Simply put, the answer is no. Different interpretations confuse the church’s internal ecclesiastical courts and Scientology’s relationship with secular courts of law.
by Massimo Introvigne
Article 1 of 5.
From time to time, controversies arise about Scientology, fueled by apostate ex-members and the so-called anti-cult movement. One of the most frequently discussed issue is Scientology’s ethics. Opponents argue that it shields Scientologists who have committed common crimes from being reported to the police and prosecuted by secular courts of law, and punishes those who have left Scientology with a cruel and systematic ostracism.
I have researched these matters for several decades. My first conclusion is that most anti-Scientology publications lack comparative perspective. They examine Scientology’s policies about ecclesiastical justice and ex-members as if these were unique, while in fact similar practices are found in most other religions.
The methodology used to attack Scientology’s ethics is also often faulty. It looks for “prooftexts” that would “prove” Scientology’s wrongdoings, which is a common fallacy in religious studies and one experienced professors constantly warn their students against. Those who use handpicked short quotes to criticize a religion always run the risk to get its doctrine wrong. They focus on single quotes supposedly supporting a certain theory but, not being trained in interpreting religious texts, commit the capital sin of reading sentences as if they were isolated sequences of words written on a wall, while interpretation can only be contextual, considering not only the whole of a book but the whole literature of a given religion.
Those who want to attack Islam, Judaism, or Christianity can easily find verses in the Bible or the Quran hailing the slaughter of enemies, but only a bigot would use isolated sentences to pass judgement on these religions as a whole. As for the media looking for sensational revelations about Scientology, they often rely on apostate ex-members or anti-cultists who tell them what they want to hear.
As it happens in cases concerning the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religions, there is a systematic confusion between two totally different systems: the internal justice system of Scientology, where ecclesiastical Ethical Committees deal with offences committed by Scientologists; and secular courts of law, which may put on trial citizens who happen to be Scientologists. An ecclesiastical court may only exclude a defendant from a religious community, a secular court may impose jail penalties. The same offence may be examined by both courts, ecclesiastical and secular, but based on different criteria, thus with different outcomes.
This happens in all religions. Ecclesiastical courts may expel or excommunicate members of a religion for offenses a secular court would regard as minimal or irrelevant. Conversely, ecclesiastical courts may decide not to expel or excommunicate members for offenses for which a secular court may send them to jail, as religious courts give a different weight to elements such as repentance.
Secular authorities and courts have no business in telling ecclesiastical courts how they should operate. There are dozens of decisions reiterating this principle. Last year, the Supreme Court of Canada stated once again that it cannot second-guess a decision by the Ethiopian Coptic Church to expel some of its members. It is a crucial part of religious liberty that religions should be free to decide whom to expel and whom not to expel.
The individual religious liberty of those who believe decisions of ecclesiastical courts are wrong is preserved by the fact that they can always walk away from their religion, and join or even found another religion. But they cannot ask a secular judge to tell ecclesiastical authorities how they should run their religious courts, and whom they should keep within their fold or expel, as ecclesiastical courts function on the basis of theological principles that it is not the business of secular courts to interpret.
On the other hand, secular governments have a right to promulgate laws mandating that certain crimes should be reported in all cases to secular authorities, without distinction whether they have been committed by members of a certain religion or by anybody else.
In the case of Scientology, one should learn to read its texts and carefully distinguish what pertain to its internal ecclesiastical courts and what pertains to the relationships Scientologists establish with external secular courts. Maybe some secular judges may not like how these ecclesiastical courts operate, but they have no business in interfering with them.
What secular governments and courts may ask is that nobody who has been the victim, or has become aware, of a crime should be prevented from reporting it to secular authorities, and should report it when mandated by the laws. Scientology is accused of counseling its members not to report crimes committed by co-religionists.
Much is made, in this respect, of a sentence in an HCO (Hubbard Communication Office) Policy Letter dated March 7, 1965, which deals with “suppressive persons;” a concept to which I will return extensively in this series. We read in the Policy Letter that, among the offenses that may lead somebody to be declared a “suppressive person” is listed “Reporting or threatening to report Scientology or Scientologists to civil authorities in an effort to suppress Scientology or Scientologists from practicing or receiving standard Scientology,” and “delivering” a Scientologist to secular authorities, also with the purpose of destroying Scientology. This is interpreted by opponents as prohibiting Scientologists from reporting other Scientologists guilty of crimes to secular authorities.
It looks like a classic case of reading a sentence outside its context. It is important to note that suppressive persons (SP) are not Scientologists (although they may be ex-Scientologists). They are outsiders who try to destroy Scientology, inter alia by reporting Scientologists to civil authorities “in an effort to suppress Scientology” or prevent it from operating. If somebody reports a Scientologist to civil authorities not with an intention to harass Scientology, but simply because the Scientologist has committed a common crime a good citizen should report to the police, the SP policy would not apply.
There is a difference whether one accuses somebody of homicide simply because s/he hates Scientology and wants to destroy the Church, or the accusation is motivated by seeking justice for the victim of a crime rather than by a desire to destroy the religion.
At any rate, suppressive persons are not parishioners of Scientology. They are persons a Scientologist is counseled to avoid. Obviously, Scientology cannot control their behavior, although it can evaluate it and make it an element leading to the conclusion that Scientologists should not associate with them. Since the sentence concerns suppressive persons, and suppressive persons are non-Scientologists, the sentence does not tell us anything about how Scientologists should behave.
On the other hand, in the same letter. we read that, “Nothing in this policy letter shall ever or under any circumstances justify any violation of the laws of the land,” which obviously means that the fact that a non-Scientologist who reports a Scientologist to civil authorities with the specific aim of destroying Scientology becomes a SP, cannot be used to prevent a Scientologist from reporting a crime committed by another Scientologist when the law mandates such report. This would be indeed a “violation of the laws of the land.”
“The Scientology Justice Codes and Their Applications”, sometimes referred to as “The Ethic Book,” draws on this 1965 text, and also on another HCO Policy Letter of July 9, 1980, and clearly spells out the distinction between being tried by an ecclesiastical court, which may impose penalties such as losing one’s status in Scientology or being expelled, and being tried by a secular court.
The texts clearly state that a Scientologist “who steals from his employer” goes to jail rightly, and Scientology would not protect him from going to prison. But Scientology may examine the case in ways different from secular courts and apply typically religious standards in deciding whether this person, in addition to going to jail, should also be expelled from Scientology.
These Scientology texts may even sound at times like broken records, so often they repeat that nothing there should be interpreted as inciting Scientologists to violate the laws of the land.
Scientology texts, when correctly interpreted, do not suggest that crimes committed by a Scientologist should not be reported to secular authorities by another Scientologist when reporting is required by the secular law, and insistently state that Scientologists should respect the law of the land in all circumstances. This means that if the law mandates that a crime should be reported to the police, Scientologists are taught that it should be reported to the police.
Opponents may object that there have been cases in which Scientologists have become aware of crimes committed by co-religionists and have not reported them to the police. Even if true, this would not prove that they were following Scientology’s teachings. In all religions, it may happen that over-zealous religionists misinterpret policies in a misguided effort to protect their institution. There are egregious examples in many religions. But the fact that there are members who do not respect the commandments of a religion does not change the content of the commandments.