PARIS — The French branch of the Church of Scientology was convicted of fraud and fined nearly $900,000 on Tuesday by a Paris court. But the judges did not ban the church entirely, as the prosecution had demanded, saying that a change in the law prevented such an action for fraud. The church said it would appeal.
The verdict was among the most important in several years to involve the group, which is registered as a religion in the United States but has no similar legal protection in France. It is considered a sect here, and says it has some 45,000 adherents, out of some 12 million worldwide. It was the first time here that the church itself had been tried and convicted, as opposed to individual members.
The case was brought by two former members who said they were pushed into paying large sums of money in the 1990s, pressed to sign up for expensive “purification courses” and harassed to buy a variety of vitamins and other forms of pharmaceuticals, plus electronic tests to measure spiritual progress. One woman said she had been pressured into spending more than $30,000.
The major fines were rendered against the Scientology Celebrity Center in Paris and a Scientology bookstore. Six group leaders were convicted of fraud, with four given suspended sentences of 10 months to two years. One of them, the group’s leader in France, Alain Rosenberg, was given a two-year suspended sentence and fined $44,700. Two others were given only fines, of $1,490 and $2,980.
The judges said the individuals had avoided jail in part because of efforts by the church “to change its practices.”
There have been other cases brought against individual Scientologists in France, but this is the first time the organization was charged for its methods of functioning.
Olivier Morice, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said: “This is an 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. He 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.”
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 that “Scientology can no longer hide behind freedom of conscience.”
A spokeswoman for the church, Agnès Bron, called the verdict “an Inquisition for modern times.”
The Church of Scientology is based in Los Angeles. It was founded in 1954 by the writer L. Ron Hubbard. Belgium, Germany and other European countries have been criticized by the State Department for labeling Scientology a cult or sect and enacting laws to restrict its operations.