PARIS — A Paris court convicted the Church of Scientology of fraud and fined it more than $900,000 today, but stopped short of banning the group’s activities.
The group’s French branch said it would appeal the verdict.
The court convicted the Church of Scientology’s French office, its library and six of its leaders of organized fraud. Investigators said the group pressured members into paying large sums of money for questionable financial gain and used “commercial harassment” against recruits.
The group was fined $600,000 and the library $300,000. Four of the leaders were given suspended sentences of between 10 months and two years. The other two were given fines.
Prosecutors had urged that the group be disbanded in France and fined $3 million. A law that was briefly on the books this year prevented the court from going so far as to disband the French branch of Scientology in Tuesday’s verdict — though it could have taken the lesser step of shutting down its operations.
However, the court did not do so, ruling that French Scientologists would have continued their activities anyway “outside any legal framework.”
A spokeswoman for the French branch of Scientology, Agnes Bron, said the verdict was “an Inquisition of modern times,” a reference to efforts to rout out heretics of the Roman Catholic Church in centuries past.
“It’s really all bark and no bite,” said the spokesman of the Church of Scientology International, Tommy Davis. “The church will emerge victorious on appeal.”
Speaking by telephone from New York, Davis said the Church of Scientology was prepared to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights.
The head of a French association that helps victims of sects called the verdict “intelligent.”
“Scientology can no longer hide behind freedom of conscience,” Catherine Picard said.
The Los Angeles-based Church of Scientology, founded in 1954 by the late science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, has been active for decades in Europe, but has struggled to gain status as a religion. It is considered a sect in France and has faced prosecution and difficulties in registering its activities in many countries.
Defense lawyer Patrick Maisonneuve said during the trial that neither the Church of Scientology nor the six leaders on trial had gained financially from the group’s practices.
The original complaint in the case dates back more than a decade, when a young woman said she took out loans and spent the equivalent of euro21,000 on books, courses and “purification packages” after being recruited in 1998. When she sought reimbursement and to leave the group, its leadership refused. She was among three eventual plaintiffs.
Olivier Morice, lawyer for civil parties in the case, said the verdict was “historic” because it was the first time in France that the Church of Scientology has been convicted of organized fraud.
Investigating Judge Jean-Christophe Hullin spent years examining the group’s activities, and in his indictment criticized what he called the Scientologists’ “obsession” with financial gain and practices he said were aimed at plunging members into a “state of subjection.”
The Church of Scientology teaches that technology can expand the mind and help solve problems. It claims 10 million members around the world, including celebrity devotees Tom Cruise and John Travolta.
Belgium, Germany and other European countries have been criticized by the U.S. State Department for labeling Scientology as a cult or sect and enacting laws to restrict its operations.