The French branch of the Church of Scientology has been fined $900,000 after being found guilty of pressuring two former members into expensive "purification courses," vitamins, drugs and tests to measure "spiritual progress."
The fines were leveled against the Scientology Celebrity Center in Paris as well as a Scientology bookstore; six group leaders were also convicted of fraud and fined, with four receiving suspended jail sentences. Scientology is regarded as a religion by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service but is considered a "sect" - essentially comparable to a cult - in France and thus doesn't enjoy comparable legal protection. Even so, the prosecution's request to ban the church entirely went unheeded, as the judges presiding over the case said the law did not allow for such measures.
The case is regarded as very important, however, because it's the first time that the church itself, rather than just individual members, has been tried and convicted of criminal activity. "This is a historic decision," said Olivier Morice, a lawyer for the plaintiffs. "It's the first time in France that the entity of the Church of Scientology is condemned for fraud as an organized gang."
"Scientology can no longer hide behind freedom of conscience," added Catherine Picard, who runs a support group for victims of religious sects. She said the verdict was "subtle enough and intelligent," adding that she hoped it would help control Scientology in France.
A Scientology spokeswoman said the church would appeal the verdict, calling it "an Inquisition for modern times."