A FRENCH appeals court has upheld fraud charges and a €600,000 fine against the Church of Scientology for cajoling followers into paying large sums for bogus personality tests and cures.
Rejecting the church’s appeal against a 2009 ruling, the court said two French branches of the US-based organisation were guilty of “organised fraud” and gave four of its leaders suspended jail sentences of up to two years.
A French parliamentary committee described Scientology in 1995 as a “dangerous cult”, not a religion, and individual Scientologists had been prosecuted before, but this case marked the first time the organisation as a whole was convicted.
There had been expectations the French courts might ban the group, but legislation passed just before the original trial in May 2009 ruled that out.
The latest ruling found Scientology’s “celebrity centre” and its bookshop in Paris had taken advantage of vulnerable individuals in the 1990s. A personality test offered to followers had “no scientific value” and expensive treatments recommended on foot of negative results were purely a source of revenue.
The five plaintiffs in the case had accused the group of persuading them to spend tens of thousands of euro on the personality tests, vitamin cures, sauna sessions and “purification packs”.
“This is very good news for those who fight against cults and it is a serious defeat for the Church of Scientology,” said Olivier Morice, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.
Mr Morice said that while Scientology could still operate in France, the court’s ruling went to the heart of its activities and opened the door to a ban or dissolution as a possible outcome in other pending lawsuits.
Prosecutors had originally hoped the 2009 trial would lead to a ban in France. However, a change in French law that was approved shortly before a verdict briefly made it impossible to ban or dissolve a group convicted of fraud.
The law has since been changed back, but a ban on the group or its dissolution cannot be enforced retroactively.
Commenting yesterday, the church called the ruling “illegal” and said it would seek to have it overturned through a final appeal to the Cour de Cassation, France’s highest court, which can assess whether the law was applied correctly but not re-examine evidence.
“The church wishes that the fairness of justice, such as protected by our constitution, becomes a reality once again for all the citizens of our country, scientologists included,” a statement said.
The accused and their lawyers were not in court for yesterday’s verdict, but a few dozen scientologists protested outside the court with signs that read “I have the right to my religion”. In 1997 and 1999, French courts convicted Scientology members of fraud, while a court fined the church for violating privacy laws in 2002.
Founded in 1954 by science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard, the church bases its beliefs on the study of his 1950 book, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health.