Scientology Church On Trial In Canada

Source: St. Petersburg Times
Date: April 23, 1991

by W. Richard Reynolds

The Church of Scientology goes on trial here this morning, charged with stealing thousands of documents from government offices and law firms. It is the first time that a church has been put on trial in Canada.

The trial is expected to be long and drawn-out. Various motions on legal technicalities must be dealt with first, a process that could take months.

The trial is the result of eight years of legal wrangling. It began in 1983, when 110 police officers raided the downtown Toronto Scientology headquarters of the Ontario branch. Over the following two days, police trucked away an estimated 250,000 documents in more than 900 boxes.

At the time, the police said they were investigating alleged:

  • Tax fraud against the federal and provincial governments.
  • Cheating of consumers by misrepresenting Scientology courses offered to the public.
  • Breaking and entering into offices to steal documents.
  • A "conspiracy to commit indictable offenses by Scientology where perceived necessary to protect the interests of Scientology."

Most of the documents allegedly were stolen by Scientology members, police said. The documents either were stolen or illegally copied and came from provincial and federal government offices, law firms and the Ontario Medical Association (which regulates the province's doctors), they said. Many of the files contained personal information about individuals.

It took nearly two years before police laid charges: four counts of theft of documents and information, four counts of breach of trust and seven counts of possession of stolen property.

After a 159-day preliminary hearing (a process similar to a grand jury), the sect was committed to trial on seven counts of theft and four counts of breach of trust. Nine individuals, all Scientologists, also were committed to trial.

Scientology's Toronto office did not return phone calls seeking comment on the charges.

Two of the individuals have been convicted on theft charges, two have been acquitted and the other five cases against individuals remain in various states of legal limbo.

The Scientologists have delayed the proceedings against the organization through a long series of challenges questioning the validity of the original search warrants. In one ruling last year, a judge agreed that the police had exceeded the power of the warrants, and ordered 546 boxes of documents returned to the Scientologists.

The trial is expected to spend the first few months examining similar issues.

Lawyer Clayton Ruby, who represents the organization, said he plans to challenge at least two points of law.

Ruby will argue that the case has taken too long to get to trial and that as a result, the Scientologist's constitutional rights have been violated.

"We have had several recent rulings in this country affirming the right of the accused to a speedy trial," Ruby said. "I certainly think that eight years is an unreasonable amount of time for my clients to wait."

Ruby also plans to challenge whether a church can be charged with criminal offenses. In Canada, a corporation (as opposed to an individual) conducting business can be charged with criminal offenses, but other organizations cannot. Unions, professional associations, clubs and other non-business groups are immune from being charged as a corporate body.

"I believe that the church should be exempt for the same reasons," Ruby said. "The church should not be subject to criminal prosecutions in the same way that a corporation is."

Those, and other minor issues could take months to argue. If the case survives that long, it will take several weeks to select a jury. The trial might not begin until August or September and could last a year.

( categories: )