In addition to the usual questionable methodology, the report includes information the MIVILUDES should have known are false.
by Massimo Introvigne
Every year, just as they get their Beaujolais nouveau, a red wine sold just weeks after the grapes are harvested, the French get their yearly report of the MIVILUDES, the governmental Inter-ministerial Mission for Monitoring and Combating Cultic Deviances (dérives sectaires: note that the French “secte” and its derivative words should be translated into English as “cult” and not as “sect”). This year the report of the MIVILUDES comes in November, the same month of the Beaujolais nouveau—but with some advance on it. We can only hope the quality of the popular wine will be better.
There is something new in the report for 2021, published in 2022, and it is not what most French media have noted. The latter have all reported that the number of the “saisines,” i.e., alerts by those who write to the MIVILUDES, or use a web form, to denounce a “cultic deviance,” on which the agency largely bases its action, hit the record number of 4,020 in 2021, with an increase of 33% with respect to 2020 and of 86% with respect to 2015.
What the media have not reported is that on May 15, 2022, the CADA (Commission for the Access to Administrative Documents) rendered a decision about the request of a lawyer who had tried to obtain copies of all the “saisines” received by the MIVILUDES since 2015 about the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In resisting the lawyer’s request, the MIVILUDES argued that the “saisines” are not “reports” on specific wrongdoings but also include simple comments and questions by other branches of the French administration and private citizens.
Bitter Winter had constantly objected that in general there is no verification that those sending a “saisines” to the MIVILUDES exist, let alone tell the truth, and mentioned the case of an American scholar who had successfully registered with the French governmental mission a “saisine” signed by Napoleon Bonaparte. In the CADA case, MIVILUDES itself admitted that “saisines” are not verified, and the number of “saisines” do not correspond to the number of incidents in which somebody accuses “cults” of something objectionable.
For those who would insist, even after the CADA case, on taking the “saisines” seriously, the report if anything indicates that a very small number of French citizens have questions or objections about the groups the MIVILUDES regards as most dangerous. Among a French population of 65 millions, only 99 citizens sent “saisines” about the Jehovah’s Witnesses and only 33 about Scientology—not exactly “record numbers” even assuming that all these “saisines” are genuine.
Another new aspect of the 2022 report is that it includes endorsements by representatives of the mainline religions, who wrote some platitudes perhaps hoping both to be helped in dealing with annoying competitors and to avoid being investigated themselves for the ubiquitous “dérives sectaires,” and by “experts” who come from the medical profession and journalism and include only one sociologist, respected and well-known but who has never been a specialist of new religious movements.
The methodology continues to be based both on the “saisines” and on the traditional discriminatory attitude of the MIVILUDES, which creates a circular argument. Certain activities by the “cults” are not illegal under French law, but since “cults” are bad, when they perform these activities they should become illegal automatically. For instance, it is acknowledged that French citizens often protest against abuses in public health institutions, including psychiatric hospitals, and that some abuses are real. When Scientologists protest against psychiatric abuses, however, this becomes a “cultic deviance”—even if they are right, which does not really matter.
It is also recognized that adult patients in France have a right to refuse any medical treatment, challenging the different opinions of the doctors. However, when the Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse blood transfusions, based on their interpretation of the Bible, the MIVILUDES suggests that doctors can deny them the right to choose their medical treatment because they are “under the undue influence” (emprise) of their religion.
“The omnipresence of the Jehovist [a derogatory adjective never used by the Jehovah’s Witnesses themselves] doctrine within an inward-looking movement, writes the MIVILUDES, combined with such interference in the medical decision-making process, is likely to vitiate any consent of the patient,” which means doctors could ignore it.
Perhaps MIVILUDES did not reflect on the implications. A Catholic or Evangelical woman who refuses an abortion for religious motivations, even when doctors or psychologists recommend it for a variety of reasons, is also subject to the “interference” of her church, and the “omnipresence” there of a doctrine about the sanctity of life. Should she be forced to have an abortion?
After a controversial French law against “separatism” was passed in 2021, the MIVILUDES adds the fact that they live separately from the Republic and its laws to its laundry list of accusations against the “cults.” By doing so, the MIVILUDES does precisely what the French Constitutional Council was concerned about when examining the law, i.e., it implies that any lifestyle alternative to the majority’s should be considered “separatist” and lead to police and administrative harassment.
A spectacular example in the report is the section on La Famille, a group deriving from a schism of Catholicism that had quietly existed in Paris for 200 years before an apostate ex- member denounced it to the MIVILUDES and some media. The MIVILUDES admits that La Famille does not breach any law; however, its admittedly peculiar and unique lifestyle would justify a “vigilance” against possible “separatism” and “cultic deviances.” These are suspected in other peaceful groups such as Anthroposophy and the Plymouth Brethren as well, reinforcing the impression that alternative lifestyles are not looked at with tolerance by the MIVILUDES.
It is unclear why the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Scientology should be called ironically “multinational corporations of the spirituality,” a label that could also be applied to the Roman Catholic Church and many other religions. Concerning the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the MIVILUDES is incorrigible in perpetuating the confusion between their internal ecclesiastical judicial system, where judicial committees decide whether members should be disfellowshipped for serious offenses, and their relationship with the secular courts of the state. Scholars and courts of law all over the world have clarified the issue time and again, including in a plethora of cases concerning the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Secular states cannot interfere with how religious courts operate without breaching religious liberty, but this issue should not be confused with the duty to report crimes to the secular authorities when the law mandates it—although ecclesiastical and state courts may look at the same offense from different angles and with different results. The MIVILUDES continues to repeat, absurdly, that the Jehovah’s Witnesses show a “willingness to substitute themselves to the [secular] justice” by operating their judicial committees.
But the same can be said of the Catholic Church, which operates its own tribunals applying Canon Law, of the Jewish Rabbinical Courts, and of many similar institutions. They have a different purpose from secular justice even when they examine the same cases. A religious tribunal may disfellowship or excommunicate defendants and a secular court may send them to jail for the same offense. For whatever reason, the MIVILUDES continues to find this simple fact difficult to understand.
In the section on the Jehovah’s Witnesses, we find two instances of something French citizens and perhaps courts of law should consider very seriously: the deliberate spreading of slanderous fake news by a governmental agency. I do not use this expression lightly. To support the argument that the system of the judicial committees unduly interferes with the secular justice, the report claims that, “In Belgium, to quote just one country, at least 90 cases of criminal pedophilia among the Jehovah’s Witnesses were recently recorded by the police, even though these cases had been known for a long time by the movement.”
The source quoted is an article of 2019 in the French magazine Marianne, which in turn quoted Belgian media. The ultimate source was not “the police” but a report of the Belgian governmental anti-cult organization parallel to the MIVILUDES, the CIAOSN (Centre for Information and Advice on Harmful Cultic Organizations), which in turn misinterpreted the figures of a document by a Dutch organization hostile to the Jehovah’s Witnesses called Reclaimed Voices. In short, that “the police,” or anybody else, had found 90 cases, or even one confirmed case, of sexual abuse deliberately hidden to the authorities by the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Belgium is fake news. It is not my opinion.
It is the content of a decision of June 16, 2022, by the Court of Brussels, which declared the CIAOSN and the Belgian government guilty of defamation for publishing false information and figures about Jehovah’s Witnesses and sexual abuse. By the way, the decision confirmed that governmental institutions sometimes do spread fake news about groups they label as “cults.”
Information declared by a Belgian court as false and defamatory is repeated again several months after the Brussels decision by the MIVILUDES. Somebody could charitably argue that the MIVILUDES does not have updated information on what happens in Belgium. However, even this defense fails when one reads in the MIVILUDES’ report that they meet “every month” with the Belgian CIAOSN and exchange information about the situation of “cults” in the two countries and their respective activities.
Was it an isolated mistake? Not really. The MIVILUDES report devotes several paragraphs to the controversial decisions of the Court of Ghent, Belgium, of March 16, 2021, which stated that teaching that current members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses should not associate with ex-members who have been disfellowshipped or have formally left the organization amounts to discrimination and incitement to hatred, and should be forbidden in Belgium. What the MIVILUDES implies is that Belgium is one step ahead, and its example in outlawing the so-called ostracism should be followed by France.
The 2021 decision is reported correctly by the MIVILUDES, but the report “forgets” to add that on June 7, 2022, the Court of Appeal of Ghent completely overturned the first degree decision, and stated that teaching and practicing “shunning” or ostracism as the Jehovah’s Witnesses do is perfectly legal in Belgium.
In several countries, courts have recognized that reporting on a first degree criminal decision that found a defendant guilty after that decision has been overturned on appeal amounts to defamation. Here again, the monthly meetings with the CIAOSN make it impossible to believe that the MIVILUDES was not aware of the appeal decision.
Sonia Backès, the very anti-cult French Secretary of State in charge of Citizenship, who oversees the MIVILUDES, announced for the first months of 2023 a “great national conference on cultic deviances and conspiracy theories.” Perhaps she should investigate what “deviance” or “conspiracy theories” lead the MIVILUDES to believe it is authorized to spread fake news.