Monday, 14 September 2009

22 The Celebrity Centre I

The personality test is not a major recruitment tool, 100 percent of refund requests are granted and “hard sell” means taking care of people, a Scientologist told the court.

“I imagine you have been well trained,” said Judge Sophie-Hélène Château, which appeared to be a reference to earlier testimony that Scientologists were trained to lie in court.

Not at all, said Eric Roux: the truth was a vital part of Scientology.[1]

Roux, tall, thin and dressed in a dark grey suit, may have spent most of the trial sitting beside the other defendants, but he personally ran no risk of spending a day in jail.

He was in court to represent the Paris Celebrity Centre, where some of the alleged frauds had taken place, and which was one of the two Scientology organisations on trial.

Roux took the stand on the morning of Wednesday, June 10, to rebut the allegations laid against the Celebrity Centre.

Under close questioning from the judge, Roux gave a composed, polished performance in the hours that followed.

During his testimony, he made a number of statements that directly contradicted earlier evidence, notably from former Scientologist Roger Gonnet:

- he repeatedly played down the significance of the personality test as a recruitment tool, dismissing as outdated internal Scientology documents that suggested otherwise;
- he insisted that all refund requests were honoured, despite plaintiffs’ claims to the contrary;
- and he redefined a number of key words in Scientology terms: “hard sell”, he said, was actually about helping people.

The Centre – or the L'Association spirituelle de l'Eglise de Scientologie (ASES) as it was officially called – had been set up under France’s laws for non-profit associations, said Roux. Its aim was to spread the word about the Scientology religion.

It had 135 members of staff who looked after the needs of the 500 regulars who used its services, whether studying the writings of founder L. Ron Hubbard or practising Scientology’s auditing techniques.

Scientology, said Roux, required a major commitment: “It is not enough to believe in God,” he said. It also required extensive study of Hubbard’s writings – just as a Christian seminarian might study the Bible.

Roux acknowledged that the court had had difficulty understanding how one could be said to be “donating” money for something that had to be purchased.

“I saw there were questions,” said Roux. “I grant you… these are not gifts in the legal sense of the term.”

But Scientology was a religion that had been founded in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, he said, and in those countries, they used the word “donation”.

In making these fixed donations, said Roux, parishioners were simply acknowledging the work that their Church did. “They are contributing to the Church and at the same time that gives them the right to a service.”

And as he understood it, other religions practised something very similar, he said.

In the Hindu religions, there were fixed prices for certain rites, he said; the Anglican Church set a tariff for its mass “…and if you don’t pay the tariff you don’t get a mass.”

Judge Château wanted to know if all this would have been explained to Aude-Claire Malton, the main plaintiff in the case. Certainly, said Roux. Each time a service was offered, there would be an accompanying form to explain what the payment was for.

“It is clearly marked that this is a religious service,” he said.

Roux turned to the issue of advance payments: he preferred to call them contributions.

“There is this idea that all Scientologists are pushed to make payments in advance,” he said. It simply was not true: he could name 20 fellow Scientologists who simply paid for each service as they did it.

But if others did choose to pay ahead, that was their right, he added.

“This is something people are passionate about,” he explained. He himself had spent 50,000 francs (7,600 euros) on auditing in two weeks, he said. “Why? Because it was what I was looking for and I had found it.”

But while some people were prepared to advance large sums of money for the training – and take the reductions that came with it – others would not come in for training for several years.

Averaged out, he said, the annual spending of a Scientologist on his training was about 1,000 euros.

“We would have to close if people did not finance us,” he said. “There is not one cent that goes towards making a profit.”

“There is no problem with refunds”

Judge Château asked him about the suggestion from former member Roger Gonnet that staffers’ income was linked to their performance.

“Gonnet knows nothing about the management of the Church of Scientology,” said Roux.

He did acknowledge that if there was not a lot of money coming in then sometimes payments to staff would be less. But that did not mean that staffers were penalised proportionally.

Roux also dismissed Gonnet’s claim that if a centre issued a refund, it would have to answer to international management – and that the money would come out of a staffer’s pay.

“There is no problem with refunds,” he said. “That is totally false.”

The court had already heard testimony that if you quit Scientology you could get a full refund from Scientology – but you would receive no further training from them. But what about partial refunds, Judge Château asked?

Former plaintiff Eric Aubry for example, who had finally settled out of court with Scientology, had struggled to get his partial refund when he first requested it.

“It is very rare that someone asks for a partial refund,” said Roux, “and normally, the rule is that if you ask for a refund then you no longer take part in Scientology courses.”

Judge Château persisted: in Aubry’s case, he had originally wanted to continue in the movement, but nevertheless needed some of his money back: he subsequently complained about not having received that refund. So what happened in such cases, she wanted to know?

Aubry had dropped his request for a refund after he had had a meeting with the chaplain, said Roux. “If he had continued to ask for a refund, he would have had it.”

If Scientology’s own literature stipulated that asking for a refund disqualified you from further training that suggested a percentage of people were asking for their money back, said the judge. So how many such requests were accepted, she asked?

“All requests for refunds are accepted,” said Roux: “A hundred percent.” But very few Scientologists, three percent at most, requested it.

Asked about pricing, Roux explained that it was the mother church that fixed the rates.

And he estimated about 10 percent of the centre’s income was paid to the mother church –transferred by conventional means, he added, dismissing Gonnet’s account of smuggling cash to the States hidden in his underpants.

“We have a very strict financial system… we are totally open in our accounts,” he said.

They had, after all, survived years of intense scrutiny by the US Internal Revenue Service – and one of the IRS stipulations had been that the money was not to be used for personal enrichment.

During later questioning, prosecutor Nicolas Baïetto put it to him that a former treasurer of the Celebrity Centre, as Mme Noucrati, had told investigators that refunds had to be referred to the United States, just as Gonnet had said.

“Absolutely not…” said Roux: “We don’t have to go through the mother Church.”

“…there is no financial motivation”

More than one of the plaintiffs had said they had been pressured to pay before Thursday or risk seeing the prices go up.

Former member Roger Gonnet had spoken of the tremendous pressure staffers were under to bring in more money than the previous week, with Thursday 2:00 pm as the deadline.

Why was there such pressure to bring money in before Thursday 2:00 pm, asked the judge?

Naturally, said Roux, the mother church was happy to see finances improve. “We are not saying we are not pleased when someone makes a major contribution.” But nobody was getting rich out of this process, he insisted.

If they wanted to bring in more money, it was “so we can do our charity work… because we think that Scientology can help humanity progress.”

The judge tried again: “Why are you required to improve your figures each week?”

“Of course we have targets, but they are not just financial,” said Roux. “Our most important target is the number of Clears,” he said, referring to a stage in a Scientologist’s development that is highly regarded inside the movement.

“You haven’t answered my question,” said the judge.

All that happened on Thursday, said Roux, was they went over the figures and discussed what they had achieved – “financial figures among others,” said Roux. Given what the staff at the Celebrity Centre earned, he added, “I can assure you there is no financial motivation.”

And what happened to someone if their figures were poor, asked the judge?

“Nothing at all,” said Roux.

“But you value someone whose figures are good?” she asked.

“Not necessarily,” said Roux.

Gonnet had testified that centres had to send weekly telexes to the headquarters in the United State. If the figures were bad, said Gonnet, the centres would come under pressure from head office to better the following week.

Roux dismissed that as nonsense: these telexes simply contained the weekly figures: how many people had been audited; how many had reached the state of Clear; how many people had been introduced to Scientology.

“The aim of the association is a religious one,” he said. “It is not to put money in our pockets because we don’t put it there.”

Judge Château turned to the relationship between the non-profit Celebrity Centre (ASES) and the for-profit bookshop (SEL) – the two organisations on trial.

The issue was important because the charges of organised fraud against them rested to some extent on the accusation that the organisations’ separation of roles was an illusion.

Roux said that both legally and from a management perspective, the two were entirely separate and had been so since 1997, a measure undertaken at the request of the tax authorities.

What about when the Celebrity Centre had shared the banking facilities of the bookshop, asked the judge?

That had happened for a six-month period when the Celebrity Centre had found itself without a bank-card machine and was having trouble getting banking facilities in France.

“Our followers couldn’t make contributions,” he said. So they had asked the bookshop if they could use their facilities. “I don’t know if that was correct or not, but it lasted only six months.”

Judge Valli pointed out that one of the defendants, salesman Jean-François Valli, had worked for both organisations. Roux did not see that as a problem.

For Roux it was only natural that people doing Scientology courses in the Celebrity Centre would also be buying Hubbard’s work from the bookshop.

“That is not the problem,” said the judge. The problem was that people buying services might also be paying for books as part of a package – and that raised the possibility that sales of the Celebrity Centre’s courses and SEL’s books might feature in the same bills.

Roux argued that it was hard for someone doing Scientology courses to find Scientology books elsewhere: “These are not books accepted by everyone,” he argued.

So for you, there is no problem so far as separation is concerned, asked the judge?

“Not at all,” said Roux: while there might have been a problem during the period they shared banking facilities, today their management and activities were totally separate.
[1] I confess I missed this exchange myself, but it appears in more than one press write-up (AFP, Le Parisien) and one of the lawyers in court confirmed the details after the trial.

1 comment:

  1. Great article, Jonny! The facts seem to be very evident to the Judge. Her questions are precise and hit the target.

    So glad I stopped by today. I see that you have been very busy writing many more good articles sinve the trial recessed in June. I have some catching up to do!