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Intimate Details

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Jonny JacobsenBrussels
Intimate Details
Who exactly has access to sensitive Scientology files containing personal information on members? The judge at the Belgian trial pressed one defendant for details.

Judge Yves Régimont had already asked Myriam Z. why Scientology in Belgium had not moved to comply with Belgium’s strict privacy laws when they were introduced in 1991.

As Director of Special Affairs (DSA) at the Church of Scientology in Brussels, that became part of her responsibility when she took up the post in August 1999 – just before the September police raids.

Now he turned to the question of the sensitive, deeply personal information on members scattered through the various Scientology documents that investigators had seized.

He started with the Preclear folders, which contain the notes of Scientologists’ auditing, or counselling, sessions (and so almost inevitably include intimate details of their lives).

Had she had access to PC folders as part of her work? Myriam said she had access only to her own PC file.

“But I mean more generally,” he said. “We have heard a lot about these files.” Some people had access to the files; others not, he added. “C’est un peu flou,” he said. (It’s not very clear.)

Were these files under lock and key? And was it the auditor and the ethics officer who had access to these files?

Judge Régimont was by now familiar with at least some of Scientology’s terminology: the auditor is the person who carries out the auditing, or counselling of a Preclear, who is a Scientologist in the less advanced stages of his or her progress up what believers call the Bridge to Total Freedom.

An ethics officer is the staff member whose responsibility it is to apply – and if necessary enforce – Scientology’s rules.

The auditor and the case supervisor had access, said Myriam. (The case supervisor oversees Scientologists’ progress through the different courses.) Sometimes another auditor might be asked to see a file, if that was thought necessary.

So as an auditor, she would have the right to look at a PC file, the judge concluded.

“Yes,” said Myriam. “If I am asked to, in a specific context.” But it depended on the context, she added.

“That is not important,” said Judge Régimont. “What is important is to know if you could.” (Presumably, he had the terms of Belgium’s strict privacy laws in mind.)

“So my question is to know if in an auditor-auditee relationship, is there access?” Could someone by virtue of being an auditor, have access to someone’s file – even someone they were not necessarily auditing?

“In specific cases, yes,” said Myriam.

Judge Régimont kept pressing: what kind of case?

She kept trying to explain – and now the list of people with at least theoretical access to PC files extended a little further: from auditors and case supervisors to someone called the technical supervisor.

Judge Régimont had the court clerk make a formal note: the auditor in theory had access to any PC folder, he began –

“No,” Myriam objected: “That is not accurate.”In a specific case, perhaps – not to all PC files, no.”

“I’m just going from the prosecutor’s files here,” said the judge. 

“But that contradicts everything that we have heard so far!” the judge objected.

He continued dictating to the clerk. As the person responsible for the DSA, whose duties include things to ensure the security of the Church of Scientology – and as an auditor too – she would have been in a position to consult the files of ‘x’ or ‘y’ who could be a problem for the Church, he said.

“No, I wouldn’t do that,” Myriam protested.

“But could you?” the judge asked.

“If there was a problem, it would be auditor or the case supervisor,” she said.

“But if there was a problem, you would be informed,” the judge replied. “What would you say? ‘Does this person have strange ideas?’

How would that work?” he asked.

“For example,” said Myriam. “A person says that he doesn’t want to continue with this service and that he doesn’t want to be audited and that he wants to stop his participation in the Church – and it stops there.”

“But that contradicts everything that we have heard so far!” said the judge.

He recapped what he had understood to be the case. “PCs files are personal and it is between the auditor and the auditee and then if someone says they don’t want to continue, the auditor says, ‘Careful Monsieur X wants to leave the Church’.

“Does that not contradict the confessional nature of the PC file?” he asked.

But they would let that person leave, said Myriam.

But that was not what the judge had understood from what she and other defendants had been telling him. He had an entirely different picture, a point he had made repeatedly during the first week of the trial.

What he had understood, he said, was that the auditor received sensitive information in the course of auditing people, and while the auditor was meant to be bound by the secret of the confessional, they could tell the case supervisor, who could tell the DSA – and it was the DSA, he said, who would determine if a person would pose a problem to the Church.

C’est quand même contradictoire,” he said. None of this squared with what Myriam Z. had just told him.

But it wasn’t like that, said Myriam. “If someone says ‘This is not my thing, I want to stop, auditing is not my thing, I want to leave,’ then it stops there,” she insisted.

That did not necessarily present a danger to the Church, she said. “It is just the way you arrange things so that person can leave the Church and you can do the necessary: delete his name from the file so he is not contacted again,” she added, by way of an example.

“That is what you say now,” said the judge. “But we have seen that if someone leaves the Church and does not ask to be wiped from the files…”

“There is a difference between a person who doesn’t come for a while because he had other things to do … and a person who says ‘This is not my thing’,” said Myriam.

“Personally, I know someone who had paid for a certain service but decided he didn’t want to continue and he asked for his refund," she added. "We refunded him and deleted his name from our files."

The judge returned to the case files.

“I know you are not directly concerned, but we have heard of Madame A.,” he said. He was referring to one case he had already discussed with other defendants, of a woman who had attempted suicide. Scientologists had tried to get her to sign a form clearing the Church of any responsibility.

But what particularly interested him was the possibility that information from someone's supposedly confidential file could be passed on to other people.

Surely that would be the kind of case that would have gone to the Director of Special Affairs' office, the judge suggested.

“That was before my time,” Myriam objected.

“But if it had happened during your time, would the DSA office have been informed or not?” the judge asked.

“If a person really doesn’t want to stay in the Church, it is important that the person can leave the Church fairly and serenely,” she replied. “You would be told that.”

Her lawyer, Maître Johan Scheers, stepped in. One her roles had been giving refunds, he said. The case files had referred to four confidential files, but what were their contents? Nothing more than correspondence relating to refunds, he said.

“I understand Maître, You will have a chance to explain your side," said the judge.

J’attends que ça,” Maître Scheers replied with a smile.

"The police were in the auditing rooms, the offices were placed under seal and we could no longer function as a church."

Judge Régimont revised the note he had been dictating to the clerk. Mme Z. was only informed by the auditor or case supervisor that someone wanted to leave – nothing else – and only because it was part of her job to handle refunds.

In no case would she receive information of a personal nature from either the auditor or the case supervisor, he added.

That seemed to satisfy the defendant and the judge turned to the next matter on his list.

During a search of her home, police had found documents at her home that related both to the investigating magistrate supervising the case and the prosecutor, Monsieur Caliman. What were they doing there?

“After the first police raids, the Scientology community was shocked,” she said. “That came after a complaint from a person who wanted a refund after two years, when he should have asked within three months.

"So they sent 110 police officers to our community of the Church of Scientology and with that too the press had been informed about it two hours before they started the search,” she added.

She had first heard about the raids when she was in her car and got a phone call from a journalist at around noon asking her about it. “I didn’t know what was going on.”

By the time she got to the Church premises at around 2:00 pm, there were police everywhere. “I was in shock and at the time I still didn’t know what was going on...,” she said. “I also heard later that they turned up at the addresses of several church members.”

“And several businesses supposedly linked to the Church of Scientology,” the judge added.

Yes, said Myriam. “It was really out of proportion – the fact that one person had filed a complaint.”

But the judge was not about to let that one pass.

“How did you know that it was out of proportion?” he asked. “You don’t know that it was just that. She said a lot more.”

“I didn’t know at the time,” said Myriam.

“So at the time, you could not know what it was about,” said the judge.

“We didn’t know at the time,” she conceded. “But afterwards we heard that it was only one person.”

“But you have read her complaint,” said the judge. “It was not just about the refund but for a whole series of reasons.”

“I read the complaint,” she conceded. “But that was before my time.”

But Judge Régimont insisted.

“She complained about a lot more than that...,” he said. “When an investigating magistrate receives a complaint with a whole series of issues, that is not trivial.”

“I don’t know,” said Myriam, “but the whole Church was paralysed. We couldn’t offer services. The police were in the auditing rooms, the offices were placed under seal and we could no longer function as a church.

“But these were press articles,” said the judge, “and – with apologies to the press – they are not always accurate!”

As we didn’t know what was going on, we wanted to know who this Van Espen was – and journalists gave us articles.” Jean-Claude Van Espen was the investigating magistrate who handled first part of the case. (1)

And black propaganda, the judge asked? The previous defendant, Martin W., had said it was not something the Church practised. Did she confirm that?

She confirmed her colleague’s position.

“We just wanted to know what was happening. We knew that Van Espen had spoken to a parliamentary committee but in connection with what we didn’t know.” (1)

They were concerned that the investigation of their activities be an honest one, without preconceptions, she added.

“But these were press articles,” said the judge, “and – with apologies to the press – they are not always accurate!”

“We just wanted to know what was going on,” said Myriam.

At the request of the defence, the judge had the clerk make a special note of the fact that the first she had heard of the 1999 police raid was from a journalist – and that before the raid had even started.

By now it was nearly 11:00 am and the defendant had been on the stand for the best part of two hours. The judge still wanted to ask her about the other affair – the second investigation launched years later and over which she had also been charged.

So after a brief pause, he resumed his questioning.

This time it was about the jobs ads that Scientology had placed in local papers; ads that had sparked the second investigation and another series of police raids.

* 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.

1) Van Espen testified before the parliamentary committee that looked into the issue of cults in 1996-7 (well before the first police raids on Scientology, in 1999). It is clear from even a quick perusal of the report that Scientology was not the first controversial movement he had investigated. An article in Scientology magazine Ethique & Liberté subsequently denounced him for having “testified against religious minorities”.

Photo: The Scientology case files from the Brussels courtroom (by the author).

#Scientology, #Belgium, #trial