetorically. “The aim is that people should be more awakened and they should see themselves as a spiritual being…,” she said.
The whole point of auditing and Scientology’s Purification Rundown, which the judge has already asked other defendants about, was about making people more more awake, more alert, “For us, this is something spiritual,” she said.
Towards what end, the judge wanted to know. Towards a greater sense of well-being, Bernadette replied. Towards a greater sense of awareness.
Bernadette launched into a defence of Purification Rundown, the programme, devised by Scientology’s founder L. Ron Hubbard, which combines aerobic exercises, sessions in the sauna and increasingly large doses of vitamins and minerals.
Her main contention was that there were toxic elements stuck in the body that were preventing people’s spiritual progress – and that the Rundown was designed to fix that.
Judge Régimont had already mentioned that the case files contained doctors’ reports critical of the Rundown. Bernadette however, had no doubts about Hubbard's claims for the programme.
“We have found that, scientifically, [toxic] residues remain in the body and so the person will be less alert than they could be,” she said. The whole point of the Rundown was to remedy that, making the subject more aware, more alert and thus better prepared for auditing.
But staff always made it clear to people entering their premises that they were in a church and that the courses they were doing were part of a spiritual path.
More generally, she said that Scientologists considered people to be spiritual beings, and that Scientology training was about teaching people how to act on their environment rather than just reactint to it. The Rundown was part of that broader mission.
“Did you have enough knowledge of the consequences?" the judge asked.
Judge Régimont brought the discussion back to specifics.
He wanted to know more about the medical checks people had before doing the Rundown. “When you send someone to a doctor, have you had doctors who have said, ‘No this is not for you,’?”
Certainly, said Bernadette: there had been people with kidney problems who had been told by doctors that they could not do the Rundown.
She had already said that people were not pushed into it, that they requested it when they thought they were ready; and that there was a kind of informal interview to decide if they were eligible. But the judge wanted more detail.
“So how can you tell that the person is sufficiently strong?” he asked.
She decided on the basis of whether the person had had enough psychological training, she said – by which she presumably meant auditing. And if she thought they were ready, she would send them along to a doctor with a book or a leaflet about the Rundown.
But surely, said the judge, she could not expect the doctor to read the book. Were the patients meant to tell the doctor about the large quantities of vitamins and minerals they would be taking on the Rundown?
“I remember when people went to the doctor there was a very simple flyer,” Bernadette replied.
And during the Rundown itself asked the judge, who decided on the daily doses of vitamins and minerals? Did she think she had sufficient medical knowledge?
This was a path the judge had been down with other defendants already: and since the illegal practice of medicine in relation to the Purification Rundown was among the charges, these were not idle questions.
Bernadette said she was not sure that this was medicine.
The judge had the clerk note it down: “Madame P., says that so far as the information given to parishioners for the daily vitamins, she did not consider that it was … medicine.”
“Already, for me, ‘medical’ means medicine, and the Purification Rundown was not that,” Bernadette added. “We were dealing with healthy people.
“Did my mother practise medicine when she gave me cod-liver oil when I was a child in winter?”
That did not satisfy the judge.
“The fact that you were giving people vitamins at doses that rose to quite high levels: did you have enough knowledge of the consequences?” he asked.
“Or did you say, ‘Mr. Hubbard said that, he has doubtless experimented – it must be okay.’ Was it a bit like that?”
“More or less, yes,” said Bernadette. “When we received instructions on doing the Purification Rundown, we had information that Ron Hubbard had worked with scientists to test it.”
She mentioned a scientist she had read about who had won a Nobel Prize for his work on Vitamin C. Through her own reading, she said, she had learned that the problem was not with vitamins themselves but getting the right balance.
Niacin, one of the vitamins used in the Rundown, has the power of dissolving toxic residues, she explained. That was why a person doing the Rundown took a little dose of niacin, she explained. (Niacin is vitamin B3.)
“That is in the book?” asked Judged Régimont. He seemed to be referring to Hubbard’s book on the Rundown, Clear Body, Clear Mind, mentioned earlier during the trial.
Yes, replied Bernadette.
“But it is not necessarily a scientific book,” said the judge.
He dictated another note to the court clerk. “The defendant, considered that insofar as it was a book by Mr. Hubbard it was scientifically valid and was corroborated by her personal reading.”
“Did you never ask the question, ‘Am I doing something stupid here?’”
Bernadette added that she had had discussions with other Scientologists about daily doses for vitamins and she had been told that there was no law had been passed on that matter. “I did not think I could break a law that did not exist,” she added.
Judge Régimont pressed on.
“Were the doses that Mr. Hubbard had set out susceptible to change?” he asked. “You had no medical knowledge so I want to know how you could dare take responsibility for something like this.
“Did you never ask the question, ‘Am I doing something stupid here?’”
Bernadette did not answer the question directly. Instead, she went into a detailed exposition of how a person who had LSD might relive the hallucinogenic effects of a trip as he did the Rundown, as the niacin took effect and forced the remains of the LSD out of his body. But that person would eventually get through that experience and emerge more alert, more aware.
So the guide to whether the Rundown was working was how the person was feeling? That did not strike the judge as very scientific. Or was it just up to the person supervising the programme?
Bernadette stressed that after every session, the person doing the Rundown would have an interview with the supervisor.
“But his supervisor is in a sense his person of reference, who is guiding him,” the judge objected. “So I have a hard time seeing this person disagreeing.”
“That has happened,” Bernadette assured him. “The person has said, ‘Since yesterday I feel much better. I think we can pass to the next stage.’”
Judge Régimont changed tack, asking how much the Rundown cost.
Sold as part of a package, with two sets of intensive auditing (12 and a half hours each) it would cost 150,000 Belgian francs, Bernadette answered (about 3,700 euros).
That struck the judge as interesting. He mentioned the name of a Mme B., the very first plaintiff, whose complaint had effectively launched the investigation against Scientology.
She had said she had paid 150,000 Belgian francs to do the Purification Rundown (around 3,700 euros). Yet all the Scientologists had told investigators at the time that the price Mme B. had cited was nonsense. Now, from what the defendant had just said, it seemed plausible.
“So this plaintiff is perhaps not talking rubbish,” he said.
At one point in his questioning, the judge picked up on another thread in the file.
Why, he wanted to know, did the fact that someone had had psychological or psychiatric problems make them ineligible for the Purification Rundown and for auditing?
Surely excluding people who were psychologically fragile amounted to abandoning responsibility for them. “Can Scientology not help them?” he asked.
“People who have had breakdowns are people who have been weakened and I don’t see myself taking them on,” Bernadette replied.
“So they don’t have their place in the Church of Scientology?” asked the judge.
“I think people who have had breakdowns could very well have relapses," she added.
“You could have had problems in the past and been cured a few years later,” the judge suggested.
“Personally,” said Bernadette,” if someone who has been fragile and has had relapses, I don’t think I can take care of them.”
“So for you,” the judge concluded, “it is normal that psychologically fragile people should not be allowed to take Scientology courses.”
Then Judge Régimont mentioned the name of another woman, a Mme V.
Thus far, the judge’s habit had been to start with general questions, move to specifics and then to save the really difficult issues for last: it quickly became clear that he had entered that final phase.
* 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.
Picture by Steven Depolo, creative commons licence.