On the third day of the Paris trial of Scientology, the judge told a former plaintiff’s story – and questioned one of the movement’s top salesmen.
Three out of the five people who originally filed as plaintiffs in the Paris case against Scientology had withdrawn their complaints by the time it came to trial. The details of what they told investigators however remained on file.
On Wednesday May 27, the third day of the trial, President of the Court Judge Sophie-Hélène Château read out details of Eric Aubry’s story.
Aubry had got involved with Scientology after buying a copy of Dianetics from a Scientologist touring France in a bus to promote the movement.
During a 19-month period – from September 1997 to April 1999 – Aubry had spent a little over 324,000 francs (nearly 50,000 euros) on Scientology and had finished up heavily in debt.
He filed his complaint in September 2000, but in December 2007 wrote to withdraw it, saying he had resolved his differences with those concerned. Aubry had received a refund of some 34,000 euros.
Judge Château read extracts from a detailed 12-page letter Aubry had written in May 1998 to the Celebrity Centre Paris, complaining bitterly about the way he was being treated.
The letter, which appeared to use Scientology’s own terminology against the centre’s staff, denounced the centre’s “suppressive” pressure and accused them of restimulating his mentale réactive – his reactive mind.
In Scientology, the reactive mind is the unconscious part of the mind that is the source of many of our problems. Scientology is meant to free people from the influence of the reactive mind, not restimulate it.
“Suppressive” is a term Scientology uses to describe its enemies: but it can also be used to describe what its enemies are trying to do to the movement.
Aubry blamed two people in particular: Jean-François Valli and Didier Michaux, both defendants in the trial.
He had paid for auditing sessions, Scientology’s confessional-style therapy during which members reveal what are sometimes intimate details of their private life.
He had talked about aspects of his personal life that still troubled him and about which he still felt tremendous guilt, said the judge.
And in interviews with investigators, Aubry told them about the letters he felt he had had to write at the end of each course, testifying to the gains – or wins – he had achieved. Sometimes he had written several such letters in a single day, he said.
Plaintiff Aude-Claire Malton had made the same complaint about these success stories in her testimony the previous day, although Valli had denied they were compulsory.
Aubry also complained that he had only signed up for a very expensive course after having been pressured to do so.
One staff member, Didier Michaux had harassed him on the phone on a daily basis – sometimes several times a day, he said.
He had been told to empty his bank account and take out a loan, said Judge Château, consulting the case papers.
“He felt he had been drawn in by the promises of friends. He felt that their contract had not been ethical – when they spoke a lot about ethics in Scientology. They were more interested in sales,” she said.
Aubry had described himself as easily influenced and said that staff had tried to make him feel guilty about certain aspects of his private life, making indiscreet comments at the centre.
Then, when the apartment he rented was being sold and he wanted to buy it rather than having to move out, he tried to get a refund of some of the money he had advanced for courses.
The request was eventually rejected, he said.
But Judge Château noted what she described as a contradiction in Aubry’s behaviour: despite having written his letter of complaint to the Celebrity Centre in May 1998, he had continued his Scientology training there for months afterwards.
“He regretted having spent so much money for nothing,” said the judge. “But one can ask oneself how he continued to go to the centre and spend the money.”
She called Didier Michaux to give evidence.
Not in it 'for the money'
Tall, slim, dressed in dark trousers and a white shirt, Michaux was a more imposing figure than fellow defendant Valli, who had given evidence the day before.
The 42-year-old spoke calmly, at a measured pace, and his answers were more composed.
At the time in question, Michaux worked at SEL, the Scientology bookshop in Paris – one of the two organisations also in the dock. These two organisations were each accused of organised fraud: of essentially having been the moving force behind the fraud prosecutors said had been carried on the plaintiffs.
Michaux himself was accused of fraud against Eric Aubry.
Judge Château noted at first that Michaux had earned a good living at the bookshop. Working on 5-15 percent commission from sales, he had made 342,000 francs (nearly 52,000 euros) in 1998; and 530,000 francs (nearly 81,000 euros) the following year.
Michaux was by a long way the top earner at the centre: with the help of a colleague, he had sold Aubry alone 250,000 francs’ (38,000 euros’) worth of books and 75,000 francs’ (11,400 euros’) worth of courses, including the Purification Rundown.
But that was not his main motivation, he said. “I always did it by conviction, not for the money… because I believe in Scientology before everything.”
Judge Château tackled him first about what appeared to be the confusion of bank accounts in his name. He seemed to act as banker for a certain number of people, she said.
Questioned about regular cash deposits in the accounts, he was unable to help: “I don’t know what you are referring to… Perhaps from courses from the active members,” he said.
She noted too that as well as selling Aubry the books, he had also sold him Scientology courses, which was more the preserve of the Celebrity Centre. “That was an exceptional case,” he said. “Normally I only sell books.”
So how did it come about, asked the judge?
“I met M Aubry several weeks after he had started Scientology. He had read several books and done some auditing and he was very satisfied. He asked me how to become an auditor,” he said.
He regarded Aubry, who had a well-paid job as a computer technician, as a thoughtful person, someone who knew what he was about.
“He didn’t sign up immediately. He always took time to think about it,” he said later.
And Michaux said he had had no idea about the details of Aubry's bank accounts at the time.
“It is not really something that interests me. What interests me is what someone can gain from Scientology,” he said.
But why was it you who was recommending Aubry what courses to take, asked the judge? “All I did was what he asked me to do to go up the bridge to [total] freedom,” he said. “I gave him the prices for each stage.”
Judge Château questioned him over these prices, as she had Valli the previous day, and she established again that the client got a list of goods and services available rather than the prices themselves. The prices were listed in the computer.
But again, Michaux insisted that his role helping Aubry arose naturally out of the rapport that had developed between them.
“Each time he came to the centre he came to see me and we had a coffee and I saw it as a very convivial relationship,” he said.
“I am a Scientologist before everything. It is something I did because he asked me.” Aubry was really someone who wanted to advance, who wanted to become Clear (an enlightened mental state much prized by Scientologists), said Michaux.
“It really happened in the natural course of things,” he added, referring to his association with Aubry.
But why did people book their courses so far in advance, asked the Judge Château? She had calculated that what Aubry had paid for – assuming a certain number of hours’ training a day – would have taken years to complete.
“But you pay it all in advance,” said the judge.
“It is not at all obligatory,” said Michaux.
'I took care of people'
Judge Château also put it to him that he had pressured Aubry to pay before 2:00 pm Thursday by saying that otherwise, the price would go up.
No, said Michaux: it was simply that Thursday was the end of the administrative week in Scientology. “But I never spoke of rising prices,” he said.
And what about the phone calls to Aubry at work, asked the judge? Aubry had complained that Michaux would have him on the phone for an hour, reading the texts of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. That, for Aubry, amounted to harassment.
“I phoned him at his request because it was he who gave me his number – because he had asked me,” said Michaux. “He had a work problem and preferred to talk about it at work.”
He had simply read Aubry texts from Hubbard that he thought would be helpful, he said. “I am not in the habit of calling people.”
And what about the long sales sessions after people had finished studying their course, asked the judge?
People might stay on after courses, said Michaux: “But Scientologists are happy to be there.” It was more a question of like-minded people sharing a fruit juice together, he added.
Michaux did not accept that Aubry had been subjected to pressure. “He was extremely happy to have done his courses. He was really delighted to have signed up for the stages to become Clear.”
“But you are at the top of the list of people in whom he had no confidence,” said Judge Château, referring to Aubry’s letter.
She turned to the cost of Scientology’s e-meters, the devices used in their auditing, or therapy sessions. From the receipts she had in front of her, the price seemed to vary from client to client, she said.
“How do you decide the price you are going to put on an e-meter?” she asked.
Michaux said that the price might vary depending on the items that had been bought along with the e-meter: books on how to audit, for example.
“The prices are fixed by the computer,” he added. “I don’t know how the prices are fixed.”
Judge Château put it to Michaux that he was the de facto manager of the bookshop, since the woman who owned it on paper lived in Denmark and was rarely in Paris.
Michaux disagreed: “I took care of the people. I took care of the sales points. I handled the inventory,” he said. And at the end of the week, depending on stocks, he might order more books.
The judge was also curious as to why there were so many books and other articles stocked in reserve – and why goods being paid for in instalments remained in the shop.
“You can pay for an e-meter in several instalments, but you do not get it until you have paid for it all,” said Michaux.
And did his manager fix him targets, the judge asked? No, not particularly, said Michaux. “I do this by conviction,” he added.
Asked about personality tests in Aubry’s case, Michaux said that this was not his department. So far as he understood it, the results were used to help orientate clients towards the services they needed.
How did he explain the letter in which Aubry had denounced him for harassment, the judge asked?
“I knew that M Aubry wasn’t happy at the time, but I didn’t see the letter at the time,” he said. He had simply informed his superiors so they could take care of it.
He says you suggested he empty his bank accounts, said the judge.
“I never did that,” he said.
'He was very happy with his auditing'
Michaux said he had since seen Aubry’s letter and it had spoken of the pressure he was under at the time. But part of that pressure had come from the reaction of people when they had learned he was a Scientologist, he said.
“The prevailing climate regarding Scientology – sometimes it is difficult to live with,” he added.
Judge Château quoted a passage from Aubry’s letter: “I don’t want to continue to be suppressed by the people at the Centre.”
Pressed on the subject a little later, Michaux stuck to his guns.
“What is sure is when I talk to someone about Scientology I am enthusiastic because I want to transmit what I have experienced,” he said.
“But it is not something that can be called harassment.”
Judge Château also went over Aubry's claim that staff had made him feel guilty and ashamed over aspects of his personal life that he had disclosed during auditing.
“He was very happy with his auditing,” said Michaux. Aubry had never spoken to him about any such problems.
The judge turned to Aubry’s financial problems: he had needed money when his car broke down and when he decided to buy the apartment he rented to avoid having to move out. Aubry had tried at that point to get a refund of some of the money he had advanced for Scientology courses.
Yes, said Michaux, Aubry had spoken to him about his financial problems, and about the possibility of a refund. “I contacted the person who handled refunds.”
Judge Château quoted Aubry again: “They led me up the garden path. They pretended to be checking the hierarchy.”
Did Scientology not have a commitment to refund clients, asked the judge?
“Yes,” said Michaux. “I don’t know what happened afterwards.”
The judge finished her questioning by reading more from Aubry’s accouunt: “I felt really guilty and ashamed about what happened. I felt stripped of everything, humiliated.”
Olivier Morice, lawyer for the two remaining individual plaintiffs, contented himself mainly with underlining Michaux’s skills as salesman.
“You are very effective. You are a salesman of great quality,” he said.
For the prosecution, Nicolas Baïetto pressed Michaux on his status at the bookshop.
“Why are you reluctant to say you were de facto manager?” he asked. His signature was on the bank accounts, he pointed out.
“I did it to be of service,” said Michaux: the owner was not always there.
What about Aubry’s experience during the Purification Rundown, Baïetto asked? He had talked about having to spend five hours in the sauna.
“He had real problems with the Purification Rundown… he spent so much time in the sauna that he had numerous hallucinations,” said Baïetto.
No, said Michaux: Aubry had felt better after the Rundown.
“I have done the Purification Rundown, as have thousands of people and I have never experienced that.”
'I have never harassed anyone'
Baïetto expressed scepticism that Michaux was a simple communicator, passing on information when Aubry asked for it.
“I just explained the services to him,” said Aubry. “But I know my religion: I know how to talk about it.”
Consulting bills in the case files, the prosecutor also asked Michaux why he appeared to have received money from Aubry that had nothing to do with the bookshop. Was it normal to have this confusion of payments between the bookshop and the Celebrity Centre, he asked?
“For me, no,” said Michaux. But that kind of thing could happen. He had just wanted to be of service to M. Aubry, he said. “I am on the premises, but I have very little to do with the church (Celebrity Centre).”
Baïetto asked him about the allegations of harassment.
“It wasn’t harassment, it was communication,” said Michaux. “I have never harassed anyone for anything.”
Baïetto too, raised the issue of Michaux’s earnings, wondering whether such sums were appropriate in an organisation that was constituted as a non-profit association under French law.
Now Judge Château recalled Valli, the other staffer about whom Aubry had also complained. She had already grilled him over his treatment of the original plaintiff, Malton.1
Valli explained that Aubry had approached him with certain questions in 1999 and later had contacted him again to discuss it further.
"So you orientated him?" asked the judge. Yes, said Valli. "He asked me questions on his orientation; on auditing..."
The judge asked him about the massive amount of training that Aubry had paid for in advance and how long it would take for him to get through it all.
That depended on the individual, said Valli, and he summarised the opening hours at the Centre.
But when he mentioned that staffers got training for free, the judge switched back to the case of Aude-Claire Malton.
Why had she paid out so much money for training in advance if she was about to give up her job and become a staffer, thus earning the right to free courses?
Was it strictly ethical to sell these courses if that was what was going to happen, she asked?
"Yes, it is strange," said Valli. "But you might want to ask Mme Malton."
At this point, the defence lawyers intervened: it was far from clear from the existing paperwork that Malton had been sold courses in advance after having decided to go to work for Scientology, they said.
The lawyers on all sides rummaged around in their files to try to find a document that would settle the matter one way or another, but in vain.
Judge Château was curious to know what Malton would have to say on the matter. But Malton's lawyer, Morice, doubted he could get her back to Paris to testify.
Next in the series: The Second Plaintiff
1 See “Defendant #1 the Facilitator”