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Church of Scientology lawyer Patrick Maisonneuve, left, speaks to reporters after a court returned a verdict of fraud against the group, at a Paris courthouse, Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2009. (JACQUES BRINON/JACQUES BRINON/AP)
Church of Scientology lawyer Patrick Maisonneuve, left, speaks to reporters after a court returned a verdict of fraud against the group, at a Paris courthouse, Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2009. (JACQUES BRINON/JACQUES BRINON/AP)

Scientology: Religious sect, or money-making cult? Add to ...

The German domestic intelligence service keeps the Church of Scientology under surveillance as a potential threat to democracy. Belgian prosecutors have been building a blackmail case against it for 11 years.

Now the French have taken a more forceful step.

In a decision that could reverberate across Europe, a court in Paris Tuesday convicted the French branch of the church of "organized fraud" and said it had systematically tricked recruits out of their savings.

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The two flagship Scientology outposts in Paris, a bookstore and an information centre, were ordered to pay €600,000 in fines. The head of the church in France was given a two-year suspended sentence for fraud and fined €30,000.

However, the court allowed the church to keep operating in France. In May, when the trial began, prosecutors asked that it be shut down as a criminal enterprise, only to discover that the law that might have allowed its banishment had just been deleted as part of an overhaul of the penal code.

The judges said they did not order the church offices closed because they did not want to drive Scientologists underground, where they could not be monitored.

They also said a paid notice of the church's conviction would be published in Time magazine and the International Herald Tribune so that news of the church's conviction would spread beyond France.

"The court told the Scientologists, in essence, to be very, very careful, because if you continue to use the same methods of harassment, you won't escape next time," said Olivier Morice, the lawyer for the civil plaintiffs in the case.

Church lawyers, who likened the Paris trial to the Inquisition, said they will appeal.

Individual members of the Church of Scientology have previously been convicted in the French courts. The founder of the Lyons branch was sent to prison for involuntary manslaughter in 1997 after the suicide of a debt-ridden church member. In 1999, five church members were found guilty of fraud.

Tuesday's ruling was the first to directly target the methods of the church, which has been fighting legal battles across the continent to be registered as a religious association and to fend off restrictions from European governments that view it as nothing more than a money-making cult.

In Germany, it has been under fire from local governments that have shut down its after-school programs and distributed pamphlets warning people against joining the Scientologists. National and state interior ministers two years ago said the church posed a threat to constitutional values and ordered the intelligence service to keep it under watch.

But late last year they backed off from an effort to try to ban it outright.

In Belgium, another country that has tried to marginalize the Scientologists, the 12 members of the Brussels branch have been under investigation since 1998 after a complaint from a woman who said she was defrauded. In May, when hearings were finally opened in the case, the church won a postponement.

The U.S. State Department regularly criticizes efforts by France and other European countries to marginalize or regulate Scientology. The church itself has also been aggressive in defending its operations.

Three weeks ago, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in Scientology's favour in a case it brought against Russian authorities who refused to recognize two church affiliates as religious organizations. The court hears cases from the 47 countries that are members of the Council of Europe.

The French case stemmed from similar complaints from people who said that in 1998, Scientology officials harassed them into emptying their bank accounts to pay for expensive courses, equipment, vitamins and what were called purification treatments.

One of those plaintiffs, Aude-Claire Malton, broke down in court as she described how the church pressured her to spend all her savings of €30,000 in the space of four months and then tried to convince her to borrow more. "They cleaned me out, demolished me," she said. "It's mental manipulation."

The church's top official in France, who was convicted in the case, called the payments demanded of adherents simple donations. "No church lives only on the energy of the good Lord," he told the judges.

France has labelled the Church of Scientology a cult, a designation that brings it under the purview of a special government monitoring commission that reports each year on "abuses by sects."

At least five other cases involving complaints against the church are under investigation by courts around France, according to press reports.

One was brought by the family of a woman who said she threw herself in front of a train three years ago after being told repeatedly by her Scientology mentors that she was a failure.

Tuesday's ruling could encourage other unhappy Scientology recruits to come forward, said Catherine Picard, head of the French Association of Victims of Sects.

"They've had a real slap in the face," she said. "Nationally and internationally, the word Scientologist will be associated with fraud."

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