Trial against Church of Scientology begins in France

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Monday, May 25, 2009

The Church of Scientology in France is in court today, fighting charges that the organization has been a part of "escroquerie en bande organisee", organized fraud. Prosecutors claim that the Church is engaged in illicit practices in attempts to sell their alleged self-help material. The Church also faces charges of illegally operating as a pharmacy by illegally treating individuals with prescription medications.

A Scientology building in France
Image: Dominique Pipet.

The charges come from an unnamed woman, who in 1998 purchased nearly 21,000 euros (US$30,000) worth of Scientology self-help material which allegedly included prescription drugs. After a few months passed, the woman said she felt like she was being scammed because her condition was not improving. Lawyers for the woman say the Church tries to make a profit by pressuring individuals into believing they are going to be cured of their illnesses.

She claims she spent her entire life savings on the organization's products, including Scientology books, vitamins, and a device called an E-meter. Her attorneys say they will attempt to show that organized criminal fraud is inherent within Scientology practices. There were originally a total of five plaintiffs in the case, however three withdrew their complaints after coming to financial settlements with the Church of Scientology.

Following several complaints from other unnamed individuals and an investigation, investigating magistrate Jean-Christophe Hullin in January, ordered the Church's "Celebrity Center" and bookstore in France and its seven managers to be put on trial for fraud and "illegally practicing as pharmacists". Hullin stated that the Scientology organization is driven by "an absolute obsession with profit", and is "first and foremost a commercial organisation". Sophie-Helene Chateau, presiding judge in the case, stated that the court's purpose is "to find whether the acts in question constitute a crime. ... It is not up to the court to decide questions of society".

If convicted, the managers of the Scientology organization in France under investigation could serve a ten year jail sentence in addition to a fine of one million euros. Those investigated include the Scientology Celebrity Centre in Paris itself, its manager Alain Rosenberg, and five other individuals. Rosenberg is the CEO of the Spiritual Association of the Church of Scientology-Celebrity Centre (ASES-CC), the official term for the Church of Scientology in France. One defendant died since the charges were initially filed against seven managers in the Scientology organization. The defendants are accused of "exerting a psychological hold" on vulnerable individuals so they would give money to Scientology.

Cquote1.svg The special treatment reserved for the Church of Scientology Celebrity Center raises questions about the equality of the justice system and the presumption of innocence. Cquote2.svg

Church of Scientology

In September of 2008, the Church released a statement saying that they felt "stigmatized" by the French judicial system.

"The special treatment reserved for the Church of Scientology Celebrity Center raises questions about the equality of the justice system and the presumption of innocence," the Church said in a statement to the press. The Church denies all the charges and says that no one was manipulated into buying their material.

Cquote1.svg "If the church’s methods prove to be crooked then we must ask serious questions about whether it can be allowed to remain in business on French high streets." Cquote2.svg

—Olivier Maurice, plaintiff's attorney

"If the church’s methods prove to be crooked then we must ask serious questions about whether it can be allowed to remain in business on French high streets," said plaintiff's attorney Olivier Maurice. If the Church is found guilty, Scientology could be fined approximately 5 million euros (US$7 million) and ordered banned in France. If banned in France, the Scientology organization then has the option to appeal, which could drag out the legal process. The trial will run until June 17.

According to French law the Scientology organization is regarded as a sect in the country, and not a religion. In 2006, a report of the parliament in France characterized Scientology as a "dangerous sect". This is not the first time the Church has been accused of fraud in France. They have also been convicted of it several times, including the Church's founder, L. Ron Hubbard who was convicted of fraud in 1978. In 1997 the Church was convicted of fraud in Lyon and 1999 in Marseille. "There are those who handed over tens of thousands of francs at the time. Now, it can be 300,000 euros per person, or more," said Roger Gonet, a French former Scientologist who was a plaintiff against the organization in 1996. The 1978 convictions included Hubbard and his wife at the time, Mary Sue, both now deceased, and two other Scientologists. Hubbard, along with the two Scientologists fled France, never to return, and never served a prison term.


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