Paris, France (CNN) — A French court on Tuesday convicted the Church of Scientology and six of its members of organized fraud, but stopped short of banning the church.
The court also fined the members as much as 400,000 euros ($595,000) each.
The decision follows a three-week trial in May and June, during which two plaintiffs said they were defrauded by the organization, which is classified as a sect in France.
The church had said before the verdict that it would appeal any judgment against it.
The judge at the Correctional Court in Paris said the church may continue its activities in France, but he said those activities must remain “on the correct side of the law.”
As part of the penalties, the church was ordered to publish the results of the verdict in several national and international magazines to warn people, the judge said, about what Scientology offers and what was discovered at trial.
Scientology convicted of organised fraud in France
PARIS €” A French court fined the Church of Scientology on Tuesday for defrauding vulnerable followers, but officials voiced regret that a recent change in the law prevented France from banning it outright.
Scientology’s Celebrity Centre and its bookshop in Paris, the two branches of its French operations, were ordered to pay 600,000 euros (900,000 dollars) in fines for preying financially on its followers in the 1990s.
Alain Rosenberg, the French leader of a movement best known for its Hollywood followers Tom Cruise and John Travolta, was handed a two-year suspended jail sentence and fined 30,000 euros on the same charge.
The head of France’s interministerial body on cults, Georges Fenech, said he was sorry judges were prevented from tougher action.
“I strongly regret that the law was changed discreetly during the trial, just before the trial, without anyone knowing,” he told France 24 television.
“But I think the provision has been reinstated by parliament, so there could be a ban in future if they offend again.”
The change in the law, which seemed tailor-made for the Church of Scientology, was not discovered until September of this year, more than one year later. It was quickly amended, but too late to influence sentencing in the case.
Everyone involved in the law change claimed that it occurred by mistake, with one administrator on the National Assembly`s Law Committee recently telling the daily Le Parisien that it was “an unfortunate cut-and-paste error.”
But the plaintiffs and many anti-sect activists charge that the Parliament was infiltrated by Scientologists, who secretly manipulated the law.
“Several days before the opening arguments (in the case), the law was intentionally changed,” said an attorney for the plaintiffs, Olivier Morice, who said he was “scandalized.”
The weekly Le Point reported last week that lawyers for the Scientologists were apparently aware of the change in the law before anyone else.
According to the report, an American attorney for the group informed a journalist about it in July, some two months before it came to light in France.
Paris Court Convicts Scientology Church for Fraud
The case stemmed from complaints by two women that the church harassed them to buy products including vitamins and enroll in classes.
An investigating judge sent the group to trial against the recommendations of the Paris prosecutor, who advised dropping the case. In 2002, a French court fined the church for violating data protection rules while rejecting a fraud claim.
Alain Rosenberg, the church’s leader in France, was given a two-year suspended jail sentence and a 30,000-euro fine. The court said the sentence was suspended in part because of “efforts by the association to change its practices.”
Lawyers for the church said they would study the ruling before deciding whether to lodge an appeal.
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