The Church of Scientology could be dissolved in France if it is convicted in a trial that opened Monday in a Paris court, where the group and seven of its French leaders stand charged of organized fraud and illegal pharmaceutical activity.
The group, considered a sect in France, has faced prosecution and difficulties in registering its activities in many countries.
The trial comes more than a decade after one of the three plaintiffs originally filed a complaint against the Church of Scientology. A young woman said she took out loans and spent the equivalent of $29,400 on books, courses and "purification packages" after being recruited by the group in 1998. When she sought reimbursement and to leave the group, its leadership refused.
"For each person who complains we have 100,000 ready to say nothing but good things about scientology," Agnes Bron, an official of the French organization, said before the trial, which is expected to last until June 17.
Investigating judge Jean-Christophe Hullin spent years examining the group's activities, and in his indictment criticized practices he said were aimed at extracting large sums of money from members and plunging them into a "state of subjection."
The investigator questioned what he called the Scientologists' "obsession" with financial gain, and the group's practice of selling vitamins, leading to the charge of "acting illegally as a pharmacy."
Patrick Maisonneuve, lawyer for the Church of Scientology in France, dismissed any organized fraud, although he acknowledged there could have been individual abuses.
"The discovery of a pedophile priest does not allow us to question the entire Catholic Church," he was quoted as saying in the weekly L'Express magazine ahead of the trial opening.
Presiding Judge Sophie-Helene Chateau said the job of the court was "to find whether the acts in question constitute a crime. ... It is not up to the court to decide questions of society."
The Los Angeles-based Church of Scientology, founded in 1954 by the late science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, has been active for decades in Europe but has struggled to gain status as a religion. The U.S. State Department has criticized Belgium, Germany and other European countries for labeling Scientology a cult or sect and enacting laws to restrict its operations.
A guilty verdict in the current French trial could shut down the group's activities in France.
The investigating judge also questioned the validity of an "electrometer" sold to members for $6,800 and used to measure variations in their mental state. The judge, in the indictment, called it "an illusion aimed at giving a scientific sense to an operation that has nothing of the kind."
Unusually, the Paris prosecutor's office had recommended the charges be dropped, but the court agreed to take up the case.
In 2002, a French court fined the Paris regional branch of the church for a data protection violation but acquitted it of attempted fraud and judges refused to disband it.
The Church of Scientology teaches that technology can expand the mind and help solve problems. It claims 10 million members around the world, including celebrity devotees Tom Cruise and John Travolta.