Four Scientologists presented themselves to the court at the end of the first week of the Belgian trial. Each of them said they had come forward, at their own initiative to bear witness to all good that their faith had done for them.
But their testimony also served in part to reframe the context of the debate so far.
Practices such as the Purification Rundown and Scientology auditing had been presented in their most negative light by the prosecution.
For the prosecutor, the Rundown, which involves taking large doses of vitamins and minerals, doing aerobic exercises and spending extended periods in saunas, constitutes the illegal practice of medicine.
Auditing, which Scientologists describe as a kind of spiritual counselling in which the auditee discusses often very personal details of their life too, was also problematic from the prosecutor’s point of view.
Part of the problem was that the often intimate details of these interviews were subsequently stored in what were known as Preclear, or PC files. For the prosecution, the storage of such sensitive information constituted a violation of Belgium’s strict privacy laws.
So for the defence, the point of hearing from these witnesses was to make it clear to the court that – whatever disgruntled former members might allege – plenty of ordinary Scientologists still thought the world of their religion.
Two of those who spoke were from the French-speaking community in Belgium; and two from the Flemish speakers. None of the four were members of staff, but parishioners; ordinary members who paid for their courses.
They introduced themselves as Evelyne Decavele, a 43-year-old business rep; Frédéric Abécassis, a 51-year-old businessman; 59-years-old Yves Paternoster; and Ria Claessens, a 52-year-old independent consultant.
Maître Pascal Vanderveeren, who was defending the Church of Scientology itself, led the questioning. The first thing he asked was simply: What has Scientology done for you?
“I found Scientology 10 years ago,” said Evelyne Decavele, a small woman with dark, short hair in a boyish cut.
She had been given a book, Dianetics, by a client. “I thought it was something new that gave me answers, and I asked my client to take me to a service,” she added.
“What I can say is that I got a tranquility of spirit,” she said. And yes, she said in answer to a follow-up question, she had done the Purification Rundown; and she had taken auditing both with and without an e-meter.
“The essential question is now I am in Scientology, I can experiment with my spiritual nature,” she added. “All these things I have done for 10 years have helped me understand myself better and have given me an inner peace – for me and for the people around me."
Frédéric Abecassis explained that he had got involved with Scientology back in the mid-80s through a Scientologist friend. After reading a couple of books, he wanted to learn more, he said.
He admitted that at first he had been apprehensive because of the things he had heard about Scientology. But he did a course, read more books, took other services and gradually became more interested.
“I feel better and better: in the beginning I was looking for something spiritual, and Scientology met my needs: answers at a spiritual level.”
Yes, he said, he had done the Rundown and had been audited using an e-meter (the court had just heard from another defence witness, an expert in religious law who had said that Scientology’s electropsychometer could certainly be considered a religious object).
“I have always been interested by spirituality,” he said: his father was Jewish, his mother Catholic. “I got the answers to the questions I was asking myself,” he added, referring to his time in Scientology. And while he had spent two and a half years on staff in the late ‘80s-early ‘90s, he was now just an ordinary parishioner.
Yves Paternoster, a tall, bearded man, said he had got involved in 1983 after coming across the book Dianetics and doing some courses. He bought an e-meter after deciding to become an auditor. And yes, he had done the Rundown.
“I feel better and better,” he said. “In the beginning I was looking for something spiritual, and Scientology met my needs: answers at a spiritual level.”
Ria Claessens, a bespectacled woman with light, short hair told the court: “Since I was little I was interested in spiritual questions. I asked questions like ‘Where do we come from?’ and ‘Where are we going?’.
“I was looking, looking, and finally I found a book, Dianetics … so I went to a Church and spent two hours talking, and this lady was very nice to me so I started a course.”
All this was in 1992, she added – and yes, she had done the Rundown and she had received auditing.
And what had she got from Scientology? “I have got a lot out of it insofar as I have had a lot of answers to the questions that I asked.” Relations with her family and at her work had also improved, she added.
Yes, she said, she had an e-meter, and in fact was training to be an auditor.
Maître Vanderveeren asked them if, in all the years they had spent inside Scientology, they had ever experienced any constraints. The question of constraints – how far Scientology interfered in the private lives of its members – had been at the heart of the debates that week.
“In 10 years I have never felt any constraints,” said Decavele. In fact, the spiritual experiences she had had in Scientology had only made her want to do more, to go further, she added.
When the judge had asked about the contents of the ethics files, defendants had told him that it could contain positive notes as well as a record of acts requiring disciplinary measures.
Decavele confirmed this: “My ethics file is fairly full of letters of thanks for the help that I have given,” she said.
Abecassis’ response was much the same. “I have never noticed any pressure in my experience of Scientology.” In the nearly 30 years he had been a Scientologists, there had been times when he was not present much and sometimes not at all, for long periods. “I have never had any pressure regarding that,” he added.
“I have an ethics file because that is part of the procedure,” he added. In his case, it had notes pointing out that he had sometimes arrived late, “...and I had notes from the people who had to wait for me,” he said to laughter in the courtroom.
“But I have also had positive notes for my activities – in fact much more than negative ones.”
“Constraints are not part of my universe,” said one Scientologist
For Yves Paternoster, the answer was very simple. “Constraints are not part of my universe, and if I felt them in Scientology I would no longer be part of Scientology.”
One of the aims of the Church, he said, was to restore one’s self-determinism. “So I don’t see how there could be constraints: that seems to me to illogical.”
As for his ethics file, he said, he did have one – and it was quite empty. “I arrive on time as I am fairly punctual… The ethics file exists with my consent, and I know its contents,” he stressed.
No said Claessens, she had not experienced any constraints or pressure in Scientology. “I know I have an ethics file. I know its contents, and it has negative points in it but a lot positives points too.”
And what did they think about the cost of Scientology courses, said Maître Vanderveeren.
“The donations I make correspond absolutely with what I get out of it,” said Decavele – and she reckoned she spent 4-5,000 euros year.
“I get something in return,” she explained. “It is not material, but it is so enriching spiritually, I can’t express it.”
“Ideally,” said Abecassis, “these kinds of things would be free, but given the material reality, it is not possible.”
But in any case, he added, the money they paid helped those people who were doing humanitarian work and social campaigning on behalf of Scientology.
Yves Paternoster said that when he gave to Scientology it was in the spirit of building the Church. “The religious work I think really has something to give to humanity, so the meaning of my contribution is to bring something to humanity."
It was perhaps true that the price was high, but he gave his contributions with a light heart, he said, “...and in the same spirit as the first Christians formed their first Church.
“There is no constraint,” he added. “It is a free act.”
Ria Claessens said that if she paid money to Scientology is was to help build her religion. She calculated that during her time as a member she had paid around 1,000 euros a year.
“I have always had a lot of admiration for those who do something for humanity,” she said. “I have not had the chance to do this kind of thing, so I want to contribute in my way.”
And did they, Maître Vanderveeren asked, feel that they were part of a criminal organisation? This was the most serious charge in the indictment against the Church, one which carried a possible penalty of dissolution.
“All I can add,” said Evelyne Decavele, “is that this is the reason I am here: to contest that accusation.” The others confirmed that this too had been their main reason for coming to court to testify.
The prosecutor, Christophe Caliman, had a question: did the witnesses have the feeling that they were giving evidence without any constraints?
Ria Claessens made it clear that she had asked if she could testify and the others concurred.
But supposing they had something to denounce concerning Scientology, Caliman said. “Could they do so without being sanctioned by the Church?”
“I can say what I like about the Church and I am certainly not punished for that.”
Evelyne Decavele said she had no problems with the Church. Claessens insisted: “I can say what I like about the Church and I am certainly not punished for that.”
So were they, asked Caliman, familiar with the March 17, 1965 Hubbard policy letter listing Suppressive Acts, which is to say high crimes against Scientology?
The list included:
– public disavowal of Scientology or Scientologists in good standing with Scientology Organizations;
– testifying as a hostile witness against Scientology in public;
– reporting or threatening to report Scientology or Scientologists to civil authorities;
– bringing civil suit against any Scientology organization or Scientologist;
– bringing criminal action
“Do they know anything about that?” asked the prosecutor. “And if so, what do they think?”
Decavele said she did not know what Monsieur le Procureur was referring to. “I am not aware of that. All I can say is that I am here of my own free will to defend my religion, and I have nothing further to add.”
Paternoster said he found the question “a bit academic,” because he knew they respected the law.
And if someone was in conflict with the Church of Scientology, they would already be outside the movement, so how could Scientology punish them? “I can’t see how that could apply,” he added.
Abecassis took a similar view. “If I really had something against them [Scientology], I would not want to stay to debate with them,” he said. “I would go to the authorities.”
Claessens, a Flemish-speaker, said she had nothing to say because the text was in French “...and I didn’t understand the question".
It was late Friday afternoon now, dark outside. More than a few people were anxious to get away for the weekend, and the autumn break.
Just a few minutes earlier, someone had been whistling loudly outside the courtroom, the sound echoing through the by-now mostly empty Palais de Justice.
Régimont, rather than sending an officer to chastise the offender, had simply remarked “Someone’s already on holiday,” which relieved the mounting torpor.
Now, he said: "J’avance dangereusement," but did anyone have any further questions? Nobody did.
Judge Régimont adjourned the proceedings and everybody filed out of near deserted courthouse.
Photo: PGC 29194 (Antlia Dwarf) galaxy by Hubble space telescope, by NASA