Fighting the Good Fight
The next man up might have been forgiven for being a little apprehensive. The previous defendant after all, had been reduced to tears at one point by Judge Régimont’s close questioning. There was no trace of nerves however, from Marc B.*
At 84 years old, he was the oldest of the 12 individual defendants on trial in Brussels. One of the 11 who attended the proceedings – a 12th man, based in France, did not attend due to ill health – he never missed a session.
More than once during the trial, defence lawyers referred to Marc B. as le sage: he was considered the wise man in the community of Scientologists gathered in court. His fellow defendants also appeared to treat him with a degree of respect, deference even, that was not just due to his age.
He was always impeccably turned out and while the attention of some of his colleagues sometimes wandered, Marc B. followed the proceedings attentively throughout.
And while his lawyer, Maître Quentin Wauters, regularly checked with his client during recesses to make sure he was holding up to the rigours of the long, court sessions, he never appeared to have any complaints.
So when Judge Yves Régiment called him to give his testimony, he showed no signs of apprehensiveness: indeed, he seemed to relish the prospect of finally having his say.
Some of the others on trial had struggled to do more than offer the same stock phrases in response to the judge’s more pointed questions: there was a lot of talk, for example, of some of the more problematic documents the judge quoted having been taken out of context. Whatever the merits of the argument, it did not gain much from being repeated in much the same fashion by successive defendants.
Marc B.’s answers were, inevitably, along similar lines, but he seemed to do a better job of presenting his case. He listened carefully, spoke clearly and offered a defence of his church that went further than that of his colleagues.
Judge Régimont started by asking him about his position in Scientology in the mid-1990s, the period covered by the charges. “I have heard of the Sea Organization,” he said. “What was your role? What is the Sea Org and its role?”
Marc B. took his time. He decided, after all, to take the seat he had initially declined. He cleared his throat discreetly and he began speaking.
He had arrived in Belgium in 1996, he said, but before that he had served in Scientology’s Sea Organization until his retirement in 1993. Explaining his decision to join the Sea Org, he said simply: “I decided to devote my life to what was most important to me.” The Sea Organization, he said, was “a fraternal religious organisation in which members devote all their life to Scientology”.
And how was it different from other parts of the Church, the judge asked?
“It is a slightly different order in that the Sea Organization is responsible for the higher levels of Scientology,” he explained. And if he said that, he added, it was because he had heard a lot of things over the past few days of the trial… He didn’t finish his phrase, but it was clear he thought that the previous exchanges had muddied the waters and he was keen to set the record straight. He wanted, he said, to talk about the true aims of Scientology.
“Scientology is a religion in which Scientologists find their salvation and it is that which one should put to the fore in this affair,” he said. Dismissing the prosecution case against the Church of Scientology in Belgium, he said: “It is like blaming a fireman for water damage.”
“In Germany, it was discrimination, pure and simple,” said Marc B.
Marc B. explained that he had been in the United States in the mid-1990s when he began to hear about what was happening in Europe. In Germany, children were being sent home from school because they were Scientologists, he said. One local authority had even tried to force people people to sign documents that they had not done Scientology courses, a so-called filter that the Church denounced as an attack on their religious freedom. (1)
“At that point I thought no, oh no – because part of my family died in the 1940s,” said Marc B., referring to the the Holocaust. (2)
“You mention Germany and filters,” said the judge. “Is there not some kind of filter for people who either want to enter Scientology or leave Scientology? Scientologists also have people sign a certain number of things in documents.
“I can understand what you say about discrimination,” he added, “ but can we also say from another point of view, the prosecutor’s, that in Scientology they also make people sign things?”
“These things are completely different,” Marc B. replied. “In Germany, it was discrimination, pure and simple.” Scientology had subsequently won lawsuits on the question that had recognised Scientology as a religion and not as a commercial operation, as some German officials had insisting on characterising it. (3)
As for the documents in Scientology, he said: “Any organisation needs a certain amount of administration.”
“You speak of discrimination,” said the judge. “We spoke about that yesterday. We have spoken a lot about the aims of Scientology to help people up the Bridge. You talk of discrimination, but is there not the same discrimination when you say to someone who has psychological problems, ‘You can’t come in’.”
This may have been a reference to the case of Mme V., discussed earlier, when a woman who was in a state of distress, possibly due to postnatal depression, was refused Scientology processing. The judge had discussed it with Bernadette P., the woman who had turned her away, and with the president of the Church of Scientology at the time in question, Stéphane J.
Or he may have been referring to a more general Scientology policy banning the organisation from auditing people who had already received extensive psychiatric treatment. In any case, Marc B. did not accept his point. (4)
“Not at all,” he said. “We never close the door. They can still take part in religious services. As a minister I carry out marriages, funerals,“ he added. People denied the therapeutic side of Scientology’s teachings (such as auditing) could still do “co-religious courses”, he said. “There are multiple possibilities.”
“And you don’t have to pay, necessarily?” the judge asked.
“Not at all,” Marc B. replied. “The door is always open – just as my door is, as a minister.”
“So the limitation for psychiatric [cases] is for the courses they can follow? For the rest, anyone else can have access to events, and so on?” Judge Régimont asked.
“If someone comes in who is visibly deranged, it is certain the Church is going to look closely,” said Marc B. “But there are people who suffer from different problems who come to the Church and stay there.”
The judge asked him to continue with his account of what had brought him back from the United States and Marc B. explained that he had become a member of Scientology's European Office for Human Rights. This was a precursor to the Church's European Office for Public Affairs and Human Rights, which along with the Church of Scientology Belgium, was one of the two organisations targeted in the indictment.
“The first reaction is – ‘You are a Scientologist?’ – and they look at you sideways. So my role was to reach out and communicate.”
Questioned by the judge, Marc B. was clear that even if at one point he was working out of Church of Scientology premises in Brussels, the human rights office and its successor were both entirely separate, independent entities from the Church. In the context of the trial, given that both the Church and the rights office faced charges, that was an important point. (5)
“So there was no link between the two entities?” the judge asked again.
“No, no, no, not at all,” Marc B. replied. There was the Church of Scientology Belgium, and then there was the rights office, which operated at a European level.
Asked about his position relative to Martin W., another defendant who had worked in the European Office for Public Affairs and Human Rights, Martin B. explained that he worked under him. (Martin W. had yet to be questioned by the judge.)
And if he returned from the United States in a response to what he saw as the deteriorating rights situation in Europe, what part did his new role in Belgium play in that problem, the judge asked? “What were you going to do to make things better?”
His job, said Marc B., was director of interreligious affairs – and as such he had many contacts with other religious leaders.
“So you had nothing to do with what we have been discussing regarding the Church of Scientology Belgium, etc – you are totally independent?” the judge asked again, just to be sure.
“Every Scientology org is responsible for its own running,” Marc B. replied. “What I did was contact other religions to show them what Scientology was and to influence on the European level.”
“So you did a bit more than Monsieur A.,” said the judge, referring to a defendant he had already questioned, Fabio A. “One of your objectives is to promote Scientology,” he pointed out.
Marc B. preferred to nuance it. “You could say that, but it is more specifically that there is contact with religious leaders to show them what Scientology is. If they learn about it through the media they get a completely distorted picture. The public is completely ignorant about what Scientology is: they learn about it by hearsay. My job was to go to people and help them understand what Scientology is – and also to mobilise them on the theme of religious freedom.”
The judge was curious about this. “You consider yourself a religion, fine,” he said. But how did he go about approaching different religions, such as say Catholics and Muslims? “Can you be Catholic or Muslim and a Scientologist at the same time?” he asked. When you looked at the Middle East, you did not get the impression that the different religions walked hand in hand, the judge remarked.
Scientology was still just a baby compared to a religion like Catholicism, Marc B. conceded. “But when I got to know Scientology, it immediately helped me in my life … and when you find something that is good for you, you want to share it, and so I started to give courses in Paris.”
Now, he said, he was a visiting lecturer at a college in Anvers (Antwerp), a Catholic establishment, contributing to a course on comparative religion, where his presentations were appreciated, He was happy to work with them to promote freedom or religion, he added.
Part of his work, he said, had been simply to dispel the misconceptions about Scientology. “The first reaction is – ‘You are a Scientologist?’ – and they look at you sideways. So my role was to reach out and communicate.”
Having established Marc B.’s role in Scientology at the time in question, Judge Régimont stepped up a gear. As he had with the other defendants, he started presenting him with some of the more problematic cases that had brought the case to court.
* 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 reasonable to respect that practice.
Photo, Galeries de façade du palais de Justice de Bruxelles, by Jean Housen, Creative Commons Licence.
See here for a complete list of coverage so far.
(1) This appears to be a reference to a move by Hamburg officials to filter companies and individuals they did business with: before they signed contracts with outside businesses, they wanted to ensure that they had no links with Scientology. The Church there successfully challenged the practice in the courts, arguing that it was violating the city authority’s duty to remain neutral on religious questions. For a Scientology account of the affair, see this piece from its Freedom magazine. Here you will find the text of a leaflet the German embassy in Washington issued to counter some of the criticism levelled against Germany for its treatment of Scientologists at the time.
Ursula Caberta, who for years ran Hamburg’s task force monitoring Scientology, told me that the so-called “sect filter” was not so much about stopping people having contact with Scientology but getting assurances that a company was not using the “technology” of L. Ron Hubbard. “For the business world, it was important,” she said, because they wanted to keep those ideas out of their operations. The mobilisation of the German authorities was in response to the activities of WISE, the World Institute of Scientology Enterprises, to import Hubbard’s teachings into the German business world.
She confirmed that Scientology did win one case in Germany, but added that they had lost a case that they tried to bring against her in Florida (personal communication).
(2) In an open letter to the then German chancellor Helmut Kohl drawn up in December 1996, Scientology drew parallels between his government’s treatment of Scientology and the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews in the 1930s. It was signed by a number of American celebrities including Dustin Hoffman, Goldie Hawn and Oliver Stone. Published in the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times, it provoked an angry exchange of letters at the Times and a protest from journalists at the Tribune, who took out their own ad to disown the full-page ad their paper had run.
(3) The Germany embassy leaflet quotes a judgment that ruled precisely the opposite: that Scientology, at least as it operated in Hamburg, “...was not a religious congregation, but clearly a commercial enterprise”.
(4) The judge may have been thinking in broader terms, of a Scientology policy that made it clear that its teachings were to make the capable more capable, but not to cure the mentally disturbed. In a 1976 policy letter, L. Ron Hubbard declared it a high crime for a Scientology org to treat anyone who has “...an extensive institutional history which includes heavy drugs, shocks of various kinds and/or so-called psychiatric brain operations.”
Later in the same document, he explained: “Doctors are too often careless and incompetent, psychiatrists are simply outright murderers. The solution is not to pick up their pieces for them but to demand medical doctors become competent and to abolish psychiatry and psychiatrists as well as psychologists and other infamous Nazi criminal outgrowths." (Illegal PCs, Acceptance of, High Crime PL, December 6, 1976.)
(5) While European Office for Public Affairs and Human Rights was on the initial indictment, prosecutor Christophe Caliman dropped the charges against it during his closing arguments later in the trial. By the end of the proceedings, the only organisation left was the Church of Scientology Belgium, accused of criminal organisation: Caliman called for its dissolution. (For more see “Shut Down Scientology in Belgium: prosecutor”)