Businesswoman suing church wins application

The Irish Times, May 1, 1999

A 33-year-old Dublin businesswoman who is suing the Church of Scientology for damages because she claims she was "brainwashed" yesterday in the High Court won her application to see her "counselling notes."

The church's claim to be entitled to "sacerdotal privilege" in relation to the notes was rejected by Mr. Justice Geoghegan.

Ms. Mary Johnston, who operates a sports equipment shop at Westwood, Foxrock, Co Dublin, said she needed the documents to prepare for her action for damages against the church and three named persons, Mr. John Keane, described as "mission holder", Mr. Tom Cunningham and Mr. Gerard Ryan, described as church members.

In her statement of claim Ms. Johnston, a former interprovincial squash player, alleged that while undergoing "treatment" offered by the church she suffered increasingly with a "disassociative stress reaction", became intolerant and rejected family and friends.

She claimed she suffered a distinct personality change, would often adopt a fixed stare and simulated smile while switching off her feelings. She became increasingly confused, and her general health suffered.

She alleged she was pressurised into subscribing for "a purification rundown and training routeing".

The church and the three named members denied Ms. Johnston's claims. It made a claim of "sacerdotal privilege" in relation to a "counselling" folder sought by her.

Mr. Justice Geoghegan, in a reserved judgment, held that as Ms. Johnston had waived any privilege alleged to exist in relation to her counselling notes he could not uphold the plea by the church of sacerdotal privilege.

The judge said the counselling notes arose in the main from a socalled "spiritual practice" of scientology known as "auditing" and "training" which the church claimed was on a one-to-one basis.

A comparison was drawn between the relationship that existed in other religions between minister and parishioner and auditing. It was also claimed that for an auditor to disclose any of the communications he had had with the other person, even if that person was waiving privilege, would render him liable to damnation.

This was analogous to the claims made by the Roman Catholic Church in relation to a priest breaking the seal of confession. Mr. Justice Geoghegan said he did not accept that the church could rely on an alleged analogy with the seal of confession.

The church had not produced any evidence that it was part of its doctrines that any disclosure of what transpired in auditing led to some kind of eternal punishment.

Furthermore, the question as to whether the Church of Scientology was a religion or not remained controversial throughout the world.

Mr. Justice Geoghegan said he accepted there could be situations where a privilege might arise in relation to counselling by a priest or minister, but any such privilege might always be waived by the person being counselled.

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