“Religious Liberty Should Do No Harm”
The young Dominican priest wore an expression of calm and solemn contemplation that came from somewhere deep within. Much like his faith, his attire came from a far distant time. His medieval-style habit—white, ankle-length with folded cuffed sleeves—had been worn by friars during the middle-ages when serfs tilled the land. His heavy black rosary hung on the left side, where a knight would’ve worn his sword—a powerful reminder that this spiritual icon was far more effective than a blade.
He was sitting across from me in his office at St. Thomas Aquinas, the church serving the University of Virginia’s catholic congregation. A graduate of Yale University, he’d presided over my son Kyle’s funeral mass and burial just a few weeks earlier on February 21.
“I called you, Victoria,” he said with concern, “to see how you are managing.”
For a moment I was unable to answer. A measureless chain of days—the darkest of days—had followed my son’s death. I’d retreated into a bleak wilderness where torment, guilt, and despair germinated and thrived. Overwrought with grief, I couldn’t process the harsh reality that Kyle was no longer among the living. If there was any light left in the world, I just couldn’t see it.
I suspected that during the meeting about to unfold, the young Dominican would attempt the unenviable task of coaxing a grieving mother out of her pool of sorrow. What I didn’t foresee is that the discussion would include detailed information about the Church of Scientology and the Clearwater Police Department’s investigation of Kyle’s death.
The Dominican told me how to obtain answers from an uncooperative police detective. He forewarned me about an organization with church status that had a reputation for being a chronically vexatious litigant. The priest advised me to proceed cautiously—to think it over. He wanted to make certain that I understood what I was up against. That it wasn’t going to be easy. It became obvious that the friar knew much more about Scientology than I had anticipated.
During our talk, he gave me a grim warning: “It would be just like the Church of Scientology,” he said, “to take your grief and use it as a weapon against you.
My conversation with the Dominican friar was protected under priest-penitent privilege. (Similar to laws applying to communications between lawyers and their clients, this rule of evidence—based on the First Amendment’s freedom of religion—strictly forbids inquiry into certain conversations between clergymen and members of their congregations.) I have no problem sharing it publicly as I have nothing to hide. And certainly the priest, with permission, would have no problem sharing our private conversation under oath. Especially if it could help in an investigation.
And this is but one way in which churches—and organizations like Scientology that have church status—enjoy a protected, and privileged, standing in the United States. Our society subsidizes them with generous tax breaks that are not available to other institutions, even non-profits. In U.S. tax law, churches are classified as public charities—they’re 501(c)(3) organizations—and they’re generally exempt from federal, state, and local income and property taxes. They can opt-out of Social Security and Medicare withholding. But should they have all of these privileges? What about when their enormous wealth is used to quietly pay off civil suits? Or when these subsidies enable megachurch ministers to live luxurious lifestyles from the tithing of its overly devout and poor parishioners?
When churches hide their criminality, their immorality, behind the First Amendment, we need to question whether they deserve these protections. When a defendant can confess to a crime for penitence while not taking responsibility for the crime, we need to question whether a moral boundary line has been crossed.
Are these special church protections outdated? Shouldn’t they be changed to protect the public?
One of the defendants in our wrongful-death lawsuit against the Church of Scientology (and several of its practitioners), was Denise Miscavige Gentile, twin-sister of the Church’s leader, David Miscavige. She lied repeatedly when questioned by the Clearwater police regarding my son’s death, as well as when she was later deposed, under oath, by our lawyer, Ken Dandar. (And of course, lying to the police, and under oath, are criminal acts.)
(For a detailed description of her criminality, go to “Scientology, Lies, and Alibis” at https://vbreton2062.wordpress.com/denise-miscavige-gentilescientology-lies-and-alibis/)
One of her lies was about her being the Scientology “auditor”—or spiritual advisor—for Tom Brennan, Kyle’s biological father, and another of the defendants. (“Auditors” perform “auditing,” one of Scientology’s standard practices. This involves attaching an “e-meter” electrical device to the subject—the “pc” or “preclear”—and asking questions while looking for a change in the pc’s “charge.” The goal is the removal of “charged incidents” that Scientology teaches have caused trauma in the pc’s mind.)
Asked by the Clearwater police detective if she was Brennan’s advisor, Gentile answered: “I’m not—I’m not a church advisor.” And yet a document subpoenaed by lawyer Dandar from the Church of Scientology—a “Privilege Log” showing Brennan’s auditing progress—lists Denise as Brennan’s auditor at the time of Kyle’s death.
Amazingly—despite the fact that she’d first claimed she wasn’t Brennan’s auditor—the Scientology lawyers later stated that “information regarding Denise and Tom’s Scientology-based friendship” was off-limits because “it was covered, under the law, by priest-penitent privilege.” The hubris involved here is absolutely astounding. At first, she wasn’t Brennan’s auditor, but once this was proven to be a lie, their conversations were privileged and protected. They couldn’t be subpoenaed.
Denise—with the help of her Church-bought lawyers—completely played the system. Their criminality is only outmatched by their immorality. Their abuse of the Church’s religious protections created legal problems for me, a private citizen seeking the truth regarding my young son’s death.
Denise Miscavige Gentile, a high-ranking “celebrity” member of the Church of Scientology, never even considered telling the truth.
Clearwater Police Report; Detective Steve Bohling-Denise Miscavige
Copyright © 2021 by Victoria L. Britton