Court Rejects Scientology's Religious-Freedom Argument

Source: Globe and Mail
Date: April 19, 1997

by Thomas Claridge

The Ontario Court of Appeal has upheld the 1992 conviction of the Church of Scientology of Toronto and one of its officers on two counts of criminal breach of trust stemming from covert operations of its Guardian's Office more than 20 years ago.

In a 143-page ruling released late yesterday, a three-judge panel rejected arguments by Scientology lawyers that incorporated non-profit religious associations should not be held liable for unauthorized criminal acts committed by individuals within their ranks.

Although agreeing that the liability infringed guarantees of religious freedom in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the court held that the infringement was permissible under Section 1 of the Charter as a reasonable limit in a free and democratic society.

Speaking for the court, Mr. Justice Marc Rosenberg concluded that there was no possible "reformulation of corporate criminal liability that will not infringe" the guarantee of religious freedom. "The mere prosecution of the church will stigmatize the parishioners and members and divert funds from religious purposes to defence of the charge.

"Even if the prosecution were limited to the acts of the board of directors, it would infringe freedom of religion since liability would still be imposed on the corporation on a vicarious basis. The 'innocent' parishioners would be required to fund the defence, and church property would be at risk if the church were convicted and a fine imposed."

Judge Rosenberg said the objective of applying criminal liability to religious corporations "relates to a fundamental tenet of our society, namely that no person is above or beyond the law."

He went on to observe that imposing criminal liability on the corporation for acts of its managers was also needed "to protect vulnerable persons within the hierarchy. . . . To relieve the corporation of liability when the managers have abused their positions to benefit the corporation would aggravate the powerlessness of the victims."

He noted that the breaches of trust victimized "large, powerful institutions such as the Ontario Provincial Police and the Ministry of the Attorney-General," whose offices had been infiltrated by church agents in the mid-1970s. "In another case, however, the victims could be the parishioners or members themselves."

Judge Rosenberg said that if courts adopted a lower standard of criminal liability for religious corporations, "this would necessarily invite inquiry" into whether their religious goals "were genuine or a mere sham to take advantage of the preferential treatment."

In upholding a $250,000 fine imposed by Mr. Justice James Southey of the Ontario Court's General Division, Judge Rosenberg said the offences "represented a deliberate attempt to undermine the effectiveness of the law-enforcement agencies.

"This was not simply an intelligence-gathering exercise. The appellant had planted its agents in these agencies so that they would be able to anticipate and counter the efforts of these agencies to enforce the law."

Beyond that, he said, the offences "represented the execution of a carefully conceived plan," and the agents had been given special instructions to assist them in carrying out their activity. The agents themselves "were not acting for personal gain but under the belief instilled by the appellant that these acts were necessary to protect their church."

He also agreed with Judge Southey that the church had "at no time admitted responsibility for these offences or expressed remorse for its involvement." It had stopped the activity only because the risk of discovery was putting it in jeopardy.

A significant fine "was appropriate to encourage compliance by other entities who might otherwise adopt a similar strategy and attempt to subvert the public service and interfere with the administration of justice."

The main issue raised on behalf of Jacqueline Matz, the church official who was responsible for supervising agents planted in various government agencies and other organizations, was that her lawyer should have been able to address the jury after the Crown made its closing submissions. In its ruling, the court said the issue is currently before the Supreme Court of Canada.

Last night, Rev. Al Buttnor, director of public affairs for Scientology in Toronto, said the church was pleased by the court's pointing out that the church had "removed and expelled over 15-20 years ago those who were responsible for the acts that underlie this case" and had taken steps to ensure that this type of conduct would never be repeated.

"We are pleased," Mr. Buttnor said, "that the court has clearly acknowledged that the past is not the present and recognized that the current church officials and members are clearly distinct from the renegades who were thrown out of the church by 1983, before any hint of prosecution."

( categories: )