On Thursday morning Juan, Diane, Anna, Dave and Cherry went to the court house for Diane's appearance. Greg stayed back at the flat with Sean. Juan and Diane had spoken to someone fromLegal Aid during the week, and Diane had decided to plead guilty, but to speak up in her own defence.
The case did not come up until well after the lunch break, a penalty that defendants invariably pay for choosing to represent themselves.
Diane was surprised to see one of the security guards present in the court, along with the police prosecutor and another man. There wasn't much need for the police to provide evidence if she was going to plead guilty anyway; and if she pleaded innocent, the case would not be heard until a new date had been set. So why was he there?
The charge was read out.
Diane pleaded guilty.
Then she was given an opportunity to speak. She took a deep breath, whispered a brief prayer, and began:
"I want the court to know that, if I have hurt anyone, I am very sorry. I have always considered myself to be a law-abiding person. I know that we need laws in order to maintain order in society. If people break the law, then they need to be punished."
"But I think there are times when obedience to a higher law may require us to break a lower law."
"I have pleaded guilty to stealing some food from Buy-Rite Supermarket. It was their food, and I took it without their permission. I admit to that. In their eyes and in the eyes of this court, I am probably guilty of stealing. But I was operating under a higher law, and I want to tell you about that."
"You see, I am a Christian. I have come to understand, from reading the teachings of Jesus, that the love of money is the cause of all the problems in our society. It is the motive behind most of the cases that come before this court."
Diane paused for a moment, to let the truth of that statement sink in. Those present in the court would have to recognise the truth in what she had just said.
"A few years ago, I decided to stop working for money, and to give my whole life to sharing God's love with others. My friends and relatives told me I would starve if I didn't work for money. But I believed that God would feed me if I put him first. I started sharing with the homeless, and with others whom I met on the streets. Through them I learned that supermarkets regularly throw out groceries that have gone past the expiry date. Most of the items are perfectly sound. They are no more dangerous one day after the expiry date than they were one day before. But they are thrown out because the general public will not pay as much for them as they will pay for something that is a bit fresher.
"Some supermarkets discount the items. But others prefer to throw them out, so that all their customers will be forced to pay the top prices. Most of the shops who throw old food out deliberately smash bottles, soil goods, lock up bins, and take other steps to ensure that people will not be able to get access to what they throw out. When they do that, they are destroying valuable resources, and they are doing it because of their greed. The general public tolerates it because they feel that the food belongs to the supermarket, that it is theirs to do with as they see fit. But I don't see it that way.
"The air we breathe, the land we walk on, the sunshine, the rain, the vegetation that grows on this planet all belong to God. It is given to us in trust. It is our responsibility to use it wisely and to use it fairly, so that we can achieve the greatest possible good for the greatest number of people."
Diane could see that the magistrate was listening sympathetically. There was a hint of admiration in the look on his face. Her voice became more dramatic.
"Whenever someone behaves selfishly, thinking only of their own benefit, the human race becomes poorer as a result. It breaks the heart of a loving God to see us wasting precious resources while millions of people go hungry. The problem is not limited to Australia. It's a global problem."
Diane glanced quickly around her, and could see that people in the gallery were listening attentively too.
"I see it as my Christian responsibility to share the wasted resources with those who are most in need in our society. That was my reason for taking food from the bin behind Buy-Rite Supermarket. As I have already said, if I have done something wrong, then I should be punished. But I believe that the real sin here is one of wastefulness, motivated by greed. Someone is out to get revenge on me and my friends, because we dared to challenge that wastefulness."
The last line was a clanger. Diane sensed it immediately. The magistrate's expression changed. She had made the matter a personal one, and she was being too negative. There wae subtle limits to how much criticism the average person will accept about the society in which they live. But Di went on.
"I understand that the court cannot officially sanction what I have done. But I ask that consideration be given to the circumstances surrounding my so-called crime. Seriously consider whether Buy-Rite Supermarket has really been hurt, or even inconvenienced by my action. I am asking the court for mercy, on the grounds that I have hurt no one, and on the grounds that I was seriously trying to help others.
There was a moment of silence as the magistrate pondered the implications of what Diane had just said. Then he turned to the police prosecutor.
"Is there anything you want to add?" he asked.
"Yes, there is, Your Worship. We believe that the defendant has misrepresented the facts in her presentation. She started by saying that she was a Christian. But it happens that the security guard who reported the incident to the police is present in the court today, and he is also a Christian minister. He did not know anything about the defendant's beliefs at the time of the incident, but he has since learned that she is a member of a religious cult which teaches young people to turn on their parents, to drop out of school, and to give everything that they own to cult members like the defendant."
Ganley had obviously found a link between Roger's leaflet and the bin raid at Buy-Rite.
Groenig's files were the most likely source. The police prosecutor continued:
"The group preys on lonely young people, filling their heads with hate for the rest of society, and teaching them a dangerous mixture of religion and paranoia. We have here reports from cult experts which state that they believe the group Ms. Ventura represents could be one of the most dangerous cults ever to have sprung up in Australia. Some ex-members have reported that the group is planning terrorist activities aimed at creating total chaos in Australia. Others say that mass suicides have been discussed as one way of escaping imprisonment if they should be apprehended."
The judge turned to Diane.
"Ms Ventura, what do you have to say about these claims?"
"I… I don't know where they got their information," Diane said, with a look of shock and disbelief still on her face. "It's not true. It's simply not true. I've never heard these things before."
"Are you saying that you do not target young people, and you do not teach them to hate their parents?" he asked.
"We do work with young people, if that's what you mean. We try to help them. That's all."
Diane paused and then continued. "Sometimes we run into opposition from their parents. Some parents would rather have them on drugs or sleeping around, than to have them talking about faith in God."
"What about the other charges? Terrorism. Mass suicides. Getting people to give you everything that they own."
Diane faltered again. "Well, we teach people to give up everything that they own when they first join us; but we do it because it's something Jesus told his followers to do. We share it all equally, and no one is getting rich through it. Most of it goes to helping others anyway."
While she was saying this, her mind had been racing ahead, to the other charges… about terrorism and suicide. She was trying to make sense of it all.
"Maybe the stuff about terrorism and suicides came from some of the ways that we express ourselves in our tracts. Like in the Bible, it talks about a spiritual warfare. It talks about us laying down our lives for Jesus. All of these are just illustrations of spiritual truths. We're not telling people to really kill themselves or to kill anyone else. How can they say those things?"
Diane's voice was starting to break. She realised that she had been thrown dangerously on the defensive, and it was hard not to look guilty under such circumstances.
"What's happening, God?" she prayed. "Why are you letting them do this?"
"Do you deny that you told someone just yesterday to jump off a cliff for Jesus?" shouted Ganley Toogood as the police prosecutor reached up to draw him back to his seat.
"Oh, for goodness sake! Are you talking about that man on the street?" She was angry now, and the dynamite in her was starting to come out. "It was just an illustration. I didn't mean for him to actually do it. You're the people who are the real threat to society! With all your lies and hate and…"
"Settle down. SETTLE DOWN!" said the magistrate, banging his gavel on the desk. "Obviously there are points of disagreement here. I find these new allegations disturbing, and I think I will need some time to look into this. The defendant has said that she will accept whatever punishment the court hands down. What I propose to do is to hold her in protective custody for a few days, during which time I want psychiatric assessments to be made. This court will reconvene next Wednesday at 10am to examine those reports and to decide on sentencing."
"Does that suit you?" he asked the police prosecutor. Diane apparently had no choice in the matter. After quick agreement from the police prosecutor, with respect to the date and time for the next appearance, two police officers moved to Diane's side. They escorted her from the courtroom through a special exit reserved for prisoners.