Adelbert Denaux and Belgium’s Information and Advice Center Concerning Harmful Sectarian Organizations, or What’s in a Name, Anyway?

[NOTE to reader: This is a long, detailed analysis of Adelbert Denaux’s law review article in defense of Belgium’s Information and Advice Center Concerning Harmful Sectarian Organizations. For the application of this to Alessia’s case, scroll down near the end. Also, the term The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the official name of the “Mormon Church,” and this analysis uses the official name to refer to that religious organization.]

The case of Alessia that Professor Wilfried Decoo describes is important enough to warrant continued discussion. This case highlights Belgium’s treatment of religious groups that are not approved by the state. Particularly, the (non)involvement of Professor Adelbert Denaux in this case is revealing and instructive.

Adelbert Denaux is a professor on the Faculty of Theology at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium. Denaux is also the president of the International Ecumenical Fellowship (“IEF”). More importantly, for this case, however, and contrary to the very conciliatory sounding nature of the IEF, Denaux is also the President of Belgium’s Information and Advice Center Concerning Harmful Sectarian Organizations (Centre d’Information et d’Avis sur les Organisations Sectaires Nuisibles (“CIAOSN”)). In 2002, Adelbert Denaux attended the Ninth Annual International Law and Religion Symposium hosted by BYU Law School’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies and Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He may have been invited there to try to justify, if he could, the existence of such a state-sponsored Center Concerning Harmful Sectarian Organizations–and its list of 189 harmful “cults”–in a country that gave constitutional lip service to the free exercise of religion. (The French word “secte” carries the negative connotation and meaning of the English word “cult”, rather than merely “denomination,” which is the neutral connotation of the English word “sect”.) At any rate, his visit culminated in an article in the BYU Law Review concerning Belgium’s list of cults: The Attitude of Belgian Authorities Toward New Religious Movements, 2002 BYU L. Rev. 237. Page numbers from this article are cited parenthetically in this post.

In this article, Denaux uses in the title and in many instances throughout the more politically correct term “new religious movement” (“NRM”)to describe any religion that is not the Catholic or Dutch Reformed Protestant Church, rather than the negatively connotated French “secte,” although this word still surfaces in the article. Denaux’s article is focused on Belgium’s Information and Advice Center Concerning Harmful Sectarian Organizations (“IACCHSO”) and Belgium’s list of 189 harmful cults. Curiously, in defense of Belgium’s dedication to religious freedom, Denaux claims that Belgium’s creation of the IACCHSO actually constitutes a “noble effort” in regards to NRMs (238). I was incredulous at how inclusion on a list to be distributed by an institution with the title of Information and Advice Center Concerning Harmful Sectarian Organizations could possibly be construed as a noble effort on behalf of those included on the list. Others at the Symposium, including practioners, professors, and other mere law students like myself at the time, were similarly skeptical. Denaux, for his part, opens the door by asking, at the conclusion of his article defending the existence of a government institution with such a biased name, “Who could, on reasonable grounds, be against such a project?” (253).

Denaux contextualizes the creation of the IACCHSO by putting it in the context of cults that have sponsored mass suicide:

Following the mass suicide of seventy-four members of the “Temple Solaire,” a sect that included Doctor Luc Jouret, a Belgian citizen and one of two Temple Solaire leaders, Belgian authorities decided that it was their duty to protect Belgian citizens from the dangers associated with sectarian organizations. (238)

Even this contextualization, however, which is meant to reveal that Belgium was acting to prevent a future such atrocity, reveals the biased nature of the Belgian state against any and all NRMs. Denaux speaks of Belgium’s duty to protect its citizens “from the dangers associated with sectarian organizations.” Thus, there are dangers associated with all “sectarian organizations,” by which is presumably meant all denominations of Christianity besides Catholicism, Dutch Reformed (“gereformeerd” or “hervormd,” i.e. “reformiert“), and perhaps Lutheranism (“Evangelisch“). This, however, is a mere quibble.

To fulfil this duty, the Belgian Parliament initiated an investigation into the Temple Solaire disaster and issued a report of its findings on April 28, 1997. As an appendix to the report, the authors of the report added a list of 189 “harmful sectarian organizations.” Denaux quotes the incredible assertion of the Beglian Parliament that

the fact that a group appears in the list [of harmful sectarian organizations], even on the initiative of any state authority, does not mean that the Commission supposes it to be a sect or, a fortiori, to be harmful.

What? So just because the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints appears on a list of “harmful sectarian organizations,” to be distributed by a government entity titled the Information and Advice Center Concerning Harmful Sectarian Organizations, which is administered by a state administrative agency called the Administrative Agency for the Coordination of the Fight against Harmful Sectarian Organizations, (see pages 240-241 and footnotes 11-13), does not necessarily mean that the Belgian government considers the Church harmful or sectarian? Interesting. Then why the name?

Denaux offers no explanation on this point, merely pointing to the existential status of the Center:

The Center is linked to the Ministry of Justice–it relies on the ministry to meet its needs with respect to personnel, location, infrastructure, and daily work. Because the state, through the Ministry of Justice, supports the Center, a need for a level of independence exists. The Law requires this independence as well as objectivity and impartiality. In fact, the Center is functionally independent and is not integrated in the hierarchical structure of the ministry. Specifically, its members are chosen by a two-thirds majority of the House of Parliament, not the Ministry. Additionally, the Center has the prerogative to formulate, on its own initiative, advice and recommendations for the authorities. The Center is also independent in relation to the sects themselves as well as the anti-cult organizations. It is neither the mouthpiece of the government nor of the pressure groups of any kind. (241-242)

So the Center is not an organ of the ministry of justice but is an independent body whose members are selected by Parliament. That should make Latter-day Saints and all others belonging to religions listed as harmful sectarian organizations feel much better. But wait, if the Center is not an organ of the Ministry of Justice but is an independent governmental body, what accountability does the Center have for its anti-sectarian actions? Denaux does not address this concern.

To his credit, Denaux notes that he, the nominee for president of the IACCHSO at the time, voiced a concern that such a list might not be a great idea (though he gives no hint that he considered the creation of a Center with such a name or an Administrative Agency with such a name a bad idea).

The author of this paper was invited by the Commission as an academic expert who warned, in tempore non suspecto, against the publication of such a list:

Professor Denaux is not personally favourably disposed to the establishment of a list of sects, such as exists in France. He fears that this would rapidly degenerate into a witch hunt, because once placed on the list, the religious grouping will often be considered a priori as a sect and could not but with difficulty, prove the opposite.

(239, footnote 9 (quoting the findings of the Report of April 28, 1997))

Thus, Denaux could graciously concede at the Symposium and in the article that “it must be admitted publishing such a list was imprudent and could give rise to interpretations that the listed organizations were dangerous,” but was quick to add that this was “an interpretation not intended by the Report’s drafters” (239). Nevertheless, Denaux serves currently as President of this very Center, distributing information to Belgian state authorities concerning any “harmful sectarian organization” that appears on the list but whose presence on the list supposedly implies neither that the organization is “harmful” nor “sectarian” (i.e. a “cult”).

Denaux devotes a portion of his article to this nomenclature. “Many might ask what the Belgian law means by “harmful sectarian organization” (“HSO”)” (243). That is an understatement. Denaux explains, unabashedly, that “harmful sectarian organization,” as defined in the Law of June 2, 1998, refers to “all groups having a philosophical or religious vocation, or making such a claim, which, in their structure or practices, engage in harmful, illegal activities, harm individuals or the society, or violate human dignity” (243). Denaux never explains, however, the palpable contradiction this raises with his statements that inclusion on the list in no way implies that a group is harmful or sectarian. After all, how can he maintain this if the law itself defines “harmful sectarian organizations” in this way and the Center contains this nomenclature in its title? Perhaps if the Center really were only dealing with groups that conform to the legal description above, then Denaux could make this claim. But the Center, as Denaux points out, also considers itself an authority and advises the Belgian government with regards to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (see 251-253), a group that manifestly (even, dare I say it, objectively) does not match the legal description of a harmful sectarian organization as defined in the Law of June 2, 1998.

With regards to the Center’s treatment of and definition of “harmful sectarian organizations,” Denaux adds some details of the Law itself:

The meaning of the term “HSO” [“harmful sectarian organization”] should also be ascertained in the light of the discussion held in the parliamentary commission. The commission formulated its conclusion by making a distinction between three types of organizations: “(i) sects in the strict sense[,] (ii) harmful sectarian organizations[, and] (iii) associations of evildoers.” The first category of sects is generally classified under the sociology of religion and commonly calls the sects New Religious Movements. The commission prudently avoided taking a position in the endless discussion about the definition of what constitutes a sect or a cult. It gives a rather general description of how it understands the word “sect,” namely a “group having a philosophical or religious vocation.” It even mentions the possibility that certain groups may “pose as such,” meaning that there are organizations whose philosophical or religious outlook is but a cover for other purposes. (243-244)

So the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints need have no concern about its presence on the list of harmful cults because, after all, if it is nice to the Center, it might fall under the Center’s first category, “sects in the strict sense” (the French “secte” carries the negative connotation of “cult”), rather than in the second or third categories. But concerning these latter categories, “[t]he third category, ‘associations of evildoers,’ falls under criminal law. The second category, called ‘harmful sectarian organizations,’ located somewhere between the two extremes, is also defined according to criminological criteria” (244). So, how does the Church go about avoiding landing in one of these two categories? That is up to the Center and the Center alone:

The commission also proposed a set of criteria allowing the Center to qualify a sectarian organization as “harmful” or to present evidence of their harmful behavior. The commission accepted this criminological definition without recommending that the legislature adopt any legal definition of a sect.

Denaux, apparently, cannot understand why the 189 “cults” on his Center’s list should have anything against putting their trust in his organization, the Information and Advice Center Concerning Harmful Sectarian Organizations, to advise the Belgian government regarding their status as either (1) a regular old “secte“, (2) a specifically defined “harmful sectarian organization” (despite the fact that all NRMs are already included in the list of 189 cults of the Center on Harmful Sectarian Organizations), or (3) full-on “associations of evildoers.” After all, asks Denaux, “Who could, on reasonable grounds, be against such a project?” (253).

In spite of any concerns he may have voiced during the hearings leading up to the publication of the list of 189 cults and the establishment of his Center on Harmful Sectarian Organizations, Denaux defends the Center and thus implicitly its use of the list of 189 harmful cults throughout the article. “Belgium has an original solution to thwarting Harmful Sectarian Organizations,” writes Denaux. “This article outlines Belgium’s critical and responsible model, a model without prejudices or unwarranted influences and that can withstand the test of external opinions” (253). In fact, laments Denaux, the Report of April 28, 1997 “has been often quoted but, I fear, seldom read” (ibid.), implying that if only people would read the actual Report, which outlines the justifications for Belgium to set up the Center and the Administrative Agency for the Coordination of the Fight against Harmful Sectarian Organizations, then they wouldn’t be distracted by the fact that Belgium labels all these groups “harmful sectarian organizations” because they would then realize that such nomenclature in the list is “not the object of any approval or disapproval of the [Belgian] House [of Representatives]” (240). Such is Denaux’s conviction, and he is free to believe what he wants, but this leaves the question of whether the Belgian state is free to treat religions, both well-established ones like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well as “new religious movements,” as “harmful sectarian organizations” through inclusion on the list of 189 cults and the resultant skepticism towards them.

Denaux ascribes illegitimacy to the attempts of the media and human rights organizations to question the work of the Center and its implications for the existence and life of new religious movements (or even those that aren’t so “new,” like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, est. 1830).

[S]ome human rights organizations [have] alleged that Belgian authorities were in fact using the synoptic table as a “list of sects” to target NRMs. However, when queried for evidence, these organizations could not verify their assertions. Some NRMs and minority religions also complained that their inclusion in the list has damaged their reputation or made them suspect in the eyes of others. In certain cases, a group’s inclusion in the list has allegedly been a basis for discriminatory treatment against them. In any case, the unfortunate result of the list’s bad publicity was that the rest of the investigative Report did not get the attention it really deserved. (240)

This is where Alessia’s case becomes expressly pertinent to Denaux’s adament defense of the work of the Center on Harmful Sectarian Organizations. In the bolded portion, Denaux notes this complaint of some new religious movements, i.e. that “the list has allegedly been a basis for discriminatory treatment against them,” but dismisses it together with his assertion that “when queried for evidence,” human rights organizations asserting that the list is being used by Belgium to target new religious movements as harmful sectarian organizations “could not verify their assertions.” Alessia’s case, however, suggests otherwise; rather, Alessia’s case is a concrete example of this very complaint in practice.

In relating Alessia’s case, Wilfried notes that the Belgian administrative agency responsible for helping the orphaned Latter-day Saint girl Alessia find a foster home told leaders of the Church’s youth organization that the Church was a harmful cult unless those youth leaders could prove otherwise. Thus, the Church’s presence on the list of 189 cults and its treatment by Denaux’s Center on Harmful Sectarian Organizations arguably created a presumption in the Belgian state that the Church was a harmful sectarian organization (after all, it’s on the list, right?). The agency placed this Latter-day Saint girl in the home of an ardent Catholic foster father who refused to allow Alessia to attend the services of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or to live according to the doctrines of that Church.

The youth leaders involved contacted the only Belgian they knew who they thought could help them in this situation: BYU French Professor Wilfried Decoo. Professor Decoo, in turn, appealed directly to Professor Adelbert Denaux, who Decoo thought would be willing to intervene based on what Denaux had written specifically about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in his 2002 BYU Law Review article (see pages 251-253, where Denaux notes that even though the Church is on the list of 189 cults, it is, at the present time, not considered a threat to the Belgian state). It is questionable what Denaux did, if anything, to intervene and give his conciliatory words practical effect. It appears that if Denaux did anything at all, he merely sent the foster father the Center’s opinion of the Church (which can be found on pages 251-253 of Denaux’s BYU Law Review article). Anyone reading those findings will note, as did Professor Decoo, that “[i]f Denaux only sent this official IACHSO information to the people dealing with Alessia, it did more harm than good.” This conclusion can hardly be refuted.

Upon closer reflection, Professor Decoo realized his blunder:

I should have remembered [Denaux] is a Catholic priest. I should have remembered he is from West-Flanders. I should have remembered that years earlier he wrote a book reviling cults, including the Mormons. I should have known that the official IACHSO information about the Mormons was scanty (one page), ambiguous, cleverly mentioning past controversial issues such as racism, theocracy and polygamy. Next, according to the information, we are creationists rejecting evolution, we are fundamentalist readers of the Scriptures without any critical approach, and our “attitude towards women does not fit the European and international evolution in matters of equality between men and women”. Not one more word, leaving it to the reader to imagine narrow-minded fundamentalists and veiled women forbidden to study or drive a car . . . But, thanks heaven, we are not presenting “any particular risks” to the Belgian State, at least for now, for “this actual opinion does in no mean preset judgement on any ulterior evolution of the movement or of the individuals who form the group.”

Professor Decoo’s reflections on his attempted involvement of Denaux to intervene on behalf of Alessia’s freedom of religion went even further:

How is it possible that a Catholic priest, with a known anti-cult background and the use of grossly manipulated information, chairs the legal Belgian center providing information on religious minorities? Indeed, in 2003 the IACHSO was denounced by the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights for it’s “questionable objectivity and impartiality”, as it’s body “is currently composed of representatives of political parties, the Catholic Church and various ‘anti-sect’ movements”, who do not take “any effective measures to address and put an end to the discrimination experienced by members of groups depicted as ‘harmful sects’.”

This is a good question, and one that demands an answer. In the meantime, Alessia’s case surely presents the evidence that Denaux claimed was lacking in the assertions of “new religious movements” that “the list has allegedly been a basis for discriminatory treatment against” new religious movements who find themselves on the list of 189 cults and thus treated by Denaux’s own Information and Advice Center Concerning Harmful Sectarian Organizations under the aegis of Belgium’s Administrative Agency for the Coordination of the Fight against Harmful Sectarian Organizations.

3 Responses to Adelbert Denaux and Belgium’s Information and Advice Center Concerning Harmful Sectarian Organizations, or What’s in a Name, Anyway?

  1. Stephen says:

    I think you are right. It should be interesting to see what comes of this.

  2. Ronan says:

    The BYULR article does flag one problem over which the church has control: timely and professional response to inquiries:

    Although the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did reply to the inquiry, the response was received too late and therefore not included in the formal advice
    given to the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

  3. john f. says:

    That is a very good point. The Church seems to have been more on the ball in the German situation, attending closed-door hearings with the Enquiry Commission.

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