Recruiting for the Ideal Org
The last of the defendants to be questioned by the judge was Jeannine V.
Like her fellow defendant Myriam Z. who had been questioned that morning, she had been charged in connection with the job adverts Scientology had posted in the local press.
Many of those who had applied subsequently told investigators that while they had applied for what they thought was a salaried position, there was no paid work to be had.
Jeannine V. had been charged because at the time the ads were placed, back in 2007, she had been the executive director of the Church of Scientology Belgium. The president then was Myriam Z.
There had already been some confusion that morning as to exactly who did what in the Church. So Judge Yves Régimont started by asking exactly what her responsibilities had been at that time.
“I handled the proper functioning of the church,” she said, “coordinating with the different executives to make sure the parishioners got their services.”
“That is the religious aspect,” said the judge. “But when I asked Mme Z. about her role as president, why did she not know about the hiring of these people?”
“Personally, I don’t know exactly what her role was,” Jeannine said of her fellow defendant. “I was only interested in seeing her about legal affairs.”
“So who took care of the everyday running?” the judge asked.
“I was head of the Church of Scientology Belgium and ensured that everything ran properly,” she replied.
As was his habit for what he thought were key points, Judge Régimont had his clerk make a formal note of the response.
“When someone in the Church of Scientology decides to put an ad in two papers announcing that the Church of Scientology is looking for administrative workers, you know about this, yes?” (1)
Yes, said Jeannine: she did. The judge had the clerk note that down too.
So whose idea had this venture been?
Jeannine explained that the idea in the Church of Scientology was to develop what were known as Ideal Orgs (Ideal Organisations), or ideal churches. In 2005, it had been announced that the Church of Scientology Belgium would become an ideal church.
“The Ideal Org is one that doesn’t just have a lot of people but where a lot of people can come to learn about the religion,” she added.
“An Ideal Org has a lot of members – and we didn’t have enough,” she added. “We were trying to get more Scientologists to be active members and there were not enough parishioners.” (By parishioners, she meant ordinary members paying for services rather than those on staff.)
“It was important in the future to have an ideal church,” she added. The fact that Brussels was to become an Ideal Org had even been announced at an international event.
“So you were given an objective: that the Church of Scientology Belgium become an ideal Church,” said the judge.
Yes, said Jeannine: in 2005, (the year the announcement had been made).
“The ad was legally correct... but perhaps not very clear...,” she said. “But we never, never, never forced anyone to stay.”
“For the Church to be promoted in this manner, one of the criterion was to have ‘x’ number of active members,” the judge concluded.
“Is that not the world turned upside down?” he asked. “Would it not be better to look for a Church that better fit the bill and say they would be an Ideal Org?”
“Not necessarily,” said Jeannine. “There were sometimes little churches.”
“So that implies that a church that is put forward by the international officials says ‘You are going to have the label of quality’. So you say ‘Great’, but you don’t have enough members – so you create parishioners?”
Yes, said Jeannine.
“That is strange, though,” said the judge. “Because according to the doctrine of Scientology, you are members of the Church, you believe in the principles of Scientology, so you become a member: that is the normal process.
“So is it not contradictory to go to the outside world with an advert with absolutely no mention of Scientology? To approach people on the outside who want to work, but who don’t necessarily want to be Scientologists? Isn’t that contradictory?”
“When we placed the ad then people came and people knew that it was Church of Scientology,” said Jeannine. “There was a panel that said so at the entrance, and I made sure people knew where it was.
“From the beginning people knew that it was the Church of Scientology, and if they wanted to leave they were free to do so, and it was not about hiding anything. It was about our philosophy … that was the aim.”
“But that is not what people were telling us,” said the judge.
“I will explain it,” said Jeannine.
“Yes,” said the judge. “You were right in the middle of this...”
“These people were not happy,” said Jeannine. “When I was director of the Church, a lot of people were happy to work for us and there was only a complaint from one woman who was promised 700 euros and I said ‘No that’s not possible, that is for members of staff…’”
And when they realised the ad was not clear, they changed it, she added.
“But then you put exactly the same ad in the main daily, in another section,” said the judge. “And people turned up looking for work. There were some who signed membership forms who didn’t want to and others who worked for nothing.”
The first ads had run in the summer of 2007, he noted. They were corrected in February of 2008: eight months later. “You say that you corrected things, but you didn’t,” he added.
“The ad was legally correct, yes, but perhaps not very clear,” said Jeannine. “But when people – if people wanted to go, they could, and perhaps half the people left after seeing the film. But we never, never, never forced anyone to stay.
“It was clear that there was not a salary, that there was never a salary,” she added.
Judge Régimont produced another court document.
He reminder her that earlier, Mme Z. had said that once someone left, that was it: you left them alone. But another disillusioned job-seeker, Monsieur S. had told investigators that he would get phone calls from the Church of Scientology from time to time asking him to come back.
These calls came from different people – but notably from Jeannine herself, said the judge.
“No,” said the judge. “That’s not what he said… You say white and this man says black, or near enough.”
“This gentleman was working in the Church for a few months and I often spoke to this gentleman, and what he says now I find a little astonishing,” she replied. “Perhaps I contacted him to ask how he was…”
“No,” said the judge. “That’s not what he said. He said you wanted him to buy more books. You say white and this man says black, or near enough.”
Judge Régimont took her back to what she had said earlier. “You said this was voluntary work,” he reminded her. But this Monsieur S. had told investigators that no one had ever said it was voluntary work.
“That astonishes me,” said Jeannine.
Her lawyer, Maître Pierre Monville, intervened. “He went back on several parts of his declaration,” he pointed out. The gentleman’s status was illegal, he added, “...so his position can be called into question.”
“That it is an element,” the judge conceded. “But it is not just one person but several people.”
Nevertheless, said Maître Monville, given its specific nature – but that hit a nerve with the judge.
Perhaps he should change his way of conducting the trial, he asked rhetorically: just check the names and addresses and go to legal arguments. He was referring to objections some defence lawyers had raised earlier to the way he had chosen to question the defendants. (He had not been happy then, either.)
For a week now, the defence had been complaining about one thing or another, said the judge. “And now you question elements from the file?”
In 15 years he had never had any remarks about his way of working. “Who is leading the debate?” He was visibly irritated now.
The defence would get its chance to argue its case, he said, but in the meantime, they needed to stop telling him what he could use in the case files.
And now he produced another document, for the lawyer's benefit.
“Maître Monville,” said the judge. “This is Madame V.’s declaration.” And he read from a summary of an interview his client had had with investigators.
Why, they wanted to know, had she had job-seekers sign a document that said: “I declare my allegiance to the Church of Scientology”?
This is what she replied, said the judge: “I suppose we must have made a mistake.”
So Mme Z. was blaming Mme V., said the judge, and Mme V. was blaming Mme Z....
Jeannine tried to answer. “In February two thousand–” but, overcome with emotion, she could not complete her sentence. By now she was in tears.
There was a pause while she took time to recover her composure, and when she was ready, she explained.
“In February 2012, I was arrested by Danish police and put in prison, and the investigating judge detained me for 10 days and I could not speak to any of my Scientology colleagues and I was so ill-at-ease.”
She was forbidden to speak to anyone she said. She felt her religion was being destroyed.
“And perhaps I said things I should not have said, I don’t know if what I said was right or not," she added.
The federal police, she explained, had contacted her twice and she had said that she wanted questions in writing. “And then I was arrested and detained.”
“Madame,” said the judge. “When you are summoned once, twice, three times and you don’t come, are you surprised that he has you arrested?”
“It was clearly said that it was not a work contract,” she insisted. “So all 161 people misunderstood,” said the judge.
But had been waiting for an answer to her letter, she said. “I had my work in Copenhagen.”
So what you are saying is you were not behaving unreasonably, said the judge.
“It was difficult for me,” said the defendant.
“Bien,” said the judge – which suggested he was ready to move on.
“People say it was you who gave the orders,” he told her.
“Not necessarily, no,” said Jeannine.
Once more, he referred her to the accounts given by the job applicants: they said they had been led to believe they were applying for paid work, which it was not; it was not even administrative work, as advertised; and some people felt that they had been pressured into working when they did not want to.
He raised the example of a Monsieur B. who had been put to work in the Scientology bookshop along with some other recruits. “I wanted to leave because, after three weeks I had been paid 30 euros,” he told investigators.
“‘Jeannine told me,’ ‘Jeannine told me’,” said the judge. “That’s a lot of people who didn’t know that they were not going to be paid.”
“I remember this gentleman vaguely,” said Jeannine. “He came from time to time but very irregularly and I looked after the bills because I handled the books and if he needed me he came to me.”
“No,” said the judge. “He came to see you because he did not want to do sales. Perhaps he is talking nonsense.”
He picked up another account from a job-seeker: and this lady’s status was not illegal, he added pointedly: nor had she ever gone back on her account.
She had answered the advert in Vlams and been put to work on the phones, organising appointments for the next wave of respondents.
She later told investigators: “I remember that I told some people who came towards the end not to come, that it was a scam."
And this, said the judge, was from someone who was supposed to have been convinced to become a volunteer.
Jeannine protested that she had never tried to hide anything. “If she signed a membership declaration, it was because she wanted to,” she added.
“But all these people thought they were signing a work contract: that is what they are all saying,” said Judge Régimont.
Jeannine did not accept that. “It was clearly said that it was not a work contract,” she insisted.
“So all 161 people misunderstood,” said the judge.
“All these people were free to leave, even if they had signed for two and a half years,” she replied.
Judge Régimont quoted another job-seeker’s statement. “This person asked me to clean the façade of the church. I refused and she got angry.”
“I think that is a bit exaggerated,” said Jeannine.
Maître Monville also stood up. “We should not generalise. Things are more nuanced,” he said.
“That is what I’ve been hearing from the beginning,” said the judge. He awaited the defence arguments with impatience, he added. “Because frankly, at this stage… phtt!”
“What does that mean?” asked one of the defence lawyers, ready to take umbrage.
“That I await your explanations,” the judge replied. And with that, he adjourned the hearing.
* 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.
Photo: "Galeries de façade du palais de Justice de Bruxelles" by Jean Houssen, under a Creative Commons licence.
1) This appears to be a slip of the tongue by the judge. In fact the Church did not identify itself in the advert, as he had established that morning and pointed out again just a few minutes later (see above). For the exact text of the advert see “No experience necessary…”