Sunday 31 May 2009

2 Defendant #1: the Facilitator

After the first plaintiff had testified, the man accused of having defrauded her told his side of the story.

Aude-Claire Malton had given her account of her time in Scientology in a fast, nervous delivery, occasionally overcome with tears.

When it was the turn of the defence lawyers to question her, they proceeded cautiously.

Maître Patrick Maisonneuve, for the defence, got her to clarify that the results of her personality test had contained positive as well as negative elements.

And he tried to establish that she had walked into the movement with her eyes wide open. Hadn’t she heard something about the Lyon trial in 1996 (which finished in several convictions for fraud and one for manslaughter (homicide involontaire) over the suicide of a Scientologist)?

Hadn’t she had some reservations when she joined? Yes, she said: she had wondered if it was a cult. She had even put the question to someone at the centre. “He said it wasn’t a cult but an association of people united for the same cause.”

Maisonneuve took her back to her success stories, the letters she had written describing how much she had benefited from her courses. He even read out an extract from one of them.

"These had not been dictated to her, had they? No, they had not, said Malton. She had written them in her own words hadn’t she? Yes, said Malton.

He asked her about the Purification Rundown, which had so exhausted her: she had gone to a doctor for a medical check-up beforehand, hadn’t she? Yes, she replied: a doctor that the people at the centre had recommended. But a doctor all the same, said Maisonneuve.

And if she was suffering during the Rundown, why had she not asked for a doctor? She explained that at the time, her attitude had been: “I am going to get through, whatever it takes.”

And why had she taken out the SOFINCO loan? She told him: “If I took the loan, it was because I felt good and I wanted to go further. In a few months I had made progress.”

Maisonneuve also asked her why, if Scientology was a close-minded cult only interested in indoctrinating her – why had they encouraged her to talk to her family? She replied only that they had coached her on what to say beforehand.

But Malton objected when another member of the defence team expressed surprise at her change of attitude after four months as a Scientologist. “I never said I wanted to be a Scientologist,” she said. “I just wanted to do the courses.”

She also rejected any suggestion that Jean-François Valli, one of the defendants, had only accompanied her to the SOFINCO bank for the loan because she had asked him to.

Other questions from the defence built on her difficulty identify some of those she said had manipulated her: she had struggled to remember the names some of those involved, despite careful questioning from the judge.

When the other two judges on the bench got a chance to put their questions, one asked about the sales sessions that had followed her evenings of study. Malton tried to be clearer about how it worked.

If she resisted their pressure to buy, they would tell her: “I’m going to explain to you again.” And they would explain for half an hour or so. If after that she still would not write a cheque, they would say: “I don’t think you have understood the value,” and start explaining again.

And again, she insisted: “You couldn’t leave the centre without having signed a cheque.”

After Malton had answered all the questions put to her, she sat down and Judge Sophie-Hélène Château, the most senior of the three judges sitting, called Jean-François Valli

'No obligation in Scientology'

Valli, 44, was one of the few people Malton had been able to name during her testimony. He faced charges of organised fraud against three people, including Malton.

He was dressed soberly in a dark suit and white shirt. In his answers to the court, though he sometimes stumbled over his sentences, he was deferential to a fault.

Valli said he had been a Scientologist since 1989. In 1998, when he met Malton, he was working as adviser-orientator at the Celebrity Centre in Paris and also did occasional work at the bookshop – the two Scientology organisations charged in this case.

He earned 5-15 percent commission on the goods and services he sold, and in 1998 had made around 100,000 francs (a little more than 15,000 euros). Today, while he still took Scientology courses, he was no long a staff member.

Valli confirmed that he had taken Aude-Claire Malton in hand after she had made her initial purchases. But he described his role in terms of helping people make the best choice, rather than forcing anyone to buy courses.

I answered questions people had and defined services,” he said.

When I met Mme Malton, she had followed Dianetics courses. She was happy. She had seen several films on Scientology and Dianetics.” His superviser introduced them because she wanted to do the Communications Course.

People are generally very happy,” he continued. “When I was an advisor I only saw people who wanted to go further.”

Judge Château was particularly interested in the personality test that had drawn in Aude-Claire Malton to the movement.

But Valli said he was not trained to interpret the personality test “That wasn’t my job,” he insisted. That was a job for the auditors, Scientology's therapists, or for the people at reception.

All he had done was explain the negative and the positive points of Malton's test, adding: “I seem to remember seeing positive results.”

Later, when the judges returned to the question, he said again: “I’m not trained to interpret the test. For me, what is important is what the client tells me.”

Judge Château did not seem convinced. “It is strange that you trust what someone says more than a supposedly objective test,” she said.

While Aude-Claire Malton, had spoken about the pressure she had felt to buy more goods and services, Valli recalled it differently.

The impression that I had was that she was someone who was fairly straightforward,” he said. “She always asked questions and she never took a decision lightly. That showed me that she was someone who knew what she was doing… We had a good relationship.”

But why had she bought so many goods and services, asked the judge? She was under no obligation, said Valli.

She said to me, ‘I am going to do that’. She had this idea in her head. ‘Here, I will make a first payment,’” he said.

As for paying for courses three or four years in advance, he explained: “She wanted to plan it out in stages…”

Questioned about the SOFINCO bank loan, Valli said: “She asked me if I knew a bank and I told her that if she wanted she could go to SOFINCO.”

And if he accompanied her there, it was at her request, he said. “One day, she called me to go with her, to accompany her to the bank.”

A 'convivial' relationship

All he had been trying to do in his job was help other people enjoy the benefits that he had experienced with Scientology, said Valli.

Me, I have faith in Scientology: it has brought me a lot of things in my life… When I saw Mme Malton, she really wanted to progress… That’s how it happened. At the time, she never complained about anything.”

They had had a good relationship at the time, he said: “convivial” was how he described it.

Judge Château asked him about the prices in Scientology. He had given Malton a brochure with all the packages available so she had all the information she needed, he said.

But wasn’t it the case that the prices themselves were not handed out, asked the judge?

For me, it was a lot simpler to provide prices on the computer,” he replied.

He was questioned closely as to why the prices seemed to vary dramatically between different clients for the same item – the e-meter device used in Scientology’s therapy, for example.

Valli insisted that the prices were the same for everyone: any variations were down to the different packages purchased along with the items in question.

He was questioned too on Scientology’s use of the word “donations” to describe payments for these goods and services.

You call it that,” said Judge Château, “but in fact they are prices.”

For me they are contributions,” said Valli. “If a person has signed up for a service – if she realises that she has had spiritual help – it is not just for her, but for her church.”

Questioned again on this point a little later, he added: “It is a contribution. It is for a service but at the same time it is to help her Church. For me, it is a contribution.”

He himself had spent tens of thousands of euros on Scientology, he added.

He was questioned on this issue several times, both by the bench and the lawyer for the plaintiffs, Olivier Morice. And when one judge expressed scepticism about the use of the terms “donation” and “contribution” in this context, he intervened.

Sorry, for me this is important. You are in a church: this is not a purchase, it is a contribution… When I make a contribution to the Church, in return I will be able to benefit from the auditing and it allows the church to continue to function.”

Asked about the success stories Malton had mentioned, Valli denied that she had been forced to write them after finishing her courses.

They have to be spontaneous. There is no obligation in Scientology,” he said again. “I don’t see the interest in lying to oneself. If she wants do it, she can: if she doesn’t, she doesn’t.”

But if she wasn’t happy with a course, could she continue, asked Judge Château? Yes, said Valli.

If it is a course then she can do part of the course again… You are not going to encourage a person to continue to the next stage if they are unhappy with the one they have done.”

Then it was the turn of Oliver Morice, the lawyer for the two remaining plaintiffs. Was it possible to advance in Scientology if you had no money, he asked?

There were several solutions, said Valli. “You can have different services. You can have free auditing. You can see the introductory films. You can attend conferences. And volunteers can help people.”

But what if you didn’t have enough money, Morice asked?

If someone wants to advance they can do so,” Valli replied. Morice persisted: without money, he asked? If people wanted to advance in Scientology but did not have the means, they could always ask for help, said Valli.

It is a question of willingness,” he said later. “If you have faith you will find a solution.”

Later, when Judge Château returned to the issue of helping people pay for Scientology courses, Valli mentioned the possibility of grants.

She asked him to elaborate. If someone paid for something in advance, he explained, they would only have to pay 70 percent of what it would otherwise have costed: so that amounted to a 30 percent discount, he said.

But was that not reversing the meaning of the word “grant”, asked the judge?

It is just a reduction,” said the judge. “Does the Church pay that 30 percent to the person?”

No,” said Valli.

So it is just a reduction,” said the judge.

Morice turned to the case of his client, Aude-Claire Malton: she had not been able to fund her courses, he pointed out: Did you not propose to help her?

She never spoke of this. She never said to me that she had financial worries,” said Valli.

But you took her to the SOFINCO bank for a loan, Morice reminded him.

What I remember is that Mme Malton wanted to plan a course and she asked me if I knew a bank and I answered that there was SOFINCO,” he replied.

Morice persisted: she told you she did not have the money that night when you took her home to write the cheques, he said.

He read out an extract from Malton’s testimony: “He proposed to accompany me to my home because if not, I would lose the chance of the special price.”

No, said Valli: that was not how he recalled it.

'A lot of joy'

Morice asked about refunds. Why was there not an automatic refund, he asked? There was, said Valli.

Then why did one have to sign a document promising no legal action? Valli said he did not know: that had never been part of his work at the centre.

After Morice, Nicolas Baïetto, one of the two lawyers representing the prosecution, took his turn.

There had been speculation ahead of the trial as to what line the prosecution would take, given that a September 2006 report from their office had said there was no case to answer. (The investigating magistrate reached a different conclusion, which is why the case came to trial.)

Ahead of the trial, a spokesman for the prosecutor’s office told reporters that their representatives in court would not be bound by that previous report: they would be free to act as they saw fit

In court, Baïetto quickly confirmed this.

Challenging Valli’s presentation of himself as someone who was simply helping people choose the right course, he read out an extract from one of Scientology’s internal policies letters. It dealt with how to deal with new clients:

You must be willing at all times to control each body coming into your office from the time you bring them from Reception, or if they are brought into the office by someone, right from that point until the final stages of signing the cheque, until they walk out of the door… People are crying out to be controlled.1

Valli objected: this policy letter had not been written by the movement’s founder L. Ron Hubbard. But Hubbard endorsed it, said Baïetto.

It had not been written by Hubbard, Valli insisted. “It is not a valid document.”

Finally, Maisonneuve, for the defence, asked Valli about all the people he had helped in Scientology and what it had given him, personally.

A lot of joy, a lot of well-being,” said Valli – as it had for many others. This case was the first time he had had a complaint, he added.

A final witness for the day, called for Valli's defence, was a fellow Scientologist who had done the Purification Rundown with Aude-Claire Malton.

Malton had not suffered any ill effects and had been quite happy throughout, he said – and speaking for himself, he had always been satisfied with M. Valli’s work as an adviser.

He never forced me to do anything,” he added.

Next in the series: Defendant #2: the Salesman
1 “Registration”, Hubbard Communications Policy Letter, May 3, 1961. This policy letter, although written by South African Scientologist Sue Van Niekerk, carries an endorsement from Hubbard.

Friday 29 May 2009

1 The original Plaintiff

At the Paris trial of two Scientology associations and six of its members, the court heard first from the original plaintiff in the case.

A scrum of cameramen and photographers gathered at the entrance to the Chamber 12 of the Paris central court house on Monday, May 25, the first day of the trial.

For the defendants and the plaintiffs, it was an intimidating gauntlet to have to run before getting to the courtroom.

For Maître Olivier Morice, representing the plaintiffs, and Maître Patrick Maisonneuve, leading for the defence, it was business as usual.

Well accustomed to the media presence, they made sure they got their message across before going into court to do battle.

Morice denounced the pressure he said his clients had been under to withdraw their complaints.

Of the five complainants originally attached to the case, three had settled with Scientology before the trial. Under the French system however, the testimony they gave to the police and the investigating magistrate is still admissible.

Maisonneuve, for his part, dismissed any notion of
manipulation mentale (mind control). And he made it clear that the alleged actions of a few individuals could not in any case be laid at the door of the movement itself.

At the time, it seemed as if the very existence of the movement in France could be at issue.

For a conviction against the two Scientology associations accused could, just conceivably, lead to the movement as a whole being effectively broken up in France.

Two Scientology associations – the movement’s Celebrity Centre in Paris and its bookshop – are on trial for fraud.

The six Scientologists face charges either of fraud or illegal practice of pharmacy, for having assumed a role reserved exclusively for qualified professionals; two defendants, including the director of the Celebrity Centre, Alain Rosenberg, were charged on both counts. They all deny the charges against them.

Plenty of Scientologists turned out to show their support for the accused and the press received glossy brochures packed with information about the movement.

Scientology’s main spokesman in France, Danièle Gounord, was on hand to denounce the proceedings as a heresy trial, part of what she described as France’s long-running persecution of the movement.

A few critics of the movement had also turned out, including one gentleman who insisted on using a finger puppet to explain the finer points of Scientology’s cosmology – details kept secret from members until they reach the upper levels of the movement’s teachings.

The first afternoon’s proceedings were mainly taken up with preliminary legal skirmishes.

The defence objected to a bid by UNADFI, a national alliance of organisations battling Scientology and other such groups, to attach itself to the case as a plaintiff.

If successful, this would give them access to all the case files and a voice during the trial itself. The prosecution supported their bid.

The three judges decided to defer their decision on the question until they handed down their ruling on the case itself.

But from the outset, the president of the court, Judge Sophie-Hélène Château made it clear that they were not there to judge “questions of society” – presumably a reference to the ongoing debate as to whether Scientology should be considered a religion in France.1

The trial proper got under way the following day, Tuesday, with the appearance of the first plaintiff in the case, one of the two still remaining.2

'They said I was struggling in life'

In the summer of 1998, in the space of barely four months, Aude-Claire Malton spent 140,000 francs (21,000 euros) on Scientology goods and services.

By the time she broke with the movement, she had emptied her bank account and got herself deep into debt.

When Malton came to court, she was flanked by her lawyer, Morice, and by Catherine Picard, the president of UNADFI. She had contacted the organisation soon after breaking from Scientology.

It was with their support and advice that she first went to file her complaint with the police, on December 28, 1998, launching the investigation that had led to the trial.

As she stood up to tell her story, a small figure hunched into a brown leather jacket, she had the three judges in front of her. To her right were the defendants: to the left the two lawyers from the prosecutors’ office.

Behind her on one side were Picard, Morice and his legal assistants; and on the other, a larger team of lawyers representing the defendants.

In a trial of this kind in France, there is no jury: that is reserved for trials dealing with the most serious crimes. In this case, the three judges will determine whether or not any of the defendants are guilty, and if so, what the sentence should be.

The principal judge, referring to the case files, questions whoever is on the stand: plaintiff, defendant or witness. Then she gives the prosecutors, the various lawyers and finally the other two judges their turn.

Judge Château, the most senior of the three judges, invited Malton to tell her story, prompting her with questions when needed.

Malton first came across Scientology in 1998 when she was handed a free personality test as she came out of the metro station at Opéra, in the centre of Paris.

I took it with me and filled it in. Two or three days later I was contacted by telephone and asked to come in. So I went in and they showed me the questionnaire. Interpreting it, they said I was struggling in life.”

This was certainly true: a year earlier she had broken up with her boyfriend and was still struggling with depression. But the staff at the centre said they had courses that would help her.

I understood that I had major problems and that I could resolve these problems by following these courses,” she told the court.

For Malton, it was always about Dianetics as a form of self-help: the courses were to help her in her personal and her professional life. She was not interested in Scientology as a religion.

Her first purchase was a minor one, she recalled: a book for 100 francs (15 euros). But the next book cost 950 francs.

And within a few weeks, by the middle of May, she had agreed to spend 31,590 francs (4,816 euros) on Dianetics training – a significant investment given her monthly salary at her hotel job was around 8,000 francs (1,200 euros).

I told them I couldn't spend that much money,” she said. But she ended up signing.

She was also asked to sign a document declaring she was not a police officer, a journalist or a secret agent: just a formality they said.

When she arrived to start her first courses – Life Repair and the Communication Course – she found several people gathered in the same room. But they split off into pairs to work, she recalled.

At the end of the course, to pass the course you had to write a letter to say that you were satisfied with what you had done. In order to get to the next course you had to write a letter,” she said.

And did she feel better after having done the course, asked Judge Château? Yes she did, she said. “I felt better because I was caught up in the momentum.”

She did these first courses from June up until the end of July, going from her day’s work at the hotel to study in the evenings. Then, after several hours' study, she would be taken to the sales officer.

You don't leave the office without having signed a cheque or taken out your credit card, even if it costs a lot,” she said. If she resisted, they would tell her: “It's only money, and it's for you.”

One day she tried going to the centre without her chequebook or credit card, so she would not have to spend any more. “Because I didn't have any money on me I was accompanied to the house to write a cheque.”

Three Scientologists went with her, including one of the defendants, Jean-François Valli. “He proposed accompanying me home because otherwise I risked losing the chance of this package,” she said.

After her initial purchases, Valli had accompanied her every step of the way, selling her packages of goods and courses in advance, which he said meant she was getting them cheaper.

They took advantage of my weakness'

By August, Malton had signed up for a Purification pack and an e-meter, the device used in Scientology's auditing courses -- a device she didn't yet know how to use.

That package cost her 68,000 francs (about 10,000 euros) – but it was good value, they told her. “They said it could be more expensive but because it was a package they were doing it cut-price.”

The Purification Rundown, a course devised by Scientology's founder, L. Ron Hubbard himself, involves taking large doses of vitamins, going for runs and spending several hours a day in the sauna. The way Malton understood it she had to purify her body and mind to get to the next stage of Scientology's teachings.

You take vitamins in the morning and then you run so they act on your body, then you do two or three hours in a sauna,” she explained.

Since the process was meant to last at least 10 days, she took time off work, she said. “When I started my holidays, I thought it would be restful.” In fact, she told the court, she felt a constant state of fatigue.

She couldn't sleep any more; she got stomach cramps; she came out in a rash and got spots.

But after 13 days of vitamins and running and hours in the sauna, she felt as if she had achieved a breakthrough, she felt good. She had also lost four kilos (8.8 lbs).

When she filled in the personality test again – the one that had first brought her into the centre – she expected it to register this transformation. But it showed only a slight improvement. She was totally demoralised.

For me it was an effort to take a holiday and do the Purification Rundown, and to hear that there was a ‘slight improvement’ – that was hard to hear.”

By now however, she had other problems.

I had to close my bank accounts,” she told the court, in tears now. And once her bank accounts were empty – her current account, her savings account, even part of her life insurance money – she took out a bank loan.

Then the money from that loan ran out. But Valli was there to advise her.

When I said I had no more money, he said ‘That's not a problem, we are going to find a solution.’” Valli called someone he knew at a branch of the SOFINCO bank and arranged a loan. He even accompanied her to the bank.

By now the people at the centre were urging her to give up her job, move out of her flat and come and work for them. The pay was substantially less than what she had been earning, but they told her she would be able to do courses for free.

Her handlers also encouraged her to tell her family about Scientology, coaching her on how to explain it to them.

But when she approached them in September, it turned out that they had done their own research. Her ex-boyfriend, to whom she had sent a copy of
Dianetics, had tipped them off.

It was he who said, 'Do you know what you are getting into?'” she told the court. Her family showed her press cuttings critical of the movement.

In the end I realised I had fallen into a system that wasn't necessarily what I was looking for... I didn't realise it was going to cost so much money.”

Her family persuaded her to break with Scientology. “I phoned to say that I didn’t want to continue. They asked me why, but I didn't want to talk about it.”

Although they called back and tried to arrange for a meeting in a café, on the advice of her family she refused the meeting. They also put her in touch with UNADFI, who advised her from that point on.

Looking back, she said that when she got involved in Scientology she had been going through a bad time in her life. “I was depressed. I had just suffered a break-up: I wasn't well.

They took advantage of my weakness, of my psychological state... for me, the aim [of Scientology] is to use people, to use their weaknesses to get their money.”

And after her experience, how had she felt, Judge Château asked. Completely undermined, said Malton: tired, oppressed, constantly pursued. She felt washed out, worn out, destroyed.

But why had she not been able to resist, the judge asked? “You are caught up in a system in which you are bathed in the glory of Scientology and you can't do otherwise but continue,” she replied.

She was close to tears again when she described her problems after her brush with Scientology.

I had trouble rebuilding my life. I wasn't sure of myself and then I was completely destroyed... I had trouble trusting people again.”

And why, after all these years, was she still a plaintiff in the case?

I think that I represent the people who can't appear before the court, because you realise you are manipulated by people and that has to stop: whether it is Scientology or any other cult, it is mind control [manipulation mentale] and it has to stop.”

Next in the series: Defendant #1: the Facilitator 
1   An appeal court ruling in an earlier case involving Scientology in Lyon provoked a major controversy when it appeared to acknowledge Scientology’s religious status. That prompted the then interior minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement to retort that it was not for the court to decide. The Court of Cassation, France's highest court, later quashed that part of the appeal court judgment.

2   One of only two remaining individual plaintiffs: the Order of Pharmacists in France had also registered as plaintiffs concerning the charge of illegal exercise of pharmacy.