Crisis in France
The Guardian newspaper in the UK has a terrific, lengthy article about the troubles Scientology is facing right now in France. It opens with the aftermath of a suicide and the devastating effects Scientology had on one family.
In a small Normandy village, surrounded by wheat fields, Gwen Le Berre keeps a Scientology “electrometer” machine in his bedroom. He opens the large green briefcase and peers at the machine inside. It looks like a lie-detector from an old TV cop show and Le Berre doesn’t really understand how it works – he just knows it’s a key piece of kit for the Church of Scientology.
Le Berre, 21, keeps the machine as a memento of his mother’s life. Four days before Christmas 2006, Gloria Lopez, a 47-year-old secretary, tidied her kitchen, hung out her washing, left her dull, suburban apartment overlooking the railway in Colombes, west of Paris, and walked the 30 metres out on to the tracks. She stood with her arms outstretched, smiling at the driver of the oncoming commuter train. He couldn’t stop in time.
Lopez had left Spain in the 80s to marry Pascal Le Berre, a French secondary school teacher. The couple had two children together in Normandy, but divorced soon afterwards. It was just after the split that Lopez – who had always been interested in alternative medicine and esoteric ideas – met some Scientologists and signed up. The church was to become her life. Eventually, she moved to Paris, leaving her two children behind, to be nearer the Scientology Centre.
“When she found herself alone after the divorce, her need for a spiritual search was reawakened,” Pascal Le Berre says. “At the start, Scientology gave her confidence, it gave her the illusion she could be stronger than she thought. She saw it as helping the world work better – even a way of saving the world.”
Gwen Le Berre had been due to visit his mother to give her her Christmas present two days after she killed herself. His elder sister, Mathilde, had seen her a few weeks before and, although Lopez had lost weight in recent months, she had seemed in good form. They were convinced she would have left a suicide note, and went to her apartment, where the shelves were stacked with Scientology books and DVDs, to search for one. Instead, they found a box of documents in which she had handwritten a series of punishing self-appraisals as part of her membership of the Church of Scientology. She wrote of how she owed money to the organisation for courses, was struggling to advance up the path to spiritual enlightenment, really wanted to succeed as a Scientologist, and regretted every mistake in her life. “She even wrote that she had surfed the internet for two minutes beyond her allocated lunch break at work,” Gwen says.
Pascal agrees: “It was as if everything she tried to do was a failure – not advancing up the chain of Scientology courses, but also being distant from her children. She felt a lot of pain over that.”
Surprised at the lack of bills and other normal financial documents at the flat – where Lopez often housed Scientologist lodgers, and which other church members regularly visited – the family wondered if other documents had gone missing or been removed.
But after reading her tormented writings, Lopez’s children and her ex-husband decided to file a legal complaint against the Church of Scientology for what they claim is its role in her death. They estimate that in around 10 years as a Scientologist, Lopez spent between €200,000 and €250,000 on courses and books – despite her secretary’s salary, which was €2,000 a month at the time of her death. Her family also claim that she was counselled by Scientology financial advisers and decided to sell a property she had inherited in Spain, freeing up capital for more courses. “They stole my mother,” Gwen says. “I don’t feel I knew my mother apart from in her role as a Scientologist.”
The article goes on to detail a number of trials Scientology is facing in France, including one which could dissolve the two main Orgs in France and lead to a ban on Scientology throughout the country.
The Church of Scientology argues that secular France is persecuting it for its beliefs as a “new religion”. Fenech disagrees. “For France, Scientology is a vast commercial enterprise hiding behind a religious mask,” he says. “This is not something against the Ron Hubbardian doctrine, or beliefs about intergalactic happenings thousands of years ago. What we’re interested in is that people are dragged into this movement, lose their liberty, autonomy and sometimes their life.” He says France protects freedom of religion, “but if a law is being broken, the state will go there. Religion isn’t a protection against the law.”
Back in Normandy, Gwen Le Berre says he has no interest in any kind of campaign against Scientology – he just wants justice and the truth about his mother. Unable to close the chapter on their grief, the family still pore over what they know of Lopez’s life as a Scientologist: how she joined every possible Scientology group in Paris, how she took her eight-year-old daughter to a children’s Scientology course and her young son to Scientology summer revision sessions, before her ex-husband insisted she stopped talking to the children about the movement until they were 18. “When she died, I didn’t know much about Scientology. It was the last thing that came to mind,” her son says. “If, by bringing a case, we can open people’s eyes, it will have been worth it.”