The self-styled ‘celebrity’ Church of Scientology was today found guilty of fraud in France and fined more than £500,000.
Prosecutors in Paris were told that the only reason the cult was not banned from the country completely was because it would carry on anyway ‘outside a legal framework’.
The conviction will come as a huge shock to the church’s millions of followers around the world, who include Hollywood actors Tom Cruise and John Travolta.
Examining judges sitting at the Paris Correctional Court found six leading Scientologists guilty of fraud, including Alain Rosenberg, the sect’s leader in France. Rosenberg was given a two-year suspended jail sentence and fined the equivalent of just under £30,000
The church’s so-called Celebrity Centre and Bookshop – both of which make up the HQ of Scientology in France - were ordered to pay the equivalent of £600,000. All were accused of extorting money from ‘vulnerable’ people who had become Scientology followers or employees.
The Paris case was launched following a complaint from two women, one of whom said she was tricked into handing over £20,000 towards dubious projects, including the development of an ‘electrometer’ to measure mental energy. The second woman said she was forced by the Scientologists to undergo embarrassing tests, and to enrol in courses about the sect in 1998. When she refused she was sacked.
Convicted: The Paris branch of the Scientology Church's Celebrity Centre and Bookshop was ordered to pay a £600,000 fine after being convicted of fraud
Judge Jean-Christophe Hullin, who spent years examining the cult’s activities, attacked the Scientologists' ‘obsession’ with financial gain and practices he said were aimed at plunging members into a ‘state of subjection’.
Prosecutors had originally asked for the Celebrity Centre and Bookshop to be shut down completely, and for a £2m fine to be paid. But last month the French courts were alerted to a little-noticed legal change voted in by parliament in May - the month the trial opened - which bars French courts from dissolving an organisation convicted of fraud. Although the change has since been dropped, this was not retrospective and thus Scientology was protected from an outright ban in the ongoing case, forcing the court to downgrade the sentence. Judge Sophie-Helene Chateau said: ‘A ban on its activities would have risked taking us outside the framework of the law.’
The Church of Scientology was founded in America in 1954 by science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard. It is officially recognised as a religion by the US authorities, and claims a worldwide membership of 12 million. In 1995 it was officially classified as a cult in France, where it claims 45,000 followers.
The group’s French branch immediately announced it would appeal today’s Paris verdict. Defence lawyer Patrick Maisonneuve had claimed during the trial that neither the six leaders nor the church had gained financially from the group’s practices.