member of the House of Representatives and President of the Task Force in charge of the monitoring of the Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry’s recommendations aiming to create a policy in view of fighting against the illegal practises of sects (BE).
STATE OF THE CULTIC/SECTARIAN SITUATION IN BELGIUM: feedback provided by the public authorities.
In the second half of the 1990s, following the sadly well-known events of The Order of the Solar Temple, as well as the activities of the Ecoovie group, the House of Representatives appointed a Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry to be evaluate the current situation of the illegal practises carried out by sects and the danger they represent for society and its individuals, notably minors.
In April 1997, after a long investigation during which numerous witnesses were heard, the Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry handed in its report and presented its recommendations. Among the witnesses heard were not only a large number of individuals who had had direct experience with the phenomenon as well as their family and friends and members of police and legal services, but also, a noteworthy fact, representatives of the movements in question and members of the scientific community.
This report put forward four important recommendations.
First, it recommended an increased sensitization of the authorities and the implementation of appropriate administrative structures, as well as a reinforcement of the means of action available by the police and legal and information services.
Second, a major increase of information available to the public and to youth in particular, plus appropriate training, especially in the medical milieu and an assistant in the community working in support of the victims.
Third, the revision and update of the legal framework. In particular, the adoption of a measure that would suppress the fraudulent abuse of vulnerable situations.
Fourth, the creation of an independent federal observatory.
Implementation of the Committee’s recommendations
Recommendations regarding investigative services
Following these recommendations, a certain number of measures were adopted while the recommendations were being published and others followed over the course of years.
An Administrative Coordination Unit in the fight against harmful sectarian organisations was thus created. This body of coordination, at the head of which the Minister of Justice appoints a public prosecutor, assembles various investigative services, such as, besides the prosecutor himself, the federal police, State Security (domestic intelligence), the General Information and Army Security Service, but also a representative from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or a representative from the Ministry of Justice.
A unit specialized in the matter of cults/sects was created at the core of the Federal police.
State Security received jurisdiction to analyse information relative to harmful sectarian organisations.
Prosecutors in the Federal Courts also received jurisdiction in the matter. In particular, this means that local prosecutors must transmit all information they can and have gathered on the subject to them.
Recommendations relative to the information, the training and the creation of a Federal Observatory
The recommendations relative to the information and the training in practice were implemented by the Federal Observatory, and instituted as law on June 2nd 1998 resulting in the creation of an information and advice centre on harmful sectarian organisations.
In this regard, it should be noted that the Belgian legislator has not defined the concept of a cult/sect. Instead, he decided to define another concept, that of a harmful sectarian organisation. He does so in the following terms:
By harmful sectarian organisation we understand all groups with a philosophic or religious vocation, or claiming as much, which, in their organisation or practice, engage in injurious and illegal activities, are harmful to individuals and society, or infringe upon human dignity.
The harmful nature of a sectarian organisation is examined on a basis of principles contained in the Constitution, laws, decrees, prescriptions and international conventions to safeguard human rights ratified by Belgium.
It is notable that this definition puts an accent not upon the beliefs of the groups but rather upon their practices and organisation. It is also notable that the magnitude of their harm is calculated by its comparison to the depth of infringement upon fundamental rights and freedoms. It is only deduced to be able to label a harmful sectarian organisation as such. We must be able to rely on legal decisions demonstrating the committee of infractions attaining fundamental rights.
Missions of the Information and Advice Centre on Harmful Sectarian Organisations
The mission of the Information and Advice Centre is to study the phenomenon of harmful sectarian organisations as well as their international ties. It also holds a wealth of advice and recommendations in regards to the authorities. In addition, the Centre is not only in charge of welcoming and informing the public of the sectarian problem, but it is also in charge of informing them of their rights and obligations as well as the means to implement them.
To this effect, the Centre holds important documentation assembled in a resource centre open to the public. The material comprises more than five thousand works, a significant press portfolio as well as numerous subscriptions to scientific journals.
The material also consists of a collection of court decisions. In general, the documentation is uniquely made up of public sources. But it does hold a large proportion of works and documents stemming directly from the movements. Some of these movements incidentally take steps to examine the material concerning them and provide the centre with the details of information which, in their esteem, are lacking. But this approach remains marginal.
To state an example, the requests for information addressed to the Centre stood at 800 in 2007.
The Centre holds literature relative to 840 different groups and circles of influence. This does not necessarily mean that these groups belong in the category of harmful sectarian organisations; it is only a reflection of the information requested by the public.
In addition, the Centre has published 6 brochures for the general public.
Lastly, the Centre gave training sessions to groups ranging from the public office to organisations active in the field of early childhood.
It regularly gives information sessions in schools.
Since its creation, the Centre has given 5 opinions to the authorities. The first of these recommendations concerned the status of FECRIS (the European Federation of Centres of Research and Information on Sectarianism) within the Council of Europe.
It recommended that a measure aiming to repress the fraudulent abuse of vulnerable situations be adopted.
Its president likewise handed in an expert’s report in the framework of a penal process.
Beyond these activities of information, advice and recommendation, the Centre has equally participated in the monitoring of a university study, financed by the Prime Minister’s scientific services, relative to sectarian criteriology from psychological and judicial viewpoints.
The Centre maintains close ties with field associations active in the assistance of victims.
It also maintains strong relations with foreign counterparts, as much in France and Switzerland as in Germany, Austria and Great Britain.
Its participation in numerous conferences, including those organized by the Centre itself, allows it to further strengthen its ties and determine the position of various outside contributors at international level.
Requests for general information – an indication of the phenomenon’s evolution
The examination of the information requests addressed to the Centre allows the recognition of the phenomenon’s evolution in view of the public and the authorities.
And therefore we are noticing an evolution in the types of movements which are the subject of the information requests. We have moved from requests concerning important historic groups to the more widespread problem of well-being, personal development and quasi-therapeutic movements as well as New Age circles of influence.
Notice that the increased position of Pentecostal/Evangelical neo-Protestantism has led the Centre to organize an international conference on the topic, to be held next 6th June in Brussels.
Equally noticeable are the sometimes strong differences between Belgium and abroad. Consequently, the notice given by the press of the next report from the Interministerial French Mission of Vigilance and Combat against Sectarian Aberrations (MIVILUDES) puts an emphasis on Satanism. If all circles of influence were combined, there would be a total of 25,000 people in contact with Satanism in France. This seems in stark contrast to the situation in Belgium. Only a dozen or so requests relative to Satanism were actually registered by the Centre since its creation.
Furthermore, it can be noted that the requests addressed to the Centre are sometimes echoes of media-related activity by certain groups, activity which is inversely proportional to the number of their members. Such was the case of a certain group in history which, although consisting of only 250 members in Belgium, was regularly in the news, either in the press “People” or in judicial columns.
It is interesting to note that information requests regarding police services have repeatedly represented 35% of their total number since 2004.
Requests for legal information – litigation nature index
The requests for legal information are equally an interesting indicator of the type of litigation present in the sectarian circle.
On one hand a decrease in requests emanating from local authorities relative to hall rentals or demands for event permits on the public highway has been noted. The number of organisations susceptible to disturb public order during similar demonstrations is actually very limited for the moment. At the beginning of the Centre’s activities however, a large number of local authorities seemed to believe the simple fact that a movement summoned up by the Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry could lead to the refusal of a hall rental or a permit refusal to use the public highway for the means of proselytism. This concept is equally contradictory to the spirit as to the word of Belgian law, which guarantees everyone the right to exercise a constitutional freedom of speech and peaceful assembly. The Centre’s work on information seems to have created its effect in the opinion of local authorities.
The most important legal argument remains, as it always has been, the destiny of children in separated couples. During a separation, frequently the “non-sectarian” parent worries about the religious and spiritual education their children will receive while under the guardianship of the other parent. In such cases, the two parties generally adopt extremely divided positions. One denounces a priori the danger represented by what he perceives as an inevitably harmful sect. The other invokes his fundamental right to the freedom of beliefs and his right to educate his child according to the belief of his choice.
In this type of situation the Centre reminds the public that beyond parental rights, the child has his own rights which take precedence over the rights and interests of his parents. It also reminds the public that the solution to the problem is not in the principles relative to the freedom of conscience but in the general principles of parental authority. After an examination in casu, through a social inquest, the judge first attempts to determine if the practices of the “sectarian” parent is likely to cause distress to the child’s rights and interests. If such is the case, he pronounces a ban on exposing the child to said practices until his pre-adolescence. Assuming these practices do not represent a risk but that a disagreement on the subject exists between the parents, the judge orders that the religious education be fixed at the status quo before the separation, until the child is in a position to make his own choices.
Public freedoms – Family law – Civil responsibility
A large number of groups implement a disciplinary practice implicating either the expulsion of recalcitrant individuals, or the prohibition of members to continue to maintain contacts with punished individuals or those considered as having a harmful influence. Historically this practice is found in communities such as among the Amish, where it is known under the name of shunning. Originally its goal is not to definitively expel “guilty” individuals but, on the contrary, it aims to incite them to return to the group’s values.
In modern movements however, the practice of expulsion is implemented with great intensity. Its consequences are not identical in relatively closed communities such as among the Amish, in comparison to modern groups whose members do not live in such a community.
Applied in an extreme manner, this practice can have penal-type consequences. Thus, the Centre has come to know several situations where, following a separation, one parent is expelled from the group. Even though the judge pronounces joint custody of the children, the parent member of the group, under its pressure, refuses his expelled ex-partner the right to practice his joint custody. In doing so, the non-expelled parent renders himself guilty of non-representation of the child.
Beyond this aspect of family penal law is the problem of the right to public freedoms. In fact, in the groups in question, the members are even prohibited from associating with the expelled. In couple situations, contact between the expelled and non-expelled spouses must be limited to a minimum. In extreme cases, divorce is insisted upon and is even facilitated by legal assistance offered by the group to the non-expelled spouse.
In this type of situation, the position of the non-expelled is unusual. Their right to the free practice of their chosen religion is conditioned by the group, which obliges the severance of certain social ties and even the severance of family ties. The disobedience of this obligation itself leads to expulsion. Whether the non-expelled complies or not, he suffers a period of tension concerning his right to the freedom of practicing his religion on one hand and on the other his right to the respect of his private and family life. This tension can have a negative impact on his mental health and well-being. And we see the result of a mistake committing the civil responsibility of the author to a charge of ending his relationships.
An important question is the problem of the refusal of health care and medical alternatives. The refusal of health care is a right established by the law on patient rights.
Still it must be possible to envision a sufficient manner of protection for the fate of individuals who are either minors or who are not in a legal or material capacity to express their wishes. All too frequently the situation consists of individuals, knowing that alternative care will only temporarily improve the state of their health, entirely abstaining from this option. In these types of situations, inactive family members and friends as well as those who administer alternative care, all while knowing that the patient does not have the resources for industrial medicine, are exposed to prosecution for the non-assistance of an individual in danger. Added to this, for the administrators of alternate care who do not have the status of a doctor, is the risk of prosecution for the illegal practice of the healing arts and even fraud.
These were notably the chief charges that led to the 2006 conviction of the leader of the organisation Spiritual Human Yoga.
Right of contracts
The question of fraud has an interesting place in movements of an esoteric type. In fact, by nature, an esoteric movement only dispenses its education through successive instalments. But not all esoteric movements give clarity on this particular nature from the beginning. Thus, an individual can commit himself in total confidence to an education that touches upon personal development or communication. It is not until after several successive training periods that he will learn that the next level, for which he has already paid an advance, involves, for example, contact with extra-terrestrial bodies. It is not rare that at this moment the individual wishes to put an end to his commitment. If by any chance the trainer demands the balance of the payment owed, the individual can point out that fraud was committed at the end of the contract. This fraud consists of the withholding of information relative to extra-terrestrials. The trainer should have known that prior knowledge of this information could have had a negative impact on the conclusion of the contract. The observation of this faulty withholding of information may allow for the null and void of the contract and a demand for reimbursement of the sums already paid.
The notion of fraud in movements of the spiritual or religious type is sometimes more difficult to establish. In simple terms, fraud consists of swindling victims out of money through false pretences or by using manoeuvres with the aim of instilling the belief of an imaginary power to instil hope for imaginary success or fear of an event that is also entirely fabricated.
We find that within the core of “healer” movements, as within the theology of prospering of behaviours, which seem to respond to the definition of fraud.
Thus, a spiritual leader presents himself as having a direct personal and special tie with God. He enjoins his followers to pay the organisation a sum of money. He explains that in exchange, and upon his intervention, God will grant the contributors either health, or work or even an inheritance. But he also explains that the refusal of a donation exposes the faithful to divine punishment.
Assuming, which is most often the case, that neither health nor work nor an inheritance follows, the faithful can be tempted to see, in the practice of the leader, a fraud.
The false pretences and the imaginary power consist in the alleged special relationship with God as well as the supposed effects of the leader’s intervention with God. The imaginary success consists in the alleged healing, the promise of work or the hoped-for inheritance. The induced fear finds itself in the threat of divine punishment.
We can almost believe to have assembled the constitutional elements of fraud. And yet the means of the leader’s defence make it practically impossible to prove the infraction.
Indeed, the entire demonstration presupposes that:
1. The minister does not have a privileged relationship with God;
2. That God does not have the power to grant benefits in exchange for donations to the
leader or equally to abstain from doing so;
3. That God does not have the power to punish the resistant individuals or equally to
abstain from doing so.
Now it is a question of the proof of negative facts.
In addition, this supposes that the judge settles questions of faith and theology, which is beyond his abilities. It seems then that this type of action is doomed to failure.
In numerous situations, the leader announces that the received funds should serve for the expansion of the group, the purchase of buildings or the distribution of publications. Quite often, this money is not dedicated to the declared goals but in fact finds itself predominantly allocated to the maintenance of the leader’s lifestyle. In this situation, even though it is practically impossible to prove a case of fraud, it is possible to pursue a case based on the abuse of confidence. This is defined by the fact of misappropriating funds that were allocated for a set purpose.
Why are there few criminal complaints?
The first explanation is a truism. There are few complaints in comparison to other phenomenon because of the characteristics, by definition a large minority, of the groups in question.
In fact, the largest group represents only 23,000 members in Belgium for a population of +/- 10 million inhabitants.
But other specific factors also provide for the explanation of the low number of complaints.
The first factor is tied to the particular relationship that holds the victim to the author. This relationship is actually a connection where the emotional state holds a significant role and where the rapports of authority and obedience are particularly integrated. In the same manner that few victims in a dominating and violent relationship do not complain of the violence of which they may be victims, few members of sectarian organisations can imagine complaining to the authorities of the behaviour of a person who has developed spiritual and emotional authority over them.
Another parallel with the phenomenon of conjugal violence is found in the victim’s internalisation of the justifications provided by his captor for his abusive behaviour. Often, the punishments are understood in the eyes of the victim through alleged errors he has committed.
A second factor resides in which certain circumstances there exists an accumulation between the position of the author and that of the victim. This is particularly true of those who see themselves ordered to commit anti-social acts in order to benefit from the movement’s grace or from its clemency in face of the acts it reproaches him for.
A third factor is tied to the shame linked to the victim’s position. This phenomenon is likewise found in the affairs of morals, conjugal violence and, for other reasons, fraud.
A fourth factor is related to the fear of reprisals.
A fifth factor is related to the fear that maladjustment to the outside world could prevail over the will to make the victim’s position recognized and to have the authors punished.
Lastly a final factor is tied to the absence of the incrimination of behaviour which – even though harmful and abusive – is not actually punishable by the law.
It is in order to respond to this last question that a proposal was submitted to Parliament of a law aiming to incriminate the abuse of vulnerable situations, already known to French law, and also mental destabilisation.
Proposition of a law aiming to incriminate the mental destabilisation of individuals and the abuse of vulnerable situations.
The bill proposes the introduction of two new infractions in the Penal Code. On one hand the abuse of vulnerable situations, on the other the mental destabilisation of individuals.
The abuse of vulnerable situations is already known to French law and is defined in article 223-15-2 of its Penal Code.
The French text is as follows:
A penalty (…) is incurred by the fraudulent abuse of the ignorance or state of weakness of a minor, or of a person whose particular vulnerability, due to age, sickness, disability, to a psychic or physical deficiency or to a state of pregnancy, is apparent or known to the offender, or a person in a state of psychological or physical dependency resulting from serious or repeated pressure or from techniques used to affect his judgement, in order to induce the minor or other person to perform an act or an omission seriously harmful to him.
The Belgian proposition of the text encapsulates the principle notions of the French text. Equally punishable is the fact of abusing an individual’s vulnerable situation or his state of ignorance in order to lead to an act or an abstention which is seriously detrimental to him. The causes of vulnerable situations or states of ignorance are identical.
The text of the Belgian proposal, meanwhile and unlike the French text, allows the judge to pronounce a prison sentence.
It is interesting to note that in France, this chief charge was retained in affairs not related to the sectarian problem.
In its 16th January 2008 ruling, the Douai Court of Appeal sentenced two individuals for having abused the vulnerable situation of an elderly person suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. The two found guilty went to the victim’s home to sell her a large amount of food, which apparently she did not need as she was being taken care of by her family, in exchange for a cheque which they themselves would fill out.
The Orléans Court of Appeal, in its January 9th 2006 ruling, had already sentenced two women who worked together in the abuse of a vulnerable situation by taking advantage of a frail senior more than 80 years old who was manipulated to sign over numerous cheques in their names.
Other similar situations exist. There is no lack of interest in the idea that incriminating behaviour is not the sect’s only prerogative. The result is that it would be futile to create an exceptional law aimed at a particular branch of society recognizing only members of spiritual minorities. Just the contrary, what these decisions demonstrate is that the abuse of a vulnerable situation is a type of anti-social behaviour that is found in various circumstances and that – if it should be punished within the cults/sects – it is because it is punished outside of them.
Beyond the abuse of vulnerable situations or the state of ignorance, the Belgian proposal equally aims to introduce a said offence of mental destabilisation.
This time it is a matter of the author to undermine the fundamental rights of his victim by choosing and forcing him:
- to join or to quit an association with religious, cultural or scientific characteristics;
- to belong to a belief or an ideology;
- to contribute or to stop contributing to the activities of similar associations.
The fundamental rights achieved are the right to association and the freedom of conscience.
To be punishable, the author must constrain or influence his victim by using:
- concrete actions or
- violence or
- threats or
- psychological destabilisation manoeuvres.
Or by making him fear the exposure to damage of:
- himself or
- his family or
- his assets or
- his work
Or by abusing his credulity to persuade him of:
a) the existence of fake businesses or
b) of an imaginary power or
c) the coming of chimerical events.
Note that the latter means are inspired by some of the constitutional elements of fraud.
Supposing that this legislation is adopted, certain actions will no longer be able to go unpunished, such as forcing a worker to take part in an organisation whose aim is to safeguard humanity by resorting to the technology developed by well-known science-fiction authors, under the threat of losing his job in a company implementing, for example, the administrative technology invented by the same author.
It is a constant possibility, however, that this clause could equally be found applied not only in the field of sects but in all sectors of social life where its conditions of use would be met.