Bad News For Scientology

In a news story that’s garnered worldwide publicity, two branches of the Church of Scientology in France have been sentenced this week to pay fines of over €600,000 after being convicted of “fraud in an organised gang” by a court in Paris. Four officials of the group, including Alain Rosenberg, the group’s head in France, also received suspended prison sentences of between 18 months and two years alongside fines ranging from €5,000 to €30,000.

The sentence comes at the culmination of case which saw two female former members allege that they were pressured into paying large sums of money to the church after joining in the 1990s. They also alleged that members of the church had harassed them to buy a variety of products including vitamins and to sign up for “purification” courses costing thousands of euros. For listeners who aren’t familiar with purification, it’s a detoxification technique used in scientology variously for religious, spiritual and medical benefits. The program consists of large doses of vitamin B3 Niacin and long, hot saunas, both beyond what is usually considered a safe level, as was detailed in the New York Press in June 2007.

One of the successful female plaintiffs in this landmark case said she had even been advised by a financial adviser from the group to take out a large loan to finance her activities within the organisation, while another woman has alleged she was fired by her Scientologist boss after refusing to undergo testing and sign up to courses. The organisation maintain that no mental manipulation took place – but of course they lost this case, which suggests the judges disagree with their protestations of no wrongdoing. The judges found there to be wrongdoing – ‘fraud in an organised gang‘, specifically. Olivier Morice, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said:

“This is a historic decision. It’s the first time in France that the entity of the Church of Scientology is condemned for fraud as an organized gang,” as opposed to simply individual members. – Source: New York Times

He also said that the tribunal “expressed its will to maintain the structure of Scientology in order to make it easier to control,” adding that “it gave this decision a national and international dimension so that potential victims can be warned of the methods of Scientology.”

The result isn’t a perfect win for the many rationalists and critics of the sect – groups of whom have been outspoken throughout internet forums and sites such as Youtube, posting a range of videos and staging peaceful demonstrations under the name ‘Anonymous’ in order to put forward criticisms of Scientology while staying safe from any potential ramifications – legal or otherwise. In fact, prosecutors had at one point requested that the group be entirely dissolved in France and be fined as much as €4m, so the €600,000 looks somewhat paltry by comparison. However, last month it was revealed that an obscure modification of French law meant that courts no longer have the power to dissolve organisations found guilty of fraud.

The news sparked controversy forcing the minister of justice, Michèle Alliot-Marie, to explain the change on television. Lawyers representing those who brought the current case alleged that scientologists had infiltrated the national assembly. That’s the allegation made by the plaintiff’s lawyers, I’ll reiterate. I have no inside knowledge into the alleged workings of the French national assembly, nor any opinion on how alleged influence by alleged scientologists may have allegedly led to this alleged – no, sorry, definite – law change. Those allegations are allegedly allegations made by those lawyers. However, that amendment has now been changed back, after this case.

Georges Fenech, head of the Inter-ministerial Unit to Monitor and Fight Cults, told French TV:

“It is very regrettable that the law quietly changed before the trial. The system has now been put in place by parliament and it is certain that in the future, if new offences are committed, a ban could eventually be pronounced” – Source: Yahoo News

Which should serve as stark warning, should senior members of the scientology group ever be convicted again of ‘fraud in an organised gang‘, or in fact any crimes similar to those they’ve been convicted of this time.

Judges did go so far as to point out that had they been able to enforce a ban, the cult (as Scientology is classified in France) would be likely to continue its activities outside of a “legal framework.” Read into that what you will. Instead, the sect (again, French definitions state it is not a religion by their classification) will be allowed to continue its activities in France where it is estimated to have 45,000 members. As to why the newly-convicted fraudsters within the group’s leadership team escaped imprisonment for their ‘fraudulent and organised gang’ activities, judges cited the four’s “efforts to change its practices”.

Catherine Picard, who runs an association to help victims of sects, called the verdict “subtle enough and intelligent,” saying that it would help control Scientology in France, and expressed the hope that the state would be “more vigilant.” She said:

“Scientology can no longer hide behind freedom of conscience.” – Source: New York Times

Defence lawyers for the church – sorry, my mistake, for Scientology – have called for the debate to be reopened to “wash” their clients of any suspicion. The sect denies all wrongdoing – although just to reiterate, the current legal position states that the church are guilty of “fraud in an organised gang“. Which constitutes wrongdoing. Eric Roux, a spokesman for the Celebrity Centre, urged France to recognise Scientology’s “legality”:

“Religious freedom is in danger in this country” – Source: Al Jazeera English

Quite where religious freedom becomes proven “fraud in an organised gang” would make for an interesting debate – but given that Scientology has been shown in this case, in a court of law, to be defrauding customers, the religious freedom defence is nothing but a smokescreen. The leading members of the group in France have been demonstrably shown to have acted fraudulently, and this landmark case holds them accountable. It’ll be interesting to see if any future rulings against religions – and against sects and cults – emerge to follow this one.

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  1. #1 by Gittins on November 2, 2009 - 13:32

    The way I understand it, Scientology works through a combination of blackmail and pyramid scheme. They claim to be auditing you to get rid of bad thetans or whatever, but what they actually do is record all your darkest secrets to use against you at a later date. If you ever try to leave the organisation in the future they threaten to reveal those secrets to your wife, your parents or your boss.
    It’s obvious that if you happened to be both a hollywood movie star and a closeted homosexual that this might be a bit of a problem.

  2. #2 by Marsh on November 2, 2009 - 16:22

    Good point Gittins. You might say that getting out of Scientology as both a famous hollywood star and a closeted homosexual might prove to be something of a mission impossible?

  3. #3 by Mike on November 2, 2009 - 18:51

    It’s a pity they don’t apply an equally rational yardstick to other religious organisations.

  4. #4 by Gittins on November 2, 2009 - 19:29

    To anyone with half a brain, Scientology is an obvious con-job set up by a talentless science fiction writer. But it was started in the relatively enlightened 20th century and thousands of people were/are still taken in.
    Imagine how much easier it would have been to start a fake religion, I don’t know, say 2009 years ago. When everyone was illiterate and they had no rational theories like the big bang or evolution to explain their existence.

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