'A Flawed Investigation'
On Monday morning, Day Eight of the Belgian trial of Scientology, Maître Pascal Vanderveeren was the first lawyer in court ahead of the day’s hearing.
The lawyer for the Church of Scientology in Belgium, he would be opening two weeks of arguments by the defence. And since the prosecutor, Christophe Caliman, had called for the dissolution of his client, the stakes were high.
A week earlier, the Caliman had returned from two weeks sick leave to deliver his closing arguments. He had looked, if anything, even paler than usual.
He delivered his arguments in a low, often indistinct monotone, overran his allotted day to lunchtime of the following day and declined to submit a written copy of his arguments. None of this endeared him to the defence lawyers.
His rushed, garbled delivery provoked protests that he was making their task impossible: many of his legal references had been hard to catch as he sped up his delivery to try to beat the clock. But on more than one time when they objected to the speed of his delivery, he pointed out the time pressure he was under.
Judge Yves Régimont was not best-pleased either that despite constant reminders that he was not advancing quickly enough, the prosecutor had failed to respect the timetable. It was a difficult day and a half, and few people left the court that week in the best of temper.
As the defence team launched two weeks of arguments Monday, it quickly became clear that for them, this was symptomatic of a much broader problem: for them, it spoke to a fundamental flaw with both the investigation and the prosecution of this case.
But Maître Vanderveeren started off with a more general tour of the subject.
Scientology, he argued had to be seen in the context of time and place from where it had come: the post-war United States, which after having saved Europe from the Nazis, was entering a period of post-war prosperity and rapid scientific progress.
And in the United States, he reminded the court, they still do things differently than in Europe. “The United States is, in a sense the religion of money,” he said. “So that is the context that should influence your thinking on everything that concerns the Church.
“We need to put the Church in that context,” he continued. “A context that is perhaps completely alien to Belgian culture.”
And one needed to keep that in mind when one examined the writings of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, he added. This was a social issue, he explained, and those writings “...come from another country that had a different relationship with money and control”.
He cited the late Bryan Wilson, former emeritus professor of Sociology at Oxford University who had written extensively on Scientology and considered it to be a church.
He cited a passage from a 1997 Italian Supreme Court ruling throwing out the convictions of a number of leading Scientologists there on the grounds that the lower court had failed to address the question of religion.
That court, said Maître Vanderveeren, had compared the 12th-century thinker Thomas of Aquinas’ attempts to reconcile faith and reason with Hubbard’s efforts to reconcile the modern with the spiritual.
“Hubbard, the father of Scientology, what did he do?” he asked. He had applied modern techniques to the question of salvation, he said.
So the scientific aspects of some of Hubbard’s writings did not contradict the religious nature of Scientology, he concluded. If the court could not get past mocking the e-meter, he warned, it would never understand anything about Scientology. (Earlier in the trial, the judge had asked some hard questions of one of the defendants about how it was supposed to work.)
“This text – ‘Fair Game’ – no longer exists.”
Turning to the prosecution case, Maître Vanderveeren said he had ignored the issue of religion. Nor was that the only problem, he added.
Perhaps he had been a bit tired, he said, but he had not heard the prosecutor explain why he thought the Church of Scientology was a criminal organisations. “And then he wants it dissolved! Oh la la!”
It was almost as if the prosecutor had filled out his indictment by picking up every religious aspect of Scientology, he continued: the Purification Rundown; auditing; the e-meter. “Each time there is a religious practice, ‘Hup!’ You can put it on the charge sheet.
“I’m sorry, but what we heard last Tuesday and Wednesday: c’était un peu fort, le café,” said Mtr Vanderveeren (meaning the prosecutor had come on a bit strong).
The prosecutor, in his repeated citation of Hubbard’s texts, had often been selective in his quotes. One passage, as he had quoted it, simply had Hubbard saying that the first stage of auditing consisted of taking control of the pc (preclear, a Scientologist in the early stages of auditing).
What the prosecutor had neglected to add was the very next phrase, to the effect that the idea was to help the pc to learn to control himself better than before.
He cited as his source Hubard's The Fundamentals of Thought, and this appears to be the passage he had in mind.
The earliest stage of auditing consists in taking over control of the preclear, so as to restore to the preclear more control of himself than he has had. (Chapter 15)*
Other documents, which the prosecutor had labelled secret and not for the sight of ordinary parishioners, were in fact available in the Church’s library and available for purchase, said Mtr. Vanderveeren.
He had also spoken of the policy of Fair Game (an often-cited policy letter that authorized Scientologists to take off their gloves and go after their enemies using any tactics they feel necessary). “This text – ‘Fair Game’ – no longer exists,” said Mtr. Vanderveeren. “Poor interpretation by the prosecutor.”
He picked up on something one of the defendants had said. “‘A religion is something you live. It is not something you read in a book, it is something you live,’" he said, quoting her words to the judge earlier in the trial. Turning to her, he added: "Thank you, Mme P.”
It was a very important point he insisted.
In the afternoon, he turned to what he said were the flaws in the investigation.
The 1997 parliamentary inquiry into cults had said there were 4-5,000 Scientologists in the country; that was down to around 600 today, thanks to the long-running investigation and the constant media coverage.
And this little church had been earmarked to be an Ideal Org, said Mtr. Vanderveeren, a reference to Scientology’s plans to transform the Belgian church into one of its showcase centres.
The investigators had made much of the sums of money being siphoned off by the mother church in the United States, he said. He was not convinced they had got their sums right: and in any case, in the period between 1998 and 2007, tax records had showed the Church of Scientology Belgium had recorded a loss in four years out of 10.
In any case, mainstream churches such as the Catholic Church, did exactly the same thing, taking money from satellite churches. It was a completely normal practice.
Here was a citation for the court, he said. And this one was from the Bible: Malachi 3:10.
Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.
The idea of making offerings was common to every religion, he said.
The prosecutor had said that everything was about money for Scientology: but what about the exhibitions they put on up and down the country, year after year; what about their soup kitchens, the clothes they collected for the poor?
And if the prosecutor had been so keen to shut down Scientology, why had he not just pursued a case through the civil courts to strip it of its non-profit status? It would have taken far less time.
Instead, he opted for a criminal prosecution. But the indictment was seriously flawed.
“We need to look at the file not just in terms of the evidence, but the way the investigation was carried out.”
Now Maître Vanderveeren began developing an argument for obscuri libelli: that the indictment was so poorly drafted, so unclear, as to be null and void.
During the Caliman’s closing arguments the previous week, when the defence lawyers had struggled to hear the citations, he had warned the court that this was completely unacceptable -- especially given the fact that the prosecutor had opted not to lodge a written version of his arguments with the court.
The defence lawyers had the right to be properly informed of the case against their clients so they could properly prepare their response, he reminded the court, so the réquisitoire, the indictment, had to be well prepared.
That had not happened in this case. There were numerous examples of imprecisions in the original indictment, he said. Parts, of it had been little more than a retranscription of the criminal code with little explanation of how it applied in the this case.
Last week’s closing arguments by the prosecutor had done nothing to remedy the situation, he added. How then was the defence meant to prepare its response?
Did the court really think in good conscience it could accept such a lack of precision from the prosecutor, given the impossible task the defence faced in reconstructing the case because of these ambiguities.
It was the defence, after all, that was meant to benefit from the presumption of innocence.
“We are in a dead-end situation,” he said.
He had never been confronted with pleading in such circumstances, he said, because generally, the justice system worked well.
Mtr. Vanderveeren had harsh words too, for the way the whole investigation had been conducted.
For one thing, it should never have taken as long as it did: he pointed to inexplicable pauses, long periods when the case just lay dormant. He was not happy with the conduct of Jean-Claude Van Espen, investigating magistrate in the first part of the case.
He had been only too happy to dash off to France to look at how a case against Lyon had been successfully prosecuted. But had not found the time to go to Italy or Spain or anywhere where the the case against Scientologists had collapsed or where the convictions had been overturned.
He also questioned the decision by the prosecutor Caliman to attend two conferences organised by FECRIS, an international federation of anti-cult groups. Certainly, a formal complaint about his conduct may have been rejected -- but in disturbingly short order: eight days, he noted. “Ici, en 8 jours la messe est dite!”
International texts on legal affairs nevertheless stressed the importance of the prosecutor maintaining his impartiality, conducting himself in a manner that is above reproach.
“We need to look at the file not just in terms of the evidence, but the way the investigation was carried out,” he concluded.
* My thanks to Caroline Letkeman for hunting down this quote for me, as she has done for many others in the past.
I’ll expand on these legal arguments at a later date. For the moment though, coverage at Byline will return to the earlier part of the trial, the instruction, during which the judge questioned the defendants. But as the defence sets out its case over the next two weeks here, I will keep tweeting the highlights (@jonnymcj).
Photo of the Palais de Justice Interior, Brussels, Lawrence F White, CC Licence.