A Paris appeal court yesterday upheld a fraud conviction and a fine of 600,000 euros (US$790,000) against the Church of Scientology for fleecing vulnerable followers.
Scientology’s Celebrity Center and its bookshop in Paris, the two branches of its French operations, were ordered in 2009 to pay the fine for preying financially on several followers in the 1990s.
The original ruling, while stopping short of banning the group from operating in France, dealt a blow to the movement best known for its Hollywood followers such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta.
Alain Rosenberg, the leader of the movement in France, saw his two-year suspended jail sentence and 30,000 euro fine upheld. The court either upheld or increased fines — now ranging between 10,000 and 30,000 euros — against five more Scientologists.
Their convictions were for fraud or the illegal practice of pharmacy after plaintiffs said they were given vitamins and concoctions that the group claimed would improve their mental state.
“This is very good news for those who fight against cults and a serious defeat for the Church of Scientology,” said Olivier Morice, lawyer for UNADFI, a group that campaigns against sects and was a plaintiff in the case.
France regards Scientology as a cult, not a religion, and has prosecuted individual Scientologists before, but the 2009 trial marked the first time the organization as a whole had been convicted.
Church of Scientology lawyers in November raised five constitutional questions in a bid to get the trial annulled, but they were rejected, prompting the defendants and their lawyers to walk out.
On Tuesday, the Celebrity Center claimed there had been “numerous violations of defense rights” and “doubts about the independence of the justice system ... after the heavy interference of the executive in the judiciary.”
However, prosecutor Hughes Woirhaye said the Scientologists were adopting an “evasive strategy” and making “a deliberate choice of systematic denial.”
Court hearings were curtailed because of the absence of the accused, while the four former followers who brought the case also withdrew from the trial.
The sole remaining witness was Catherine Picard, who heads UNADFI.
Picard testified to the “heavy debts, broken family ties” and the “state of subjection” that could result from the “sect-like methods” used by Scientology to “indoctrinate vulnerable people.”
The original case followed a complaint by two women, one of whom said she was manipulated into handing over 20,000 euros in 1998 for Scientology products, including an “electrometer” to measure mental energy.
A second claimed she was forced by her Scientologist employer to undergo testing and enrol in courses, also in 1998. When she refused, she was fired.
Founded in 1954 by US science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, the Church of Scientology is recognized as a religion in the US. It claims a worldwide membership of 12 million, including 45,000 followers in France.