Jean-François Valli, who had worked for both the non-profit Celebrity Centre and the for-profit Scientology bookshop, faced a charge of organised fraud.
His lawyer, Maître Virginie Benmayor, took as her starting point the remarkable volte-face performed by the prosecution in this case.
How could the prosecution have delivered such as stinging summing up, called for such harsh sentences when during the actual investigation their office had taken the view that there was no case to answer?
They had artificially reconstituted the facts, she argued: and now M. Valli and his fellow defendants were in the firing line.
But for Benmayor, the issues at stake here were not the kind that should be settled in a court of law.
“It is not up to the courts to settle the problem of what measures should be taken against Scientology,” she argued.
“It is true that there is a serious question to settle here: but it is for the state to take responsibility.”
It was not the job of the court to victimise the defendants, she added. “The risk here is that innocent people will be convicted.”
For fraud, French law required there to be a degree of intention, she said, a degree of manoeuvring. “There was no manoeuvring here,” said Benmayor. “M. Valli had simply acted on his belief in Scientology.”
And while charge against him mentioned the money that Pierre Auffret had drained from his company accounts to pay for his training, Auffret himself had refused to file a complaint against Valli.
As for the hours devoted to discussing whether or not the personality test constituted part of Scientology’s alleged fraudulent manoeuvres, this had little to do with Valli.
“You can’t say M. Valli used this ‘fraudulent manoeuvre’ because Valli did not use the personality test in his work as counsellor/advisor (conseiller/orienteur),” said Benmayor.
For when Valli met new members, they had already decided that they wanted to go further in their study of Scientology. “He never had anyone sit the personality test.”
So far as Valli’s dealings with the plaintiff Aude-Claire Malton were concerned, “he simply listened and took account of what she wanted and directed her to the service that she was seeking.”
It was also worth remembering that Mme Malton had been involved with Scientology for nearly two months before Valli started advising her. “She had already decided to become a Scientologist before she even met him.”
Mme Malton had taken her personality test and, a few days later, on May 18, 1998, had come into the Paris Celebrity Centre to get the results.
Benmayor was dismissive of any suggestion that the plaintiff Mme Malton could have failed to have realised that she was dealing with Scientology, rather than just Dianetics.
“The moment she entered the centre she knew perfectly well where she was because as [Scientology’s representative for the Centre] M. Roux indicated, it is clearly marked inside.”
Apart from anything else, she added, the books of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard were everywhere.
“There is no doubt that Mme Malton, when she arrived, knew perfectly well the religious character of the movement.”
Malton acted on her own initiative
And Mme Malton herself had said that after having read Hubbard’s book Dianetics she wanted to study Dianetics. “Mme Malton was never forced to do anything: it was her own decision.”
And by this time she knew perfectly well what Scientology was: she had seen a copy of What is Scientology? an introductory book; she had been audited; she had watched the introductory films; and by her own admission she had even read some material critical of Scientology.
“So we come to July 4, and at that point she is perfectly happy – and that is the point at which she meets M. Valli,” said Benmayor.
“He asks her if she is satisfied and it is then, at her request, that he presents the services – and the next day she comes back of her own initiative,” to buy more.
Benmayor also had difficulty understanding why Mme Malton had said she had been very tired during the Purification Rundown; she had after all taken time off work to do the programme, she said.
Then there was the incident on the night of July 14, of which the prosecution, and Mme Malton’s lawyer had made so much, said Benmayor,
If Valli had accompanied Mme Malton to her home that night, when she had signed three cheques for further services, it had only been to help her out.
“He has explained why: because she was weighed down by the documents,” she said. For Mme Malton had just bought a substantial quantity of materials.
Valli had not pressed Mme Malton for the cheques that night, said Benmayor: quite the reverse.
“She wanted to pay for the services she had bought. What can you say against M. Valli?” she asked. “I don’t see it.
The prosecution and Mme Malton’s lawyer had presented the Thursday 2:00pm deadline as being of major significance, said Benmayor.
But Mme Malton had come back to the centre on the Wednesday 15th and Friday 17th – after the supposed Thursday deadline – to pay her bills. So Valli had not been obsessed with getting those cheques.
On August 4, Valli had proposed a fresh set of courses to Mme Malton and when the subject of another loan had come up (she had already borrowed to pay for previous courses), it was Mme Malton who had asked Valli for the telephone number of the bank.
“She wanted to sign up for this; it was her desire; he did not force her,” said Benmayor. Certainly, he had advised her, and for that he had been violently attacked by his accusers in the court: but Mme Malton had wanted the loan.
Valli had not put her in touch with a contact at the SOFINCO Bank as Mme Malton had suggested, she said: and nor had he accompanied her into the bank to negotiate the loan.
“He did not go in,” said Benmayor. “He knows no one there.”
Subsequent investigations had established that there had been absolutely no complicity, that the staff at the Celebrity Centre had absolutely no link with the bank, she added.
Benmayor also pointed to comments by Mme Malton during her early interviews with investigators that made it clear that she had wanted the loan, and why.
“If I agreed to take out this new loan, it is because I felt good and I wanted to continue, and I only believed in Scientology. In the space of two months, I had achieved a lot of results: I had a total sense of well-being; I had applied the communication course at my work place and it worked very well…” she had said during a meeting with investigators on February 5, 1999.
Mme Malton had later told investigators that she had lied to the bank about how long she had had had her current job. She said that it had been on the advice of the Scientologists, said Benmayor; but there was no evidence to support this.
Was Malton so fragile?
It had only been during her final testimony, in the third week of the trial, that Mme Malton had begun speaking of the “cascade of words” to which M. Valli had supposedly subjected her.
But the court had to consider the possibility that M. Valli had acted in good faith; that he had not put Mme Malton under pressure; and that in fact Mme Malton had acted of her own free will throughout.
For as the court-appointed psychiatric expert Dr. Daniel Zagury had pointed out, happiness has no price.
And as for the money that Mme Malton had spent on Scientology, said Benmayor, “it is not that much more expensive than psychotherapy.”
Dr. Zagury had pointed to what he said was Mme Malton’s psychological weakness. “He said she was very fragile.” But the psychiatrist had done his expertise two years after the events in question. “Perhaps she had had time to get over it,” she suggested.
And at the time of the events in question, Mme Malton held down a hotel job with a great deal of responsibility, leading a team of 12 chamber maids.
“This does not correspond to any supposed weakness or fragility,” said Benmayor.
Dr. Zagury’s report had also made it clear that Mme Malton suffered from no mental illness; that she had her own free will; that she was never held against her will; or deprived her ability to give or withhold her consent.
Valli was also charged in connection with the former plaintiff Eric Aubry, despite the fact that he had very little contact with him, said Benmayor.
Aubry had simply been taken to Vallie’s office to pay a bill one day. There was no regular contact between the two and in any case, when the two did meet for the first time, Aubry had already been a Scientologist for two years.
The indictment accused Valli of having deceived his victims with false promises, persuading them that Scientology could help them with their various problems: but that was a value judgment, said Benmayor, and it was not the court’s role to make value judgments.
“M. Valli has been a Scientologist for 20 years and he believes in it. He is convinced, rightly or wrongly, that Scientology can help people: that it works. Whether or not it does work is neither here nor there, but he believes it works.”
And so, for a while at least had Aubry, Benmayor noted.
But then, after all this time saying how much he had got from Scientology, suddenly he had changed his mind after having talked to his family and read a few articles.
“Everything was fine until he met people who were hostile to Scientology,” said Benmayor – people like Roger Gonnet, the former Scientologist who is now one of the movement’s fiercest critics and who testified for the plaintiffs during the trial.
And then there was Pierre Auffret, who had refused to lodge a complaint against Valli.
“I’m not going to file a complaint against people who never did anything but help me,” he said, Benmayor told the court. He had always been very happy in Scientology.
And whatever Auffret’s conduct in draining money from his own company to pay for his Scientology training, this was nothing to do with Valli. He only knew about it after the fact.
For at the time, so far as Valli was concerned, “there was never a question of professional training, but personal services,” she said.
The only problem with that affair was the question of the false billing: but the court was not being asked the rule on an embezzlement charge. “The aim of the investigating magistrate at that time was not to convict Auffret but to convict Scientology,” said Benmayor.
And so far as financial prejudice was concerned, none of the plaintiffs, past or present, had suffered financial prejudice from these matters: they had all been refunded, she added.
It was true that Aude-Claire Malton, during her final testimony to the court the previous week, had talked about moral prejudice and said that she had been abused.
“She had told the court that it had taken her nine years to get over it – and she was only there [inside Scientology] for four months,” said Benmayor. “And there was no violence, there were no threats, there was no indoctrination.”
The offence of fraud required an intentional element to be established, said Benmayor: and this had clearly not been demonstrated.
Valli was a long-term Scientologist who had spent a great deal of his own money on the movement’s training. “And today he is still a Scientologist.”
He had been kicked out of his job with the movement over the Auffret affair, she reminded the court and now found himself in the dock. “But he is still a Scientologist. That is a measure of how strong his faith is.”
Jean-Pierre Brard, the deputy and veteran campaigner on cult issues, had told the court during his testimony that if somebody was paying 10 percent of his salary to a cult then it was like an addictive relationship.
That was probably true of her client, said Benmayor. “If M. Valli pays so much money, then how can he be at the same time a fraudster and a victim of fraud?” she asked.
Valli had spent a lot of time at the Celebrity Centre, at times working as a volunteer: he had not made a great deal of money out of this, she added. “If he had been motivated by money he would have done something else.”
And yet this was someone who was facing a charge of organised fraud, she said.
The prosecution, which had made so much of the personality test, had not demonstrated that its use constituted organised fraud – and in any case Valli had played no role in interpreting the test results.
Brard, she said, had said he was that ordinary Scientologists had no idea what was going on further up in the movement: could Valli not be one of those ordinary Scientologists, she suggested?
“He has done nothing wrong: nothing to deserve being here,” she continued – yet the prosecution wanted a very heavy sentenced to be levied against someone who had no previous convictions.
“If you convict him, you will be convicting him on the basis of his beliefs,” she concluded.