Judge Yves Régimont had started by letting Marc B. explain his role in Scientology when he worked at the Brussels human rights office. Having established that, he was ready to step up a gear and present him with some of the more problematic cases presented to the court.
So what were his thoughts on those cases he had already set out to his fellow defendants, the judge wanted to know? Judge Régimont had been left with the distinct impression that once you entered Scientology you were taken in hand, to the extent that you simply had to reach the next level, “at any cost”, whether you yourself wanted to or not.
“When you look in as an outsider…,” the judge added. He did not finish his sentence, but he had made his position clear earlier that day: why, he had asked repeatedly, did Scientology insist on meddling in people’s private lives?
“What do you say?” the judge wanted to know. “‘You don’t understand?’”
Maître Pascal Vanderveeren, the lawyer for the Church of Scientology Belgium, did not look best pleased at this line of questioning. That was perhaps understandable given how some of the previous defendants had struggled to answer the points the judge had put to them. (More than one had been reduced to tears.) Marc B. however, seemed happy to answer.
It was very difficult for the court, he said. The judge could only deal with what was in front of him, which was the prosecution case, even if he was not obliged to take the same line. “I’m not a specialist in law,” he continued, “but if I look at the people who have made these complaints, what do I see? I see that they were people in the church.”
Whether their complaints were justified or not was another matter, he added. For as soon as you had someone who had left a movement, you were dealing with an apostate, and evidently there was a tendency to “burn” what they had once adored, he said. (1)
“But if you talk to the Scientology community, you get a completely different story. They will tell you ‘I went to see the Ethics Officers and they helped me’,” he added. (Ethics officers in Scientology deal with contraventions of the church’s rules.) “But I understand that you put this question,” he added.
The judge did not seem satisfied. Could he not understand that a certain number of people were not just saying that they did not believe in Scientology any more, but that they had been swindled, he asked?
“I don’t know what happened to these people,” said Marc B. “‘C’est un sujet merveilleusement vain, divers et ondoyant que l’homme’,” he added, quoting Montaigne (“Man to be sure, is a wonderfully vain, diverse and fickle subject”). (2) “But that does not shake my attachment to Scientology,” he said. “I and my wife were given so much by Scientology.”
Perhaps some mistakes had been made, he conceded: but we were dealing with human nature
“I was broken, physically and psychologically,” one former member had told investigators...
Judge Régimont referred to his papers and set out another case, one he had not previously presented to the court. This concerned a former Scientologist, a Monsieur P., who had been an active member between 1980 and 1987.
He had told investigators that there had come a point, around 1986, when he had realized that the Church of Scientology Belgium was under constant pressure from the mother org in Los Angeles to get people to buy courses and books – but mainly books, because that money would then be paid up to Scientology’s Denmark-based publishing wing, New Era Publications.
The more senior orgs wanted more books than services to be sold, so more money would be channeled up to them, Monsieur P. had told investigators. It got to the point that money originally paid to buy services would be diverted for the purchase of books, to maximise the sums moved abroad. But reassigning money from services to books required the consent of the parishioner.
Staff at the Brussels org were put under constant pressure to get parishioners to modify their original purchases accordingly. “We were obliged to convince them to change the destination of the money; to get them to buy books,” Monsieur P. had explained. So they passed on that pressure to their clients until they complied.
Even some of the money allocated to buy services would be paid up to the more senior Copenhagen or Los Angeles organisations. The rest went towards keeping the lights on at the Brussels org.
Monsieur P. had told investigators that once he had realized what was happening, he had asked for an investigation – a committee of evidence, in Scientology parlance. This was his way of denouncing the practice through the approved Scientology channels.
Instead what had happened was a team of senior Scientologists had arrived from Copenhagen to replace him and ordered him to Copenhagen for “ethics handling”. In short then, he was to be disciplined for having blown the whistle.
Monsieur P. refused to go, preferring to quit his staff post before his five-year term was up: that meant that the Church expected him to pay for all the Scientology services he had received free while a staffer. He preferred to break all contact with them.
Soon afterwards he received a document saying he had been declared a “Suppressive Person” – an enemy of Scientology – the harshest sanction that can be applied to any Scientologist. (3)
“I was broken physically and psychologically,” Monsieur P. had told investigators. Being declared suppressive, being excluded from Scientology, had left him feeling like he was less than nothing, that it was the ultimate punishment, It had taken him three years to recover, he said.
Judge Régimont looked up from his file at Marc B. “This man was ill and he was excluded,” he said. Here was a senior member of staff “...who notices something wrong in the Church in Belgium and who reports it to his superiors.
“‘We are there to help people’,” said the judge, reminding Marc B. of what his fellow defendants had been repeating throughout the trial. But how had Monsieur P. been treated? He had been ordered off to Copenhagen for “ethics” handling.
“I wasn’t there,” said Marc B. “I don’t know what he did or didn’t do. Was he honest or dishonest? Did he behave badly? I have a more than 50-years career in Scientology, and I have only seen people who were treated correctly, with just a few exceptions, here or there.
“You have before you a community made of people who are honest and who want to help people. So if there is a Monsieur P., well, I don’t know what he did, this man.
“Scientology has brought so much to me as a spiritual being, and that is no small thing – as an immortal, spiritual being,” he continued. “So put things in context.”
As for this Monsieur P., he added: “He did what he did,...” and in any case, “I don’t think that the Church of Scientology can be tainted with this because this is something for him to sort out.”
“So if I understand correctly, it is partly his fault,” said the judge.
Yes, said Marc B.
If a person wants to leave, they can, the defendant insisted
“But this is not the only example in the file,” said the judge. “Perhaps hundreds of members are very happy,” he said. “But are we not in a system in which once someone becomes a bit difficult… you have to do everything to get them to change their opinion, or punish them or exclude them?”
“Since we are talking about systems,” said Marc B., “the objectives of Scientology are very clear… that people acquire a sense of spiritual plenitude.
“Scientologists are responsible people,” he added. You only had to look at what they did in society: their campaigns against drugs, for human rights, their humanitarian work. “Everything in Scientology goes to helping others.
“We have spoken a lot about ethics,” he continued. “Every Scientologist understands very quickly that if they do not conduct themselves in a moral way, they cannot progress in Scientology and so in Scientology that is what characterises the group. Mutual aid; helping others – and personally, that is my main aim, to advance my religion for the salvation of souls.”
When the judge returned to the question of how hard it seemed to be to walk away from Scientology, Marc B. insisted. “Once someone says ‘No’, it’s no.”
Pressed on this point, he added: “We consider people not only by their body but as immortal spiritual beings. If you see people that way, that gives you a sense of responsibility and so if someone decides to leave, you will do everything you can to persuade them that there is a path in Scientology.
“But those who want to, stay, and those who don’t, don’t. Hubbard,” he added, “says clearly, if a person wants to leave, let them leave.”
“But clearly that is not the case,” Judge Régimont objected. From everything that he and the others had said, it was clear that they believed that they had something that could save people, he said. “But should you save people even when they don’t want to be saved?”
If they punished someone, it was for their own good: he got that. But why did they do absolutely everything they could to persuade a dissenter that they were wrong and Scientology was right?
“That is not what we want to do,” said Marc B. “If a person wants to leave, they can… and in any case, you can never keep someone against their will. Never.”
The judge suggested that Scientology’s ferocious efforts (acharnement) in trying to talk people out of leaving the Church might, in the end, be counterproductive. Might they not have had “fewer problems, fewer complaints from unhappy people,” if they had not persisted in trying to convince people to stay?
“Is it not that people are so disgusted that they have to say ‘That’s enough, look what they have done to me!’?” After all, that was just what Monsieur P. had ended up doing, he pointed out.
“No, no,” said Marc B. “It has happened to me that unhappy people came to me and we have talked, and some people stayed and some people left… But if a person has come to Scientology and leaves, we have a responsibility to find out what went wrong – and I don’t think there is a single religion that would let people leave, just like that. We have a responsibility.”
“That is normal,” said the judge. “But if after all that, they still want to leave, do you really have to insist that they stay?
“Perhaps I’m missing something, but I understand the reaction, ‘Bon Dieu! Bon sang! Do you absolutely have to impose your vision of the Church?!’.”
“I understand what you are saying,” said Marc B. But these accounts he was drawing on were from the prosecutor’s file. “In fact, if people want to leave, they can.”
“Saint Remy baptising Clovis”, from the Musée de Picardie in Amiens. Photo by Pethrus under a Creative Commons licence.
See here for a complete list of coverage so far.
(1) This is appears to be a reference to a well-known account of the 5th-century baptism of the Frankish king Clovis into the Catholic faith. “Courbe la tête, fier Sicambre, adore ce que tu as brûlé, brûle ce que tu as adoré.“ (Bow your head, proud Sicambri, adore what you have burned, burn what you have adored.”)
So far as the plaintiffs to whom Marc B. was referring are concerned, they all either settled with Scientology or withdrew from the case before it came to trial. But the prosecutor was still able to use what they told investigators to build a criminal case.
2) I’m not sure if he quoted this full passage, but it runs: “Certes, c'est un sujet merveilleusement vain, divers et ondoyant, que l'homme. Il est malaisé d'y fonder jugement constant et uniforme.” (Man, to be sure, is a wonderfully vain, diverse and fickle subject, on whom it is hard to form any fixed and uniform judgment.) From Montaigne’s Essais (1595).
(3) Members in good standing have to “disconnect” with anyone declared suppressive, which means they must have no further contact, or risk being themselves declared suppressive and in turn excluded.