Scientology on trial in France
As a fiercely secular nation, France has always had an awkward relationship with religious groups. Officials often find themselves strug...
As a fiercely secular nation, France has always had an awkward relationship with religious groups. Officials often find themselves struggling to strike the delicate balance between maintaining church-state separation and honoring the right of citizens to express their faith. But in the current case against the U.S.-based Church of Scientology, authorities have abandoned their usual attempts at fine-tuning religion's standing in French society - instead, they want to ban Scientology from France altogether.
In a long-awaited trial that opened this week, French prosecutors are charging Scientology's French affiliate with organized fraud. Six of Scientology's top French officials are defendants in the case that began May 25. When investigating magistrate Jean-Christophe Hullin filed the findings of a nine-year inquiry with prosecutors, he described Scientology as "first and foremost a commercial business" whose interactions with followers are defined by "a real obsession for financial remuneration." The church's bookstores and celebrity center were described by Hullin's investigation as instrumental in ensnaring psychologically fragile people "with the goal of seizing their fortune by exerting a psychological hold."
If found guilty, the defendants would face fines and possible prison time.
But a conviction would also allow French authorities to designate Scientology as a criminal organization conceived to fleece its followers, which would lead to the banning of the religion in France. That exceptional measure would force Scientology out of the country - or underground.
Given that Scientology has 8 million members that strikes some observers are extreme.
After two of the four original plaintiffs agreed to settle out of court, the case now centers on charges by two women who say they were preyed upon by the organization. On Tuesday, Aude-Claire Malton, a hotel employee who makes $1,620 a month, told the court that once she'd agreed to accept the treatment the Scientology "auditors" had prescribed to remedy her spiritual imperfections, she found herself facing a $27,000 bill within two months. The second plaintiff claims she was forced to undergo spiritual auditing and was fired when she refused to accept similarly expensive treatment.