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Justice and Ethics

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Jonny JacobsenBrussels
Justice and Ethics
The judge in the Belgian trial of Scientology reduced one defendant to tears as he pushed him to justify the Church’s ‘meddling’ in its members’ private lives.

Judge Régimont had been questioning Stéphane J.* for some time already when he began pressing him to explain why Scientology insisted on getting involved in every aspect of its members’ private lives.

Stéphane had done his best with the first few cases, of which he had some personal knowledge, but Judge Yves Régimont kept supplying more examples. Now he cited a case in which a couple doing courses had been told to break up.

“Is that normal when the main aim of Scientology is to help people progress spiritually?” asked the judge. “Why keep meddling in people’s private lives, and then keep saying ‘You have to do this” or ‘If you don’t do this, then that,’?... Or am I wrong?”

“As a Church we try to help people,” said Stéphane.

“Up to a point, that’s fine,” the judge replied. “But there’s helping and there’s insisting! Why do you meddle so much in people’s lives?” the judge asked again, somewhat exasperated now.

“The aim is to help people,” Stéphane said again, a little flustered. “And 99 percent of the time, everything goes well.”

The judge was still not satisfied. “Here’s what I mean by meddling in private lives,” he said. And he raised the issue of Knowledge Reports; documents that Scientologists are required to write denouncing any acts by other members that violate the Church’s ethics code.(1)

Judge Régimont cited one particular Knowledge Report about two members of staff who had gone on holiday together. It was not quite clear what their supposed offence was, but a report had ended up in the woman’s ethics folder, a kind of disciplinary file Scientology keeps on each member, listing any transgressions of the Church’s ethics code. (2) The judge named the person concerned and Stéphane was familiar with the case.

We are talking about people’s private lives, here, the judge pointed out.

“You are quite right,” said Stéphane.

“But it is in her ethics file!” said the judge.

“But that doesn’t mean – ” Stéphane began.

“– What is it doing there?” said the judge.

The person concerned had received a copy and the matter had been resolved, said Stéphane. “You are saying that it shouldn’t be there [in the ethics file] and you are right,” he continued. That was something the chaplain should have handled – but the judge had moved on to another case already.

As the judge laid out one example after another, Stéphane did his best to field his questions.

“These elements have been taken out of context,” he said of another case, in which a couple had been advised to separate. The man and his wife had been receiving marriage counselling, he explained.

“A kind of marriage counselling?” said the judge. Scientology seemed to get involved in every aspect of its members' lives, he noted: debt management, marriage counselling ... the word emmerdeurs came up – which can loosely be translated as pains-in-the-arse. Judge Régimont was working up a head of steam.

“Why not just let them leave?” he asked again. “What bothers is me is this interfering in the recesses of people’s private lives. Once they are in, they have to stay and you do everything you can to ensure that they stay.

“You try to get students back because they ‘haven’t understood’; members of staff, because they ‘have not respected the procedure’,” the judge continued. “But there comes a time when you have to stop.”

When Stéphane tried to explain one complaint by a former member by saying the person had been “annoyed” at the time, the judge only became more irritated.

“Why do you have to – at all costs – meddle in everything that concerns a person?! Why? Why? Why? That is my question! If people don’t want to be helped, well too bad for them,” he said.

“The only thing that I wanted to do was to help people,” he said, in tears.

The judge ran through the charge sheet: fraud, extortion, illegal practice of medicine and more… “So for you, this trial is complete nonsense?” he asked.

Stéphane was by now, struggling to maintain his composure. “All the things I did, if they were illegal it was my responsibility,” he said. He paused, as the tears came to his eyes.

“Take your time, Monsieur,” said the judge, noting his distress. “You’ve got all the time you need.”

But Stéphane was by now weeping unrestrainedly. It was a moment before he could continue.

“For 17 years, the only thing that I wanted to do was to help people,” he said.

The judge turned to the court clerk and had her make a formal note of Stéphane’s remarks.

Now it was the turn of the prosecutor, Christophe Caliman, to put his questions.

“Can you continue?” he asked Stéphane.

“I’ll do my best,” the defendant replied. But he was clearly still shaken. Caliman suggested a pause might be advisable and so Judge Régimont called a five-minute recess.

As it turned out, Stéphane got plenty of time to recover his composure. When Caliman produced a CD-ROM packed with Hubbard’s policy letters for the use of the court, the ensuing legal arguments took up a good 20 minutes.

Several members of the defence team refused the copies he offered them: how were they supposed to digest such a mass of documents at such short notice? The prosecutor insisted he was only trying to help. These same documents were already scattered in the case files among the documents seized when police had raided Scientology premises, he assured them. Not all the defence lawyers were convinced, however.

The judge did not appear moved by the defence objections (“I think perhaps we are making something out of nothing” he remarked), but they were duly noted by the clerk. Only then was Caliman able to start questioning the defendant.

He started by saying that one thing that had struck him was the frequency with which Scientologists were asked to write up their overts – confess their sins – especially when they were under financial pressure. Why was that?

Had it never occurred to him, Caliman asked, that when people were in Ethics (being disciplined) and under the threat of being disconnected (kicked out of Scientology and cut off from any contact with members in good standing) they were effectively being unduly pressured to submit overts, or confessions, that could sometimes contain very sensitive material? “Does that strike you as normal? What is your personal opinion? I know you will say that Hubbard wrote it.”

It was a long and convoluted question, like many put by the prosecutor. But Stéphane got the gist of it.

“This is something we do very routinely,” said Stéphane, “and we put it in the Ethics file, that is all. A person who is in a Condition of Danger writes up his overts and withholds to try to establish what is not going right in life,” he added. (A Condition of Danger is a negative status that an Ethics Officer in Scientology will assign to someone who is not doing their job properly.)

So if you were working, said Stéphane, and something was not going right, this was the formula you applied to fix the problem. He himself had written his Overts and Withholds (Os & Ws) at least once a month, he said – and not necessarily because an Ethics Officer had asked him to do it.

It still struck the prosecutor as as strange, however. He might want to discuss a sensitive issue at work, said Caliman, but he would not expect his boss to tell him to write it up.

“‘I never felt so bad in my life’,” said the prosecutor, quoting one Scientologist's account in the case files.

“Do you consider it normal,” he continued, “that Hubbard wrote that any person who refuses to answer a question on an e-meter must be put in the hands of an Ethics Officer and put before a Committee of Evidence with a summons? Do you find it normal that if someone refuses to cooperate, that they can be subjected to discipline?” (3)

When Stéphane protested that the prosecutor was quoting documents out of context, Caliman offered to read him the whole thing. “The rest is worse,” he assured him. And all these overts, these often intimate, compromising documents, were in Scientologists’ Ethics folders, he added.

“But it is not the same thing,” said Stéphane. “It is written in a particular situation. It is not that I have a particular interpretation. You can ask anyone in Scientology – they have all written up their Overts and Withholds, and they understand that it is only going to be used to help them advance spiritually.”

Caliman consulted his papers and quoted a part of a statement from a Scientologist: “‘They ask me to write up my Overts and I feel like throwing up,’ he read. “When you are an outside observer and you read that, …”

“I know that person,” said Stéphane. “Ask them now. That was how she felt at the time, but…” There were reasons for that kind of reaction, and Hubbard had talked about it, he continued. There was a proper way to handle the situation so that when that same person was asked to write up their Overts, they would do so with no problem.

Caliman went back to the case papers. “‘I never felt so bad in my life’,” he said, quoting again from the document in front of him. This passage made him think of someone who was in real pain, he said.

“But that is what they overcome during the process,” said Stéphane. “That can happen during the process. I don’t write my Overts and Withholds because I’m fine, but because there is something I need to confront.”

“But don’t you think it is even harder when there is an Ethics Officer on your back?” asked Caliman.

“There are two things: Justice and Ethics,” said Stéphane. “The Ethics Officer is there to help the parishioner resolve a problem: he has all the Ethics technology to help the parishioner to resolve the situation.”

But if the parishioner continued to commit offences (faire n’importe quoi) then the Justice element took over, he added. And that was only normal.

“No, it’s not normal,” said the prosecutor. “As the judge said, is it really necessary to force people to ‘improve’ at whatever cost?”

“If someone comes into Scientology it is because they want to improve themselves,” said Stéphane. And if that was so easy, there would not be any need for Scientology.

Here, Judge Régimont stepped in again. “But as I said earlier, one gets the impression – once someone has taken the decision to see what Scientology is, and has done a certain number of courses and at some point has decided that it isn’t for them – one gets the impression that once that threshold has been crossed, your mission is to do whatever it takes to get them back on the right path, even if that is not what they want.”

“No,” said Stéphane. “If someone really wants to stop then they can.” And he cited the example of one former member who had filed a complaint against Scientology before returning to the fold.

And with that they were done.

* 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 (due on March 11). It seems only fair to respect that practice.

(1) “Knowledge Reports” Hubbard Communications Office Policy Letter, July 22, 1982. Critics, including former members, denounce Knowledge Reports for the way they say they are used to control Scientologists.

(2) Earlier, one defendant had insisted that the judge had the wrong idea about ethics files: that they also listed Scientologists’ meritorious conduct: see “Scientology’s ‘Gentle Ethics”’.

(3) “Refusing an e-meter check” is listed as a misdemeanour in Scientology’s, which puts it at two on a scale of four on Scientology’s list of offences (with four the most serious). “Offenses & Penalties”: HCO Policy Letter, March 7, 1965.

Photo of the Palais de Justice, Brussels, by Romainberth under a Creative Commons licence

    #Scientology, #trial, #Belgium