Church of Scientology facing dissolution in France as members go on trial accused of organised fraud
The Church of Scientologyis facing dissolution in France after members went on trial yesterday on charges of organised fraud.
Registered as a religion in the United States, with celebrity members such as actors Tom Cruise and John Travolta, Scientology enjoys no such legal protection in France and has faced repeated accusations of being a money-making cult.
The group’s Paris headquarters and bookshop are defendants in the case. If found guilty, they could be fined ‚¬5million and ordered to halt their activities in France.
Seven leading French Scientology members are also in the dock. Some are charged with illegally practising as pharmacists and face up to 10 years in prison and hefty fines.
The case centres on a complaint made in 1998 by a woman who said she was enrolled into Scientology after members approached her in the street and persuaded her to do a personality test.
In the following months, she paid more than ‚¬21,000 for books, ‘purification packs’ of vitamins, sauna sessions and an ‘e-meter’ to measure her spiritual progress, she said.
Other complaints then surfaced. The five original plaintiffs – three of whom withdrew after reaching a financial settlement with the Church of Scientology – said they spent up to hundreds of thousands of euros on similar tests and ‘cures’.
They told investigators that Scientology members harassed them with phone calls and nightly visits to cajole them into paying their bills or taking out bank loans.
The plaintiffs were described as ‘vulnerable’ by psychological experts in the case.
‘For each person who complains we have 100,000 ready to say nothing but good things about scientology,’ Agnes Bron, an official of the French organization, said before the trial, which is expected to last until June 17.
Investigating judge Jean-Christophe Hullin spent years examining the group’s activities, and in his indictment criticized practices he said were aimed at extracting large sums of money from members and plunging them into a ‘state of subjection’.
The investigator questioned what he called the Scientologists’ ‘obsession’ with financial gain, and the group’s practice of selling vitamins, leading to the charge of ‘acting illegally as a pharmacy’.
Church of Scientology goes on trial in Paris for fraud
France considers Scientology a cult. Until now, prosecutors have only gone after individual Scientologists in court. But Monday, along with seven Scientologists, the Church itself and its bookstore are being put on trial.
One of the seven individuals is Alain Rosenberg, the CEO of the Church of Scientology in France, officially called the Spiritual Association of the Church of Scientology-Celebrity Centre (ASES-CC).
The Church denies any manipulation, saying that people are free to join or not.
“We will contest every charge, and will prove that there was no mental manipulation,” Patrick Maisonneuve, a lawyer for the church, told the AFP news agency.
The individuals face up to ten years in prison and fines of a million euros. The institutions could be banned from any activity and be fined five million euros, which would spell the end of the Church in France. With appeals, a final judgement could take years.
Church of Scientology on trial in France
Originally, there were four complainants, but two have since withdrawn.
The plaintiffs’ lawyers argue that Scientology resorts to harassment and pressure to rein in victims who show signs of vulnerability.
The Scientology Celebrity Centre in Paris, its director Alain Rosenberg and five other top officials are accused of preying on fragile followers “with the goal of seizing their fortune by exerting a psychological hold.”
Although seven people were charged, one defendant has since died.
The group’s spokeswoman in France rejected the accusations, insisting that Scientology was a legitimate religion whose members faced persecution.
“This is a trial for heresy,” said Daniele Gounord, adding that the Church was being “hounded” in French courts because it advocated new ideas.
The court’s presiding judge Sophie-Helene Chateau insisted that “it is not up to the courts to decide on an issue of society,” referring to the movement’s status in France, where officials treat it as a sect.
Some of the Scientologists are also charged with illegally supplying pharmaceutical products after plaintiffs said they were given vitamins and concoctions to improve their mental state.
If convicted of organised fraud as a group, the defendants face a maximum sentence of seven years in jail and a fine of one million euros (1.4 million dollars).
Should French prosecutors win a conviction, the movement’s French structures, the Scientology Celebrity Centre and an associated bookshop in Paris, could be shut down for failing to meet their responsibilities as legal entities.
However, even if the court rules in favour of the plaintiffs and decides to impose a ban, the Church of Scientology has the right to appeal and the legal wrangling could continue for years.
Politicians in some European countries including France, Germany, Greece and Russia have accused the movement of exploiting its members financially.
There are believed to be several thousand Scientology followers in France — the movement claims 45,000 among a worldwide membership of 12 million — but the state does not recognise it as a religion.
The trial is scheduled to continue until June 17 and a ruling is not expected until some time later.