At a Loss To Make Legal Findings

Source: Herald
Date: December 14, 1998

The saga of Scientology's legal skirmishes in France date back at least as far as 1978, when the organisation's founder, L Ron Hubbard, was condemned in absentia for fraud. But if the latest legal row involving Scientology is far from being the first, it is surely one of the most bizarre.

In October, Le Figaro newspaper revealed papers in a long-running legal action against the self-proclaimed church had gone missing, provoking outrage from lawyers working on the case. Justice Minister Elizabeth Guigou considered the incident serious enough to order an internal inquiry. Even before this, however, there were signs something was amiss.

In June 1997 Jean-Michel Pesenti, a lawyer for five of the plaintiffs, went with one of his clients to meet the investigating judge assigned to the affair, Marie-Paul Moracchini. He wanted to complain about her continuing failure, after several years, to take the case to court.

To his amazement, Moracchini told him three of the clients he represented in the case, including the one present at the meeting, had written letters to her withdrawing complaints. This was news to him - not to mention his clients, who were quick to put the record straight. Unfortunately, it is now impossible to ascertain if the letters in question are genuine or not: they are among the missing documents.

The dossier in question is a composite of several separate legal actions for fraud and illegal practice of medicine which, since its inception in 1989, has accumulated 10 volumes of documentation. It is half of volume eight and all of volume nine that have vanished.

Juan Esteban Cordero, a 22-year-old Ecuadorian student, started the ball rolling in March 1989 with a complaint for fraud. He had come across Scientology only four months earlier, drawn by the promise of discovering his unexploited psychic potential. By the time he went to his lawyers, his voyage of discovery had cost him tens of thousands of pounds Among the cases since joined to Cordero's over the years is at least one dating back to 1983. Other plaintiffs include a lawyer, a doctor, and a small-time entrepreneur who sold his flat and business to pay for courses. Also involved is Unadfi - the National Union for the Defence of the Individual and the Family - one of France's main counter-cult groups.

A civil party in the case, Unadfi expressed outrage at the disappearance of the documents. In a letter to the Justice Minister, their lawyer, Olivier Morice, called on her to ensure the plaintiffs did not suffer. Guigou wrote to say she shared his misgivings and launched the inquiry.

Morice does not believe the disappearance of the documents was a mix-up. "If they are lost, you can find them again, even in an enormous place like the Palais de Justice. For several months we have looked for them and we haven't found them, so that means it is more likely they have been lifted by somebody."

Pesenti, for his part, has lodged four complaints on behalf of his clients, effectively for theft of goods from a public building. There is a danger, however, the original case could fall at today's hearing.

At the last hearing in November, Scientology's lawyer, Olivier Metzner, called for the case to be struck down because judge Moracchini had taken no action since May 1993. French law stipulates a case of this kind falls if it has remained inactive over a three- year period, says Metzner. "The problem is that perhaps the papers will return, but, as the documents stand, nothing has happened in the past three years."

Morice, for Unadfi, argues that since 1993 he has been calling on Moracchini to carry out her duties, and his formal requests alone constitute active progress in the case. Unfortunately, his letters to the investigating magistrate are among the missing documents.

Metzner, for Scientology, is unsympathetic, insisting the case would fall even if the files were complete.

In fact, it was Cordero's lawyer, Nicolay Fakiroff, who launched the procedure that led to October's revelations. Frustrated by the failure of Moracchini to reply to his letters urging action, he went direct to the Paris courts to get a hearing, so a decision could be made as to whether or not the case should come to trial. It was only when Moracchini transferred the files to the magistrates' offices that the disappearance of the documents came to light.

Moracchini is understood to have told officials that when she sent the files on, they were complete. But it has emerged no copies of the missing files were made before they left her office - even though the law requires the investigating judge maintains a complete file of her own. The affair has done nothing to help her already strained relations with the lawyers for the plaintiffs. Contacted last week, she refused to make any comment.

A hearing in November sent the case back to Moracchini so she can try to salvage the case with the papers she has. Whatever happens on Monday, the plaintiffs have a prima face case against the state for the mishandling of the files. But regardless of any compensation they could eventually win, the original cases might never be heard: neither the plaintiffs nor Scientology would get their day in court.

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