French branch accused of preying on vulnerable people for financial gain in second fraud case in six years
France's Church of Scientology today went on trial on charges of organised fraud in a case that could lead to the nationwide dissolution of the controversial organisation.
The Church's "celebrity centre" spiritual association and its Scientology Freedom Space bookshop in Paris stand accused of targeting vulnerable people for commercial gain.
Six leading members, including the celebrity centre's director, Alain Rosenberg, also face charges of illegally distributing pharmaceuticals.
The case is the second in six years to accuse the French church of fraud. It stems from the testimony of a French woman who filed an official complaint against the organisation in 1998.
Lawyers for Aude-Claire Malton claim Scientologists preyed upon her at a time when she was "very psychologically fragile", pressuring her into spending €21,000 (£18,000) – her life savings – on products including "purification packs" and vitamins.
The investigating magistrate in charge of bringing the case against the church, Jean-Christophe Hullin, argues she was the victim of a deliberately manipulative system that exploits vulnerable people in order to make money.
In his indictment, Hullin said the church, which has been glamourised by Hollywood members such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta, made a profit by placing individuals in a "state of subjection". The organisation, he argued, is "first and foremost a commercial business" whose actions reveal "a real obsession for financial remuneration".
The church denies any evidence of psychological manipulation, and decries what it has called a "carefully orchestrated campaign" by French anti-cult organisations to shut it down. "This is a sacrilegious trial," said spokesman Danièle Gounord yesterday. Patrick Maisonneuve, a lawyer for the church, said he would fight every charge.
France has been a particularly hostile environment for Scientologists ever since the movement was born, in the 1950s. In this instance, however, the Paris prosecutor, which is overseen by the government, had asked for the case to be dropped.
While some countries, such as the US, consider Scientology a religion, France categorises it as a sect, and the country's courts have convicted several individuals of fraud over the past decades – most notably its science fiction-writing creator, L Ron Hubbard, in 1978.
The trial, which is expected to finish next month, will focus on Malton as evidence of the church's alleged fraudulent practice. The hotel worker was one of several former members to file similar complaints, all of whom Hullin describes as displaying "signs of vulnerablity" and "low self-esteem".
Three of them, however, have since withdrawn after reaching a financial arrangement with church officials.
Malton, who in May 1998 had just emerged from a relationship break-up and was suffering emotional difficulties, says she was approached by Scientologists at the exit of an underground rail station in Paris in May 1998 and offered a "free personality test". When the test results came back negative, she was persuaded to sign up for "communication" and "life repair" classes.
She was then encouraged to buy an array of paraphernalia, including Scientology books and the so-called purification packs. Her lawyers say she acquired one product – an "electrometer", supposedly used to diagnose a member's mental state – for the French franc equivalent of €700, but the church sold it to her for €4,800; they also say the powers of the reader are "illusory".
If convicted of the charges, the seven top Scientologists in the country face up to 10 years in prison and a fine of €1m. The celebrity centre and bookshop not only face a much larger fine but also run the risk of being shut down completely.
However, commentators said yesterday such an outcome would be a long time coming as the church would undoubtedly appeal against a guilty verdict.
I'd definitely would like to see the Church of Scientology finally be held accountable for it's actions. The validity of it as a religion aside, the organization itself exists solely to prey on people.