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Private Lives

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Jonny JacobsenBrussels
Private Lives
Did Scientology really take Belgium’s privacy laws seriously? The judge at the trial of the Church pressed one defendant whose duties had covered legal issues.

The next defendant to face the judge for questioning was Myriam Z., the only one of the 12 individuals on trial named on both parts of the charge sheet.

The case against her and the Church of Scientology Belgium was a composite of two separate investigations that were eventually merged into one.

The first dated back to 1997, when the authorities opened an investigation into possible fraud and breach of trust after former members filed complaints against the movement.

The second was launched after Actiris, the Brussels regional employment office, filed a complaint in 2008 alleging that Scientology had used fake job ads to try to recruit members.

Myriam was from the Flemish part of Belgium. and while the proceedings were taking place in French, she preferred to speak to the court in her mother tongue. As he had with the other defendants, Judge Régimont started by inviting her to describe her progress through Scientology.

Her first contact, she said, had been through a friend who had given her a copy of Dianetics (a book by Scientology’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard). “I read the book in a month, and it seemed to me to be very interesting,” she said. (1)

At first she was just an ordinary member, she said, doing a few courses and having some auditing, (a kind of confessional-based therapy that Scientologists present as spiritual counselling).

“The pastoral advice was a great help in my life,” she said. “It helped answer a number of questions in my life.”

She worked teaching Dutch to adults. Judge Régimont consulted his files. She had also worked for U-Man, a company run by Scientologists along Scientology lines, he noted. She confirmed that she had started doing occasional work for them, eventually working with them as a consultant.

Pressed a little by the judge she conceded that, although she had been an independent consultant, for a number of years U-Man had been her only client.

By 1999, she had signed up as a member of staff at the Church of Scientology where, in addition to her normal duties, she worked on a voluntary, unpaid basis translating Scientology books into Dutch.

It was at this time that she came to occupy senior positions inside the Church of Scientology Belgium, including that of Director of Special Affairs (DSA). The DSA was a kind of local branch of Scientology's Office of Special Affairs, or OSA.

The judge had already expressed a great deal of interest in the OSA, asking one defendant in particular if it was not effectively Scientology’s security service: a claim he denied. Myriam too, described her duties as more in the line of public relations and media liaison activities. After the 1997 parliamentary report on cults, she added, there were a whole series of rumours about Scientology that had to be corrected.

“My aim, because I had had a positive experience of Scientology, was to put forward the positive side of Scientology,” she explained. She also busied herself handing out books on Scientology to the press.

“That is public relations,” said Judge Régimont. “But you had other roles. In 1999, you had a very important role that went beyond that.” He was thinking in particular of her job collecting information on the application of the laws concerning privacy.

He reminded her about the computer disc seized by investigators during one of the police raids on Scientology’s offices.

Earlier, he had questioned Martin W., another defendant about these discs. Martin, who at the time in question had worked for the OSA, had said that he had passed on the expert opinions gathered on the privacy laws to the different churches throughout Europe – including to the Church of Scientology Belgium.

Had she never questioned the need for the intimate information some Scientology forms required from members, the judge asked?

“It was Martin W. who gave you this information within weeks of you taking up this post,” the judge pointed out. Myriam acknowledged that the issue of privacy had landed on her desk soon after she had started, in August 1999.

The judge was curious as to why the then president of the Church, fellow defendant Vincent G. had not handled the matter. She explained that he was taken up with the day-to-day running of the Church. “It was the responsibility of the DSA to study this kind of thing and to see how it could be applied,” she added.

“And what did you do?” the judge asked. “Because according to the prosecutor, there is a problem.” (The prosecutor maintained that under Belgium’s privacy and data protection laws, Scientology had no right to stock the kind of deeply personal information contained in some of the files kept on members.)

“Martin W. said he did a global study and passed the information on to the churches,” Judge Régimont reminded her. “But the prosecutor thinks you did your job badly.”

Myriam seemed to think she knew what he had in mind: a case involving a certain Monsieur G., who had wanted his details withdrawn from Scientology’s database. She had been in contact with Belgium’s Commission for the Protection of Privacy to sort the matter out.

“I took care of this and I asked the person handling this file if there were other cases of this kind and that person sent me a file,” she added.

“Monsieur W. gave you a file: a study on respect for private life, saying that there might possibly be a problem,” the judge reminded her (he was referring to Martin W.). “He said it was of a general nature and that he had sent it to local offices,” he added. And from there, he had explained, it was for the individual offices to take appropriate action.

And that was where she came in.

“I take it you did more than contact the Commission for the Protection of Privacy,” the judge added. Had she acted on the information that Martin W. had sent her? Had she contacted a lawyer? “Did you take concrete steps to see how this legislation should be applied? What did you do, concretely?” the judge asked.

Her first task had been sorting out the problem with this Monsieur G., she recalled. After that, in September 1999, she had started looking at the issue of privacy – but that was when the police had raided Scientology’s offices, she pointed out. (2) And after they finally left, in October, it had taken them some time to get back to work, given the disorder.

But all this was in the 1999, the judge pointed out. The relevant law has been in force since 1991. Had the Church not studied this question before?

“I don’t know,” said Myriam. She knew that on their application forms it said something about religious files, but she could not recall exactly what it said.

“Before you arrived, who handled this kind of problem?” the judge asked. “Was there no one who took care of this before 1999?”

No one had had that particular job for a year before she arrived, she said. The judge looked surprised.

“It is, after all, an extremely important function,” he said. “It is a role that is the link between the outside world and the Church of Scientology Belgium.”

And he reminded her that for a long time Scientology had been seen in a bad light: not just by the media but by others. Had her predecessor not left any instructions?

Myriam said something about the police raid again.

“So it’s the fault of the police raid?” the judge asked.

She tried to explain that she had not had access to all the files when she had started her job that August; that this task had been just one of many; and that after the police raid she had had to try to cope with the negative press coverage that had followed.

“So the the raid prevented you from working?” the judge asked again.

“That’s it,” said Myriam. “There were very few documents left.” And because they had taken away all the files from the accountancy section, they had even struggled to complete their tax declaration for VAT.

The judge tried again: so she had got no help on how to handle the privacy laws once she inherited that responsibility?

And those forms she had had to fill in when she joined staff, forms like the Life History form: “When they asked you fill that in, did you not ask questions about it?” he wondered.

The Life History form includes extremely intimate questions: subjects are required, for example, to provide a list of their past sexual partners and any “perversions” practised.

She had filled in because the job she was about to take up required it, she said. “But yes,” she added, “I did ask myself questions.”

But then she explained: “From the moral point of view of you have to meet a certain standard – and also for people who are going to do auditing [Scientology counselling] they have to meet a fairly high ethical level.”

“So for you, in the end, to answer extremely personal questions – for you that was okay,” the judge suggested.

“I knew that it was not going to be used for anything else, so that posed no problem for me,” she replied.

The judge was not sure what she meant, so she elaborated.

“Because I have enough experience of the Church of Scientology that I could trust people most of the time,” she added.

* 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.

Detail from La Discrétion - Portrait of Pauline Appert, by Claude-Marie Dubufe, published under a Creative Commons licence.

1) Hubbard’s 1950 book Dianetics: the Modern Science of Mental Health was first book in the self-help field. Dianetics was a precursor of what became Scientology and was eventually incorporated into the later system. (The book is often simply referred to by the initials of its title, DMSMH.)

2) The police raid of Scientology’s Brussels offices was on September 30, 1999.

#Scientology, #Belgium, #trial