PARIS (Reuters) – A French judge has ordered two branches of the Church of Scientology and seven of its leaders to stand trial for fraud, a judicial source said on Monday.
The case is the latest in a series of legal battles that have pitted the French judicial system against the Scientologists, who are viewed by the authorities as a sect.
The latest suit centers on a complaint made in 1998 by a woman who said she was enrolled into the Church by a group of people she met outside a metro station.
In the following months, she said she paid 140,000 francs (21,340 euros) to the Scientologists in exchange for “purification packs” and books.
Judge Jean-Christophe Hullin ruled that the Scientologists’ operational centers in France, its Celebrity Center and its bookstore, along with seven Church leaders should be tried for “organized fraud” and “illegally practicing as pharmacists”.
The Church of Scientology, which is registered as a religion in the United States, has denounced the case as “empty and concocted”, adding that the woman who filed the complaint had been reimbursed.
It has battled in vain for recognition as a religion in France, but has expanded its operations in recent years despite fraud convictions for local officials in Lyon in 1997 and Marseille in 1999.
The controversial Church of Scientology will be tried in a French court for “organised fraud” and seven of its members for illegally prescribing drugs, legal sources said Monday.
The charges stem from a case taken by a woman who said she paid the church more than 20,000 euros (28,000 dollars) for lessons, books, drugs and an “electrometer,” a device which the church says can measure a person’s mental state.
She allegedly made the payments after being approached by Scientologists in a Paris street in 1998.
The case to be examined at a still-unknown date by the Paris court is also being taken by another plaintiff and by France’s professional pharmaceutical association.
Scientology followers are expected to contribute money to the church’s coffers and follow its courses in order to climb through the ranks.
In particular Scientologists use a spiritual healing method called Dianetics, which is designed to help alleviate unwanted sensations and emotions, irrational fears and psychosomatic illnesses.
A French parliamentary commission has classified the church as a sect.
Critics of Scientology in France and abroad accuse it of unfairly pressuring and harassing opponents, including judges, lawyers, parliamentarians and journalists who have investigated its activities.
The organisation often goes to court to raise defamation charges whenever it feels itself under attack.
In the French court case announced yesterday, Judge Jean-Christophe Hullin signed an order referring the church’s main structure in France, the ASES-Celebrity Centre, and its bookshop for “organised fraud”, legal sources said.
The ASES and the bookshop could be closed if it is convicted, according to a source close to the case.
The seven church members, including Alain Rosenberg, the manager of the ASES-Celebrity Centre, are to be tried for the “illegal exercise of pharmacy,” the legal source said.
Judge Hullin’s decision to proceed with the case went against the Paris prosecutor’s office which in September 2004 called for it to be dismissed because of insufficient evidence.
In his order, the judge found that the church had used “personality tests void of scientific value…with the sole aim of selling services or divers products.”
The 33-year old was allegedly gradually persuaded to hand over around £25,000 on books, communication and “life healing” lessons, as well as “purification packs”.
While claiming to “identify and resolve supposed psychological difficulties or favour personal development,” the judge said, the Scientologists’ “sole aim” was to “claim their fortune” by “exercising a psychological hold” over her.
In 1995, the first French Church of Scientology association was dissolved for not paying taxes after it was refused special church status. The group claims to have thousands of French members, despite fraud convictions for officials in Lyon in 1997 and Marseille in 1999. In 2003, a Paris court fined the organisation for keeping personal information on its members.