Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Belgian Scientologists On Trial

The Church of Scientology has gotten a lot of bad press over the last couple of years, and now members of its Belgian branch are on trial for fraud and extortion. While I personally find what I've heard of the higher Scientology levels to be kind of silly, that's not my problem with the organization. Lots of religions have teachings that sound silly to outsiders, and they still have a right to teach them.

Rather, my problem is that there are way too many reports of the organization operating as a classic destructive cult. It allegedly uses various forms of trickery to recruit members, charges them large sums of money, and most telling goes after anyone who tries to leave in the form of flat-out harassment and all sorts of outlandish legal threats. It seems to me that any legitimate organization should allow people to quit without threatening to ruin their lives.

“The church’s revenues were roughly 5,000 euros a week; 2,000 came from the sale of books and videos and 3,000 from courses and training,” the Belga news agency quoted the group’s treasurer as saying. The treasurer, who worked for the church until 2005, said she was not paid but was not required to pay the church fees, while her husband contributed about 10,000 euros ($11,000) for training.

The church stirs sharp divisions — critics say it is cult and a scam, while supporters say it offers much-needed spiritual support in a fast-changing world. The Belgian authorities launched a first investigation in 1997 after several former members complained about its practices. A second probe followed in 2008 when an employment agency charged that the church had made bogus job offers so as to draw in and recruit new members.

The authorities as a result charged 11 members of the Belgian branch, plus two affiliated bodies, with fraud, extortion, running a criminal organisation and violating the right to privacy. A conviction could lead to a ban.

While it's true that many churches require volunteer labor, the whole bogus job offer thing is the sort of trickery I'm talking about. It's not clear to me why any church would have to resort to such tactics in order to find members, though from the amounts of money quoted above it sounds like the Belgian group is pretty small. At around 10,000 euros per person per year, 3000 euros per week from training means 16 or so people, plus the treasurer who paid no fees, plus whoever runs the group.

Scientology is already banned in several European countries, and if the trial goes badly the church could also face a ban in Belgium. Still, given the size of the group it sounds like such a ban wouldn't affect many people.

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