Thursday, 27 March 2014

Scientology sent for trial in Belgium

A Belgian court has sent Scientologists and two of the movement's organisations for trial on fraud and other charges: but it is still a long road to the courtroom.

A court in Belgium on Thursday sent two Scientology organisations and 11 Scientologists for trial on fraud and other charges, the Belga news agency reported.

Two Belgian non-profits targetted
The Chambre de Conseil had for several months been considering whether two criminal investigations against the movement, one dating back as far as 1997, should go to court.

The cases, now merged into one, involve accusations of fraud, illegal practice of medicine and the non-respect of privacy laws.

One allegation police investigated was over the placing of false job adverts that gave the impression that paid work was available when in fact it was for unpaid work.

Perhaps the most important feature of Thursday's ruling is that it names two Scientology non-profit organisations in Belgium and not just members of the movement.

Prosecutors are going after the Church of Scientology in Belgium and the Brussels-based European Office for Public Affairs and Human Rights.

Since federal prosecutors are characterising Scientology as a criminal organisation, that might mean it could be banned in Belgium if convicted – at least according to Belgian press reports.

The court ordered that the case regarding a 11th Scientologist should be transferred to a separate court because he is an English-speaker.

And it ruled that the statute of limitations for the offences alleged in the case of at least one other Scientologist had expired.

The individuals and the two organisations sent for trial have the right to appeal the Belgian court's decision within 15 days, which they are doing.

A ‘modern inquisition’

Scientology has already issued a statement attacking the ruling and vowing to defend itself.

All those sent for trial have 15 days in which to lodge an appeal and Scientology has already made it clear that it will fight all the way.

We cannot help but hope that this interminable investigation is nothing less than a modern inquisition and an affront to freedom of religion and the rights of the defence,” said a Scientology statement.

The time the investigation had taken — the earliest of the two dates back to 1997 — showed that the facts were “non-existent” and that the case was “made up of rumours, attributing motives and lies to what the Scientology religion really is,” the statement added.

Scientology should not be treated any differently from other religions, it insisted, concluding that the movement would fight to the very end any “any biased criminal proceedings that violates their basic rights”.

Belgian broadcaster RTBF spoke to lawyers on either side of the case.

Maître Bruno Dayez, who represents some of the plaintiffs, welcomed the fact that the criminal case was being sent for trial.

It’s already really one point clearly in our favour,” he told Belgian broadcaster RTBF.

As for the rest, even if there are procedural obstacles, we are still entitled to act at the civil level — so even if the case were to collapse on the criminal side that would not mean for all that that I would not pursue compensation for my clients to the end.”

After 17 years of investigation however, Scientology’s lawyers will argue that the case has dragged on too long for it to come to trial.

It does pose a problem, to have such long proceedings,” Maître Pierre Monville, who represents one of the defendants, told RTBF.

The infractions stretch back into time and are hidden and so it is difficult to see what someone is being accused of when you go through 20 years in the life of an association,” he added.

The charge sheet, RTBF reported, includes accusations of the illegal practice of medicine; fraud; extortion; false representation; the non-respect of privacy; and criminal organisation.

According to one media report, the ruling was sufficiently well formulated to provoke the admiration of one of the defence lawyers. “Magnifique,” he said after it had been read out in court Thursday morning.

But there is still a way to go before the case gets to trial — if indeed it ever does.

Once the appeals are lodged, it could take months for the higher court to deliver its ruling, Belgian media reported. And if that goes against Scientology, it might even be possible for the defendants to find grounds for a further appeal on a point of law.

This would not be the first time the movement has tried to kill off the case against it.

Scientology has already tried to get the earlier of the two cases involved here thrown out.

Their lawyers argued that prosecutors’ comments to the news media in the years following the launch of the 1997 investigation had prejudiced their right to a fair trial.

After arguing their case in vain in the Belgian courts, they filed a case with the European Court of Human Rights, but the Strasbourg-based court also rejected their complaint, as reported here at the time.

Thursday's ruling in Belgium follows the definitive conviction last year in France of two Scientology organisations – and several Scientologists – for fraud.

And as we have reported here before, there is every sign that Belgian investigators have learned from the approach taken in France.
This report is a revised version of the material filed earlier to Tony Ortega’s site, The Underground Bunker.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Five Years

After five years tracking Scientology's excesses, time to look back on some of the highlights – and signal a change of direction.

Help yourself to caek
Five years already?

I'd like to say there was a plan, but no: at the beginning it was mainly about publishing stories that the mainstream media wouldn't touch.

Then it developed a life of its own: the Paris trial, Xenophon's campaign in Australia and a string of US lawsuits. The problem wasn't digging up the stories, but finding the time to do them.

In recent months however, regular readers may have noticed a slacking-off in production.

This is partly due to a change in working hours that has left me with less free time; but also because shorter news items now go straight to Tony Ortega at The Underground Bunker.

The Bunker is the number one site in the field, giving daily, in-depth coverage of Scientology's inimitable brand of brutalist absurdity. So it makes sense to focus news coverage there.

Since it's roughly five years to the day that the site started, now seems a good time to look back on some of the highlights.

Abuse at the top

Infinite Complacency launched on March 16, 2009, although many of the dozen or so articles that opened the site had been written months earlier.1

Laura DeCrescenzo
The opening series “Violence and Abuse in the Sea Org” was built around what were then relatively little-known allegations about the violence at the top of the movement – in particular the beatings handed out by Scientology leader, David Miscavige.2

It is a measure of how far the scene has moved in the past five years that a lot of this material – even Miscavige's talent for violence – is old hat now. Nevertheless, the shocking details of life in the Sea Org, the movement’s elite cadre, are as true as they ever were. If anything, the situation has deteriorated.

That perhaps explains why one post from that first series, “Abuse in the Sea Org”, is still one of the top ten most read items here. Not bad considering that back in the early days the site had a readership of two men and dog (and I'm pretty sure the dog was OSA).

Those early posts also covered the lawsuits launched by former Sea Org members Claire and Marc Headley against the movement in January of 2009.

Infinite Complacency followed their battle to the bitter end in July 2012, when a U.S. appeals court threw out their cases, folding in the face of Scientology's First Amendment defence.3

The site got an early boost when it broke the news of the lawsuit launched by Laura DeCrescenzo (another of the top 10 most read posts here).

Recruited into the Sea Org aged 12, married at 16, Laura fell pregnant a year later.

In her lawsuit she says she was forced to have an abortion because of the Sea Org ban on children.

DeCrescenzo, who eventually became so desperate to escape she swallowed bleach to get herself thrown out, is still battling through the US courts.

Come April 2, that will be five years of punishing litigation: not an anniversary anyone would want to celebrate. So hats off to her.4

A large part of Infinite Complacency's content has been taken up with coverage of the Paris fraud trial, a legal battle that for all intents and purposes ended last year in France's top court.5

Devoting so much coverage to the case was a bit of a gamble. The prosecution case could easily have crumbled away, like several others before it.

This time around however, the stakes were higher.

The movement itself, not just senior members, were on trial for fraud, and there was even talk that Scientology might be be shut down in France if convicted.

In a case that yielded as much drama outside the courtroom as inside, Scientology was eventually convicted of fraud: at the original trial in 2009, on appeal in 2011 and at the Cour de Cassation last year.6

And that conviction puts it one step closer to the guillotine: under French law a second conviction could be enough to get it banned.

Some aspects of the original trial deserve more attention than they have ever received.

Have a look, for example, at psychiatrist Daniel Zagury’s fascinating testimony, in which he points out that the techniques used inside Scientology constitute an abuse of the transference process.

Another highlight was a masterful performance from Olivier Morice, the lawyer for the one of the plaintiffs at the original trial, who also represented counter-cult group UNADFI.

Morice made short work of two experts the defence had summoned to endorse the movement's e-meter, a device used in Scientology's therapy.

When he confronted them with some of L. Ron Hubbard's more outlandish claims for the e-meter, they were forced to agree that Scientology’s founder had been talking nonsense.

Morice's role in the trial was crucial because, of all the lawyers present, he knew better than any exactly how Scientology operates.


Limited resources meant that most of the coverage at Infinite Complacency has been restricted to court reporting and Web-based journalism, and research trips have been rare. But a 2007 trip to California yielded a wealth of material.

Allan Henderson
One particularly distressing story concerned the devastation that Scientology's disconnection policy wrought on the Henderson family.

Disconnection is one of the most destructive aspects of Scientology. The movement's “ethics officers” force its members to break off all contact with loved ones deemed enemies of the movement – on pain of being cast out themselves.

Back in March 2007, many former Scientologists were still wary of going public with their stories. But not Mike Henderson.

He was happy to go on the record with details of the abuse he had experienced both as a paying member and then as a part of the Sea Org.

He was even more anxious to introduce me to his father.

Allan Henderson was already in hospital, fighting a losing battle against stomach cancer. But despite the debilitating effects of his illness and the chemotherapy, he was determined to get his story on the record.

He explained how when he quit the movement in 2001 after nearly three decades inside, he had been declared suppressive.

At a stroke, that cut him off from any contact with his first wife, his two sons and four daughters – Mike included – and his 22 grandchildren. They all cut off any communication with him, as per Scientology policy.

It was only after Mike quit Scientology himself that he reconciled with his father, and he has spoken movingly of the guilt he felt for how he behaved while still inside.

During the final months of his father's life, Mike did everything he could to get his siblings to heal the rift before it was too late – but they would not budge.

Allan Henderson died on June 4, 2007. He never got to see the rest of his family. Now it is Mike’s turn to feel alone on the outside, for none of them will speak to him either.

Despite Scientology's repeated denials that it imposes disconnection on any of its members, this is a story that has been played out many times.7  For another egregious example of this policy, see last week’s report by Joe Childs over at The Tampa Bay Times.

Xenophon's campaign

Nick Xenophon
In November 2009, news broke of a new front in the battle to expose Scientology.

In Australia, Senator Nick Xenonphon, an independent, gave a devastating speech to the chamber on November 17, launching a one-man campaign against abuses inside the movement.

Citing letters he had received from former members, he listed a jaw-dropping litany of allegations against Scientology – and asked why such an organisation should enjoy tax exemption.

In the letters, former members described how they had been victims of – and sometimes party to – the group's hard-sell tactics: one former member told he had repeatedly had to kick sales teams out of his house in the small hours of the morning.

They explained how women on staff were put under relentless pressure to have abortions so as to continue what was considered to be their far more important work with Scientology.

And more than one of Xenophon's correspondents confessed to having helped cover up crimes – including child abuse – to keep the movement out of trouble.

Former staffers spoke of the abusive environment at Scientology centres, and blatant medical neglect: some employees with cancer received no palliative care, but just stayed on post until they were too weak to work.

The testimony of one former executive, Aaron Saxton, was particularly shocking: during his time in the Sea Org, in both Australia and the United States, he had ruthlessly enforced many of the harshest rules in Scientology.

He admitted to having pressured staffers into having abortions so they could stay on post; and to having enforced disconnection orders on members who had fallen from grace. He also helped track down and retrieve runaways.

What made Saxton's testimony more credible was his willingness to accept responsibility for what he himself had done while inside. But he was not just one of the abusers: he too was a victim.

Since Xenophon was speaking in Senate, with the legal protection that afforded him, he could air these accusations in full. And by placing the letters into the Senate archives, he put vital testimony into the public domain.

This is a collection that deserves careful scrutiny not just because of what it reveals about Scientology's operations in Australia, but mirrors the abuse that goes on elsewhere in the world: in Europe, in the United States – wherever the movement operates.

In 2013 a new bill passed into law that established a public benefit for charities in Australia seeking tax exemption, a hurdle that most critics of Scientology doubt it could clear.

Recent reports however suggest the new law could be under threat from the recently elected government – so that battle is far from over.8

Communication Breakdown

Another story worth a second look is last year’s two-part investigation into the death of Heribert Pfaff.

Pfaff, from Germany, was an epileptic whose fits finally killed him after Scientologists had convinced him to come off his anti-convulsant medication.

They actually thought they could cure him: and they are still making similar criminally negligent claims.

Finally, Belgian cartoonist Renaud de Heyn's illuminated biography of French campaigner Roger Gonnet deserves a mention.

The Illustrated Man” is not just a fitting tribute to Gonnet's remarkable contribution to exposing Scientology here in France. It also contains some priceless “iconic” jabs at the movement.

Saint Ron

(© Renaud de Heyn)
I speculated at the time that Scientology might not appreciate de Heyn’s subversion of its trademarked religious symbols.

Sure enough, in the weeks after this article appeared, Infinite Complacency’s site-meter showed that someone from Texas law firm Andrews and Kurth was making regular visits.

It was they who, back in 1999, wrote to Andreas Heldal-Lund of Operation Clambake on behalf of the Religious Technology Center to try to convince him he was violating their copyright and trademarks.

In the nicest possible way, he told them where to get off.

“Straight talk is good business,” Andrews and Kurth tell visitors to their website.

On this occasion however, they never actually got around to picking up the phone. Like the man said:

Help yourself to caek.

1   While the site launched on March 16, 2009, many of the early pieces were ready to go by late December, 2008, as you'll see from some of the dates on the initial posts in the series.
2   The first 14 posts all went out in the space of two-weeks (“Introduction” to “The Story So Far”). A few months later, on June 21, the St Petersburg Times (now the Tamba Times) took the story of Miscavige's violence mainstream in their Pulitzer-nominated series, The Truth Rundown.
3   For more on the failings of the appeal court ruling against the Headleys, see my write-up of the Harvard Law Review's critique. Another one of this site's most-read posts is “Headley Supporters Rally Round”, on the way Scientology's critics online pulled together to help them pay their massive legal costs.
4  For the latest developments in Laura’s case, see Tony Ortega coverage at The Underground Bunker.
5   The three court battles ran from May 2009 to October 2013, though the investigation itself began back in December 1998.
6   A quick glance at the site reveals that a little over the third of the 158 posts here – 56 and counting – were devoted to coverage of the Paris trial.

7   To learn more about how disconnection came to be, and the damage it does, see  “Introduction to Disconnection” elsewhere at this site.
8   “Charity laws change from Today”: January 1 report from ABC Australia. “What makes an organisation a charity and eligible for concessions on things like income tax is now formally defined in Australia for the first time under the Charities Act which comes into force today. But the law may be short-lived with the Abbott Government planning to abolish the Australian Charities and Not-For-Profits Commission and get the sector's views on the new legislation.”