Scientology's French fraud conviction: Not the first legal case

Scientology has faced several legal tussles in the US and Europe, with a fraud ruling against the church in France merely the latest.

A Paris court fined the Church of Scientology 600,000 euros ($900,000) on Tuesday for aggressive sales tactics that the court said amounted to organized fraud. But the organization dodged a potential expulsion from the country.

Four leaders of Scientology's French branch, which claims about 45,000 adherents, were also handed suspended prison sentences and fines. "This is an important... decision because it is the first time that Scientology has been found guilty of involvement in organized fraud," Olivier Morice, a lawyer for two French citizens who brought the fraud charges against Scientology, said.

Scientology is not recognized as a religion in France and it does not enjoy the tax-exempt status it has in the United States (won in 1993 after a legal battle with the IRS) and some other countries. The plaintiffs had hoped the group would be banned from operating in France, but a law that would have made that outcome possible changed shortly before the trial.

The ruling of fraud hinged on Scientology's use of its "E-meter" on people it was seeking to recruit into the church. The E-meter measures resistance to electrical current in the human body and is operated by a church official known as an auditor. Scientologists say that this reading of electrical currents can provide a measure of "spiritual duress" and help people improve the quality of their life by coming to understand and ridding themselves of alien entities known as "body thetans" that have attached themselves to the subject.

This use of the device is scientifically and medically unproven, and the court found in the plaintiffs' favor that the E-meter results were used to sell vitamins and other merchandise and services to the two plaintiffs.

Scientology and its celebrity adherents, such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta, sometimes attract controversy in the United States. But it has faced more legal challenges in Europe, particularly in France, where some government officials have described the group as a cult. Some German officials raised concerns about Tom Cruise playing the lead role in Valkyrie, a movie about a dissident officer of the Third Reich plotting to kill Hitler, because of his outspoken advocacy for his faith. In 1999, a US State Department human rights report said the organization had been unfairly discriminated against in France and Germany.

Today's finding of fraud is among the most serious court losses for the church in the 57 years since it was founded by science fiction and self-help writer L. Ron Hubbard. Here's a list of prominent court cases involving Scientology (which has no connection to the First Church of Christ, Scientist, which owns The Christian Science Monitor.)

1. In 1995 Lisa McPherson, an American member of the Church of Scientology, died while in the care of the church, which led to felony charges filed in 1998 and a civil suit filed against the church by Ms. McPherson's parents in 1997. The felony charges of abuse and unlicensed practice of medicine were dropped in 2000 after a government medical examiner updated her initial finding that the death was "unexplained" to "accidental." The church settled out of court with McPherson's parents for an undisclosed sum in 2004. The medical examiner later resigned in the face of a public outcry.

McPherson, a long-time church member, appeared agitated and began taking her clothes off in the middle of a Florida street after a minor car accident in 1995. She declined offers of a mental health evaluation and instead went with church officials to one of their facilities in Clearwater, Fla. The Scientology church is hostile to mainstream mental health care and argues it makes people sick. The church kept her in isolation for 17 days, a time in which she appeared psychotic -- beating the walls with her hands and feet and refusing food, according to a doctor and practicing Scientologist whose license was suspended over the affair. The doctor, David Minkoff, later called the events that led to McPherson's death a "fiasco."

2. Many of Scientology's biggest legal problems have been in France. In 1988, Frenchman and church member Patrice Vic committed suicide after going into debt paying for the church's services (most of the steps on the path of spiritual progress in the church must be paid for). In 1996, the head of the church in Lyon, was convicted of manslaughter in Mr. Vic's death. Two other Scientologists received sentences for intimidating a psychiatrist who served as an expert witness at the manslaughter trial. In 1978, Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard was convicted in absentia to four years in prison by a French court for making false claims that his methods could cure illness. Mr. Hubbard never served a day of the sentence, and passed away in 1986.

3. The church has also been on the offensive side of court action. In 1991, about 50 Scientologists from around the United States filed a series of lawsuits against the Cult Awareness Network, a leading critic of the church at the time. The Scientologists had all applied to join the network and after being rebuked, argued in their separate legal actions that this constituted unfair discrimination on the basis of their religious beliefs. The church described the network as a "hate group" and the organization eventually filed for bankruptcy under the weight of its legal fees and problems associated with its practice of kidnapping alleged "cult" members for a process it called "deprogramming."

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