Scientology in France: Still Guilty of Fraud
Big news this morning out of a French appeals court, where a decision was handed down regarding Scientology's 2009 conviction for fraud.
French Scientologists had held protests outside the appeals court in Paris
Scientology watchers around the world have been keeping an eye on the proceedings, which were wild and woolly: in November, Scientology's entire contingent of attorneys and defendants stormed out of the courtroom, complaining about how the case was proceeding.
Well, now they have even more to be steamed about. At about 4 am our time this morning, the Court of Appeal in Paris upheld the 2009 convictions of two Scientology organizations and five individuals, as well as about $800,000 in fines.
I talked by phone this morning with Jonny Jacobsen, a British journalist who has spent years covering Scientology in France, and who has covered every technicality and court maneuver in the appeal at his blog, Infinite Complacency.
I asked him just how big this news is in France itself.
"It's pretty big. It's not the top story, but Scientology gets a lot of coverage over here," he said. "And the coverage is so much more lively over here. The state organizations that are given the duty of monitoring cult-like activities, they've been in conflict with Scientology for years now."
The Associated Press is reporting that Scientology spokeswoman Karin Pouw has called the appellate decision a "miscarriage of justice." Scientology's attorneys plan to appeal the case to France's Court of Cassation, roughly equivalent to our Supreme Court. It is also filing complaints with the UN and the European Court of Human Rights.
"It's clear that they're taking this all the way, because I think they know how dangerous this decision is to them," Jacobsen says.
That danger, he explains, arises from how seemingly basic and unspectacular are the facts in the original cases that led to this appeal.
See, in the U.S., ex-Scientologists have struggled to get their own cases against the church through the country's courts, even though the details in those cases can be rather shocking: the forced abortions in the lawsuit brought by former church executive Claire Headley and her husband Marc, for example, which was dismissed.
What makes the French convictions so remarkable, on the other hand, is that two church entities and five individuals received fraud convictions for simply doing the basic business of Scientology.
"In some ways the cases here seem less spectacular -- the facts of the cases are much more disturbing in the US -- but this looks at the experience of normal people who have been caught at a time when they're vulnerable, and the huge amounts of money they've been required to turn over," Jacobsen says.
Here, for example, is how the AP summarizes the origin of the French fraud cases:
The case began with a legal complaint by a young woman who said she took out loans and spent the equivalent of euro21,000 ($28,000) on books, courses and "purification packages" after being recruited in 1998. When she sought reimbursement and to leave the group, its leadership refused to allow either. She was among three eventual plaintiffs.
One of the parties involved in the prosecution, the Order of Pharmacists, specifically targeted Scientology's vaunted "Purification Rundown" -- its program of "detoxification" that consists of 5-hour sauna sessions for days and weeks, and enormous doses of the vitamin niacin. (We recently interviewed a young actor who gave up the process after gray material began oozing from his skin and he began vomiting uncontrollably after 29 straight days of the treatment. Kirstie Alley, however, credits the "Purif" for ending her cocaine addiction.)
In France, at least, Scientology's Purification Rundown has been found to be an illegal exercise of pharmacy.
"Can Scientology now run the Purif the way it has?" Jacobsen asks. "One of the prosecutors brought up the point that children have been doing the Purif, and that got a big reaction in court."
Jacobsen says that there can be enormous consequences for Scientology in France and elsewhere because of the upheld convictions.
"It leaves the door open for other cases, which could lead to the dissolution or banning of Scientology in France altogether, whether you consider that a good idea or not."
Jacobsen says that the case has been followed closely by governments in other European countries and in Australia. (Scientology is not considered a religion in France.)
"This is taking on international damage for them," he says.
I asked him about the general tenor of coverage in the French press during the trial.
"The general view of Scientology is one of suspicion. The media has given a lot of coverage to former members and their complaints. I think the coverage has been balanced and fair, but there has been a certain amount of exasperation over Scientology's legal and technical maneuvers," he says.
Scientology is known for legal tactics that can wear down courtrooms and judges, as we pointed out yesterday. In this case, the church objected to the court allowing the participation of an anti-cult organization, UNADFI, which is subsidized by the French government. When UNADFI was allowed to stay, Scientology's entire contingent of attorneys stormed out of the courtroom and refused to participate any further.
"I don't think it's unprecedented, but the pharmacy organization lawyer said that in his 20 years of practice, he'd never seen it," Jacobsen says.
He points out that today, Scientology denounced the proceedings as a "ghost trial."
"A ghost trial? In part that was because they chose to walk out," Jacobsen says. "For them to say now that it was a ghost trial is a bit like overegging the cake, I have to say."
Back here in the United States, meanwhile, we're keeping an eye on another remarkable legal development involving Scientology, which is suing a former executive, Debbie Cook, for daring to utter criticisms of church management to her fellow members. Check back here for the latest developments.
Debbie Cook Coverage in the Village Voice...
Also, please see our primer, "What is Scientology?"
Tony Ortega is the editor-in-chief of The Village Voice. Since 1995, he's been writing about Scientology at several publications.
Keep up on all of our New York news coverage at this blog, Runnin' Scared
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