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Jonny Jacobsen: New Scientology legal setbacks in Belgium, France, and Holland

Jonny Jacobsen

Jonny Jacobsen

Once again we have a special report from our man in Paris, British journalist Jonny Jacobsen. He has news of three new developments: Scientology’s maneuvering has been cleared away so that a Belgian prosecution of fraud against the church can occur, an attempt by Scientology to sue one of its biggest critics in France for libel has been denied, and Holland’s highest court has reversed and remanded a ruling about Scientology’s tax exemption in Amsterdam. Jonny, take it away…

 
Belgium’s highest court has rejected Scientology’s last appeals and sent 13 senior members and two of its organizations there for trial, a Belgian newspaper reports.

It is the latest twist in a long-running criminal investigation that the Underground Bunker has been covering since December 2012: but this time it seems, the legal logjam has been broken. The rulings mean that the defendants will be tried on charges ranging from criminal organization, criminal conspiracy, fraud, the illegal exercise of medicine, and invasion of privacy, L’Avenir reported on Friday.

Most of the more serious charges related to events that took place between 1997 and 2007, but at least some elements of the fraud case date back as far as 1977. That is an obstacle that the defense team is bound to exploit during the trial. Belgium’s Cour de Cassation dismissed the final legal challenges from Scientology’s lawyers on Wednesday evening, the paper reported.

As well as the 13 individuals facing trial, the Church of Scientology Belgium and the movement’s Brussels-based European Office for Public Affairs and Human Rights also face charges. They will all go for trial in a Brussels criminal court next year.

It has taken years of procedural maneuvering and two investigative magistrates just to get this case this far. And what were originally two separate criminal investigations have now been merged into one. The most serious aspect of the case are the criminal organization and criminal conspiracy charges which, if proven would act as an aggravating factor for convictions under any of the other offenses. That indicates that the prosecutors are going to argue that whatever happened was not down to a few zealots but was part an organized criminal enterprise.

Some — but not all — of those allegations relating to fraud are what some of the plaintiffs say were the high prices charged for some of the courses they did. The original investigation opened in 1997 when the first plaintiffs came forward and has gradually expanded since. Allegations of illegal practice of medicine relate to Scientology’s controversial Purification Rundown, a program of heavy doses of vitamins, aerobic exercises, and long sessions in the sauna that critics say is potentially dangerous.

It was the Brussels regional employment office Actiris that filed a complaint about what it said were phony job offers posted to draw recruits in. Scientology has in the past denounced this investigation as an attack on freedom of religion, a “modern inquisition”.

If they have fought so hard to stop the case coming to trial it is because the future of Scientology in Belgium could be at stake. Belgium has anti-cult laws comparable to those in France and takes a similarly uncompromising line. But the movement’s lawyers will doubtless try to exploit the fact that many of the alleged offenses date back more than 10 years ago.

————

Meanwhile, a French court has thrown out a complaint that Scientology tried to file against its old enemy over here: lawyer Olivier Morice. Regular readers will recall that Morice played a major role in the landmark Paris trial in which Scientology was eventually convicted of organized fraud. But this latest clash was over comments Morice made concerning another affair.

As we reported here in July, employees of a French construction company are suing one of Scientology’s Paris branches after having been forced to take courses there. Representing them is Olivier Morice, and it was his comments to the media about the case that prompted this latest action by Scientology’s Celebrity Centre.

Morice has filed a complaint on behalf of 13 Arcadia employees against Scientology for moral harassment and abuse of weakness. A preliminary investigation was opened in June. (It is too early to say though, whether the case will make it to trial.) When the story broke, Morice told Vincent Vantighem of news website 20minutes that the movement had infiltrated the company “with the main aim of plundering its resources.” He returned to the attack in September, in an interview with rolling news radio station France Info. Wednesday’s judgment quoted the comments in full.

Beyond the damage done at the human level, the Church of Scientology, by its management, sank this business. Scientology totally infiltrated a company which was prosperous in order to plunder it financially, getting the most profit out of it. It is a system that operates first by the seduction of the leader of the business, totally molded by the cult, and then by the influence operated on the whole staff. They were physically and morally humiliated. [The French word used for what Scientology did to the head of the company is formatté which is difficult to translate, but almost suggests he was wiped and reprogrammed, like a computer disk.]

These were the comments to which Scientology took exception. The Celebrity Centre, which is one of the defendants in the case, argued that Morice’s comments violated their right to the presumption of innocence. Their complaint, filed in October, asked for 55,000 euros in damages and a judgment against Morice, to be posted on the websites of 20minutes and France Info.

 

Olivier Morice

Olivier Morice

 
In his response, Morice asked the court to dismiss the case as groundless and to order the Celebrity Centre to pay him 20,000 in damages for abuse of process. Wednesday’s ruling said that Morice’s comments to 20minutes were clearly not specifically directed against any individual or organization currently under investigation. His comments were directed against Scientology in general — against Scientology as its defenders presented it, which is to say as a religion. The same could be said for much of his interview with France Info, the ruling went on. The comments about the human damage done and the destruction of the business however, might be understood as targeting an individual or organization under investigation.

But even then, the judgment continued, “…it is clear that they cannot be regarded as making definitive conclusions taking as read the guilt of this person.” [Curiously, the court ruled that, since the Celebrity Centre had not provided any evidence to establish that it was actually under investigation it had not established its case. This seems a bit strange, given we know they are under investigation, so we checked this with Morice. He explained that Scientology had simply failed to provide the court with the evidence to establish this. So it is not enough to know something is true: You have to establish it in court.]

The court threw out the Celebrity Centre complaint against Morice. He did not get the damages from Scientology he had asked for, but the court did order the Celebrity Centre to pay 1,500 euros towards his legal costs. Scientology can appeal the ruling or take the matter up in the civil court, but the first round at least goes to Morice.

Contacted by the Bunker, Morice said he was pleased by the result. “That’s the fifth time around,” he added. “And each time they have lost.” Morice was not talking here not about the headline cases he has fought against Scientology — just the ones in which they have come after him personally.

This case of course, is just a side-show, a legal skirmish. The real battle will be the next court case in which a Scientology organization appears as a defendant. Such a case would be crucial because a second criminal conviction for the movement Scientology in France could open up the possibility of it being shut down here under the country’s tough anti-cult laws. And that case might just end up being over the Arcadia affair.

Scientology’s lawyers know that in Morice they will be dealing with a formidable adversary who knows how they operate, inside and outside the courtroom. He represented the counter-cult group UNADFI during both the original trial in 2009 and the 2012 appeal trial, in which the movement was convicted of organised fraud. One of the two Scientology organizations convicted of course, was the Paris Celebrity Centre. Morice’s specialist knowledge of the movement — he has represented UNADFI for more than a decade — meant he was able to do real damage to the defense case.

During the trial, he and Scientology’s high-powered legal team clashed in a series of bad-tempered exchanges. Nor did this look like courtroom theatrics: there appeared to be genuine bad blood between the two sides. In that case, both courts eventually rejected UNADFI’s bids to be granted the status of plaintiff in the case. But it was a pyrrhic victory for Scientology.

At both trials, their lawyers, arguing passionately that UNADFI had no standing as a plaintiff, urged the courts to rule on the issue before the proceedings got underway. But at both trials, the court chose to make a ruling only after the proceedings were over, so Morice was still let loose in the courtroom.

Still, if the Arcadia case does go to trial, at least they know who they are up against.

————

And in another new development this week, the Supreme Court of the Netherlands has reversed an appeal court ruling which had granted tax exempt status to the Scientology church (‘kerk’ in Dutch) in Amsterdam, SKA.

We’re delighted to see that the Dutch finance ministry took our hint and challenged the appeal court ruling at the Supreme Court (see our earlier report on this case).

As we reported back in October 2013, the Haarlem Appeal Court seemed to buy into Scientology’s characterization of auditing as an integral part of the religious process and so tax-exempt. So far as they were concerned, that was the end of the story. The Supreme Court disagrees. I’m paraphrasing here, but it argues that even if auditing and training are an integral part of the religious experience, it does not follow that they serve the public interest. To that extent then, the appeal court’s decision was based on a false premise.

Even supposing that SKA is a genuine church, that in itself is not enough to qualify it as a public benefit organization (or ANBI). At least 50 percent of Scientology’s activities would have to qualify as having a public benefit. So the Supreme Court position lines up more with the original two lower court rulings that rejected Scientology’s bid for tax exemption.

This insistence on the public benefit aspect is encouraging (much as Britain’s Charity Commission took when it denied Scientology charitable status) as it neatly side-steps the religious debate. The Supreme Court seems to be saying that given the commercial rates Scientology is charging for auditing, it is for them to show where the public benefit lies.

Finally, a quick recap on the chronology. SKA first applied to be considered a public benefit organization (or ANBI) in September 2007. The first court ruling on the bid, in April 2008, rejected the application, and a district court confirmed that ruling in July 2012 before the Haarlem Appeal Court saw things Scientology’s way in October 2013. Friday’s Supreme Court overturns that appeal court ruling and sends it back downstairs for a fresh look. This time around however, it will be the Appeal Court in The Hague that considers the matter.

— Jonny Jacobsen

Thanks very much for scrambling on three breaking stories, Jonny! We’re so fortunate to have such a versatile correspondent covering the European scene. Now, your proprietor takes over again for this next dispatch…

 
——————–

AlexandraHotelOrgScientology to sell the Alexandra Hotel in Boston

Oh my. This doesn’t bode well. Yesterday, a business journal in Boston reported that the Church of Scientology has put up for sale the Alexandra Hotel.

Scientology had purchased the historic but run down structure back in 2008 for $4.5 million in order for it to be renovated and turned into Boston’s “Ideal Org,” part of the overall plan by Scientology leader David Miscavige to replace ordinary “orgs” with fancy new digs in historic buildings.

These tend to be very expensive projects, and Scientology puts the onus on local members to raise the necessary funds. The problem is, Scientology is in serious decline, and there just aren’t enough local church members, even in a large city like Boston, to put together the money. So for six years, the Alexandra has deteriorated further. Just this past September, the Boston Globe bemoaned the lack of progress on the hotel.

And now, Scientology is giving up on it. The story it told the Boston Business Journal was simply astounding. Get this: Scientology says the Alexandra proved to be too small for its Ideal Org needs, and so it’s selling the property and looking for a bigger place.

“We’ve had changes in our programs, which are good for us, but it’s taking more course room,” [local church spokesman Kevin] Hall said. “We need more square footage than what the building has.”

 
Wow, that’s some whopper. We turned to someone who bought and sold buildings for David Miscavige while he was an executive in the church, Tom DeVocht, for some perspective on this news.

He pushed back on the notion that Scientology suddenly noticed that the Alexandra wasn’t right for the project. “A lot of thought goes into a purchase like that. Nobody buys a building for this program without a lengthy and involved approval process — and ultimately, it needs the approval of David Miscavige,” he says.

DeVocht worked closely with Miscavige, and remembers when the Ideal Org program was first being formulated in 2002 and 2003.

“I was with Miscavige when he came up with the plan. We would buy cool historic buildings and renovate them. We’d be heroes because we’d be saving historic old buildings. But we knew that most of these buildings would not be in high traffic areas, so we’d also put a ‘test center’ on the main road,” he says.

The test center would house “Division 6” — public outreach — in order to bring in “new meat,” new recruits to Scientology who would be forwarded to the impressive Ideal Org, which might not be in the best location for drop-in traffic.

That was the plan, at least. But DeVocht says that over the last ten years, things haven’t seemed to work out the way they planned. He says to look at Tampa as a good example. Scientology purchased an historic old cigar factory in Ybor City, and it’s a great facility for renovation. But it’s not in a good place for drawing in foot traffic.

“The test center they put right into the middle of Ybor City. But it’s party central there. People are there to party, not to get a stress test. It’s obviously a failed strategy. It’s not doing what it was meant to do,” he says.

Particularly in the Eastern half of the country, the Ideal Org program seems to have run into trouble. Besides Boston, expensive and empty historic buildings are sitting, unrenovated, in Detroit, Philadelphia, and Chicago, particularly in those latter two, where those cities have made complaints to Scientology about doing something with buildings that are falling apart.

Will Scientology purchase another, bigger building in Boston? Or will one of the eyesores in Philly or Chicago or Detroit be the next to go up for sale. That could be a very telling development about the health of the church.

DeVocht wanted us to put this sale in Boston in some perspective: “I sold only two properties for Scientology in the entire 28 years I was in the church,” he says. One of them, a building in downtown Clearwater, the church recently bought back. And the other one? The legendary “Happy Valley” property in Southern California, which housed the “cadets” school that Jenna Miscavige Hill described so vividly in her 2013 book, Beyond Belief. where the children of Scientologists hauled rocks and got almost no schooling, and where Jenna, at 7, was the medical liaison. And it was also where Sea Org members undergoing punishment were held in the “Rehabilitation Project Force,” in primitive conditions and cut off from all contact with the outside world.

DeVocht says that after some journalists took photographs of the place from helicopters, Miscavige knew Happy Valley was a PR disaster waiting to happen. “Miscavige was desperate to get rid of it,” he says.

And now, he’s dumping another property, and we can’t help thinking Scientology is in even worse shape than we imagined.

 
——————–

Posted by Tony Ortega on December 13, 2014 at 07:00

E-mail your tips and story ideas to tonyo94@gmail.com or follow us on Twitter. We post behind-the-scenes updates at our Facebook author page. Here at the Bunker we try to have a post up every morning at 7 AM Eastern (Noon GMT), and on some days we post an afternoon story at around 2 PM. After every new story we send out an alert to our e-mail list and our FB page.

Learn about Scientology with our numerous series with experts…

BLOGGING DIANETICS (We read Scientology’s founding text) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25

UP THE BRIDGE (Claire Headley and Bruce Hines train us as Scientologists) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48

GETTING OUR ETHICS IN (Jefferson Hawkins explains Scientology’s system of justice) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14

SCIENTOLOGY MYTHBUSTING (Historian Jon Atack discusses key Scientology concepts) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49

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