In 1987, a French court convicted two Narconon staffers after a woman died at their centre having suffered repeated epileptic seizures. Was it their fault alone, or did their negligence spring from Scientology's teachings?
Jocelyne Dorfmann just wanted to get off her medication.
She had been taking drugs to control her epilepsy, but after eight years she had had enough of them.
Already, she had started cutting down her consumption, which had led to two fits within four days of each other. But she was determined to find a solution.
A day after the second fit, she phoned the Narconon centre at Grancey-sur-Ource, in the Burgundy region of eastern France, to ask about treatment. The very same afternoon – Thursday, November 22, 1984 – she turned up and was checked in.
A little over 12 hours later she was dead.
Dorfmann, a 35-year-old divorced mother-of-two arrived at the centre at around 2:00 pm with her partner. She had already spoken to the centre's deputy director, Bernard M. on the phone. He and a colleague, Philippe C., took her through how it worked.
The first month's care would cost 9,000 francs (a little over US $2,000 today), they told Dorfmann's partner.1
Once admitted, she was led to what was known as the withdrawal room: Dorfmann had said she did not want to eat, but just to rest.
She warned Bernard M. that as well as her epilepsy medication she had, up until a year ago, been taking hard drugs. She also told him about her epileptic fits.
At around 3:00 pm – an hour or so after her arrival – Dorfmann had her first seizure. According to Bernard M.'s account, it lasted 45 minutes.
It was Jean-Louis D., another patient at the centre, who recognised it as an epileptic fit: he suffered from the same condition. He described the symptoms as “spasms, trembling, vomiting, muscular tension, occasional drooling and a raw cough”.
Soon afterwards, Dorfmann had another fit.
At 5:30 pm, in a bid to treat her, she was given a Calmag mix, a combination of magnesium and calcium, the only medication given at the centre.
At 6:00 pm, she went into spasms again – but the staff took them to be withdrawal symptoms.
They stayed by her side until 7:00 pm when Bernard M. left to give a talk on Narconon at a nearby town.
At around 8:00 pm, Philippe C. heard a noise on the first floor of the centre, and when he went to check he found Dorfmann on her knees at the entrance to the toilets, twitching violently.
He led her back to her room and stayed with her, assisted by Dorfmann's fellow patient, Jean-Louis D.
Dorfmann's condition deteriorated: her fits became more intense and they came more frequently; she was sweating and having trouble breathing.
By the time Bernard M. got back to the centre at around 11:30 pm, she was already semi-conscious and she lost consciousness shortly afterwards.
Between 1:30 am and 1:40 am in the morning, Dorfmann's two carers noticed that she was having increasing trouble breathing, that her lips were turning purple. She slipped into a coma.
It was only then that they decided to call for a doctor.
There was a further delay while they hunted down the key to the office that had the only phone. The call finally went through at 2:15 am.
When the doctor arrived at the centre half an hour later, there was no one waiting for him at the entrance.
He went in, went up to the first floor, and found Dorfmann. The only person still with her was her fellow patient Jean-Louis D. She was already dead.2
The autopsy concluded that she had died as a result of the epileptic fits; that she had not been properly treated when the fits started, nor given adequate emergency treatment as her condition deteriorated.
One death, two convictions
Jocelyne Dorfmann died in the early hours of Friday, November 23, 1984 – about 12 hours after her arrival at the Narconon centre.
Two years later, in November 1986, the two Narconon staffers were tried for non-assistance to a person in danger. The judgment was handed down in January of the following year.
The court acknowledged that some clients of the centre had been referred there on medical advice and that they had had regular medical check-ups during treatment.
But that was not true of Dorfmann – and at the time she checked in, only one of the three clients there had a medical certificate.
More troubling still was that shortly before Dorfmann's arrival another client who suffered from epilepsy had had fits – a direct result of his having stopped taking his medication.
On that occasion, he had had to call the doctor himself.
The trial had also established that neither Bernard M. nor Philippe C. had any medical credentials for their work: their only qualification appeared to be that they had themselves completed a course of treatment at Narconon.
The two defendants argued that they had not known how serious Dorfmann's condition was; they had thought her condition was due simply to withdrawal symptoms.
But the court was not convinced.
At no point had they advised Dorfmann to consult a doctor about coming off her epilepsy medication – who would have advised against it, the judgment noted.
Given what she had told them about her condition, “...it is inconceivable that the victim could have been accepted without this [medical] examination and without a serious interview...,” the court added.
The defendants had themselves acknowledged that in the case of serious illness, medical treatment should not be interrupted, said the judgment.
The defendants might conceivably have failed to understand what was happening with the first fit, said the ruling: those that followed – and their growing intensity – should have made them think again.
Medical experts had confirmed to the court that such repeated fits could not be confused with withdrawal symptoms. The defendants had not even bothered to check with Dorfmann herself – while she was still conscious – as to whether these were like her previous fits.
Their failure to act was all the more difficult to understand given that a fellow patient, himself an epileptic, had told them her fits resembled his own, said the ruling. More serious still, was their failure to act immediately when her condition deteriorated.
Both defendants were convicted, given one-year suspended sentences, fined 10,000 francs and ordered to pay damages to the victim's family of a little more than 400,000 francs (allowing for inflation that's about $140,000 today).3
The Narconon centre where she spent her last hours closed later the same year and the organisation has not operated in France since.4
The two defendants had argued that they did know how serious Dorfmann's condition was – the court's judgment uses the word ignorer in the relevant passage.5 It is an interesting choice of word. In French ignorer means “not to know, to be ignorant of” – but it can also mean “ignore”.
In the event, the court did not have to decide which sense was more appropriate: they had enough for a conviction. Given the way the centre was run, Dorfmann's death was a disaster waiting to happen.
Had the court dug a little deeper however, it would have found that the defendants' criminal recklessness simply reflected the teachings of Scientology's founder, L. Ron Hubbard.
2 This account is drawn entirely from the court judgment. The names of the two defendants are not given in full as their conviction will now be spent: nor did it seem necessary to give the name of the key witness.
4 Narconon may not actually be banned in France, but with two members convicted over the first death, Scientology could be under no illusion about the vigilance of the French authorities.
There was talk in 2006 that one might open up again – or at least a line to that effect in an article in the August 3, 2006 edition of the news weekly L'Express (“D'une drogue à l'autre” by Solenne Durox).
In December of that year, deputies Georges Fenech and Philippe Vuilque presented a report to the French parliament, the National Assembly, on the involvement of “cult-like movements” in the health sector.
Citing the report in L'Express that a new Narconon might be in the pipeline they took the opportunity to outline the dangers of the Purification Rundown – as set out by Roger Gonnet in his testimony to the committee compiling the report.
The plans for the new Narconon centre never came to anything.
In 2008, Fenech was appointed to head up MIVILUDES, the government's cult watchdog, a position he occupied until 2012; Vuilque is currently head of the parliamentary working group on cults.
5 “Attendu que les prévenus... soutiennent avoir ignorer son état de santé réelle...” (“Given that the defendants... say they did know know her real state of health...”).