Scientology got blame for French suicide


©St. Petersburg Times, published February 8, 1998

LYON, France -- Nelly Vic's sad eyes begin telling her story, even before she gets to the part about how her husband jumped to his death from their children's bedroom window.

The 41-year-old widow puts her head in her hands and swallows hard as she recalls that last night before her husband, Patrice, jumped from the 12th-floor window. Next to her sits a son, now 13, who slept through his father's suicide.

Mrs. Vic blames her husband's death on the Church of Scientology; the church's top official in Lyon badgered her husband to come up with $6,000 to take more Scientology counseling. Mrs. Vic shares those hard feelings about the church with other families of Scientologists who died at their own hand or under unusual circumstances.

What sets her husband's case apart is that criminal justice authorities agreed. Jean-Jacques Mazier, the Scientology official, was convicted of manslaughter and fraud in Vic's death. The French court also ruled that Scientology was pressuring members for money that wound up in Clearwater, where the church maintains its spiritual headquarters.

As it happens, law enforcement authorities in Clearwater are now deciding whether to bring criminal charges in the death of another Scientologist, Lisa McPherson.

The 36-year-old woman died suddenly during an extended stay at the church's Fort Harrison Hotel, and a medical examiner has blamed her death on severe dehydration. Some similarities between the two cases are striking. Both Vic and McPherson were relatively young people who turned to Scientology for guidance. At the urging of church officials, both spent heavily on counseling and courses. After both deaths, Scientology officials blamed official scrutiny on religious prejudice.

In the French case, the church hired private investigators to research Vic's life and review the police investigation. The church even checked Vic's credit cards, and a Scientology official says Vic was spending money on prostitutes.

Scientology officials say the Lyon trial of Mazier and other Scientologists was the modern equivalent of a heresy trial. "It was a witch hunt," said Mike Rinder, director of Scientology's Office of Special Affairs.

For Vic's widow, however, the source of her husband's frantic distress is clear. Before Scientology entered their lives with the offer of a free personality test, they had been a normal family, Mrs. Vic said.

Now, she lives with her teenage sons in a rented apartment where the living room is crowded by four people and a petite Christmas tree with blue ornaments, still standing in mid-January. Life these days, she says, is "harsh."

* * *

In New York, for example, 24-year-old Noah Lottick jumped from a 10th-floor window to a Manhattan street in 1990 after taking a series of Scientology courses. Family members discovered his body lying unidentified in a morgue a month later

His father, Dr. Edward Lottick of Kingston, Pa., says Scientology used high-pressure sales tactics to push Noah into expensive, medically unsound courses.

Scientologists deny any responsibility for Noah Lottick's death. Rinder, the church spokesman, said Lottick died after an argument with his parents four days before his suicide. "I think Ed Lottick should look in the mirror," Rinder said. "I think Ed Lottick made his son's life intolerable."

In England, Richard Collins, 24, jumped to his death from a suspension bridge in Bristol in 1996. Relatives say Scientologists were trying to keep him from leaving the organization and that he felt besieged by their telephone calls. Rinder replied that Collins left the church several months before his death and did not respond to letters and calls from Scientologists who were trying to help him.

Several lawsuits have been filed against Scientology by families who blame its "purification" programs for their relatives' deaths. In Portland, Ore., the parents of Christopher Arbuckle, 25, filed suit after he took a Purification Rundown course that requires running several hours each day in a sauna and a diet rich in vitamins, including megadoses of niacin.

Arbuckle died after his liver failed. Arbuckle's parents settled out of court for an undisclosed amount and agreed not to discuss the case.

Scientology officials say Arbuckle died because he had previously taken steroids and had pre-existing kidney problems that he did not disclose. Thousands of people around the world have successfully completed the purification program and benefited from it, Rinder said.

Why did the church settle the Arbuckle lawsuit?

"The civil justice system has no guarantees," Rinder said. "You can spend millions of dollars defending when people have absolutely no case. Look at Bill Clinton. There is no guarantee you'll get justice. There is a guarantee you'll spend money, and if you are the Church of Scientology, there is a guarantee you'll get a lot of negative publicity."

Rinder and other Scientology officials bristle at questions about the deaths of members, saying they are statistically insignificant and are not connected to any church doctrine or practice. Similar patterns would be found in the deaths among Baptists or Catholics, Rinder said, or even among staffers at the St. Petersburg Times. In fact, some of those members who died might still be alive if they had stayed in Scientology, Rinder said.

"I don't like being accused by innuendo or directly of doing things to harm people because it is absolutely directly opposite to what I do," Rinder said. He called questions raised by the Times "dishonest and reprehensible."

* * *

A petite woman with deep lines in her face that make her look older than she is, Mrs. Vic frequently covered her face with her hands as she talked about the events that led to her husband's death on March 24, 1988

The charges against Mazier and several other Scientologists centered on the way they pressured prospective members who needed help. Testimony also described foreign bank accounts that were used to send money to Clearwater, where it paid for training of high-level Scientology officials.

Mrs. Vic said Mazier kept pressuring her husband to borrow 30,000 francs (about $6,000) so he could take the Purification Rundown course after Vic had spent several months taking other less expensive courses.

On the day before her husband's death, Mrs. Vic testified, Mazier came to their home in Lyon and urged her to sign loan papers for the money. She said her husband became highly agitated, paced the house and went to the Scientology center in Lyon instead of going to his job as an industrial designer.

"Mazier said (Vic) was not well and had to take this purification to get well," Mrs. Vic recalled. "I said no, we have enough money problems, we can't spend 30,000 francs like this."

After spending a day with Mazier and failing to convince his wife to help obtain the loan, Vic returned home looking for papers so he could apply for the loan by himself, Mrs. Vic said.

"He was just coming in and out, very agitated," she said. "He kept getting up out of bed, he was unable to sleep."

At 5 a.m. as she tried to stop him, Vic dashed toward the window in the room where their two sons were sleeping. "He said "Don't keep me, it's the only solution,"' and he went through the window, she told the Times. Patrice Vic was 31.

Mrs. Vic said her husband had been depressed, but had not considered suicide before. She said he never saw Scientology as a religion, but believed it could help him lead a better life. Vic had turned down one job in another city because it had no Scientology center, his widow said.

Mazier had planned to go with Vic to a bank to borrow the money on the morning Vic killed himself. When Mazier called to make the arrangements, Mrs. Vic said, she told him of her husband's suicide.

Mazier's only response, she said, was "Ah, le con," French for "the bastard."

Although Vic died in 1988, the case against Mazier was not prosecuted until 16 members of a Swiss cult, the Order of the Solar Temple, committed suicide in France in 1995.

Mazier was convicted in 1996 of manslaughter and fraud in connection with Vic's death. He was initially sentenced to 18 months in jail and ordered to pay Mrs. Vic and her two sons about 80,000 francs ($16,000) apiece. Last year, an appellate court reduced his jail term to a three-year suspended sentence, but affirmed the damages award to the Vics and a 500,000 franc ($100,000) fine. Because further appeals are pending, Mrs. Vic has yet to collect any money.

At his trial, Mazier described himself as "a man of the church" who was only trying to help Vic. "When someone has difficulties in life, Scientologists teach him how to put his life in order," Mazier said.

Mazier could not be reached for comment, but Scientology officials say he remains a member of the church, and they defended his dealings with Vic.

"Generally Mazier was following the protocol of the church in doing what he could to help the guy (Vic)," Rinder said. "In hindsight, I'd say I wouldn't let anyone try and help someone in Lyon."

Rinder ascribed Mazier's conviction to French bigotry against any religion except the Catholic Church. The French parliament has declared Scientology a cult, and the church does not qualify for the tax exemptions that France gives other religions.

Rinder and Ben Shaw, head of special affairs for Scientology in Clearwater, said the French police never took any photographs at the scene of Vic's death and did not test his body for drugs or alcohol. Shaw also said a private investigator hired by Scientology discovered that Vic had used his credit cards to hire prostitutes, contributing to his financial problems.

But the French court rejected as irrelevant Scientology's efforts to review Vic's credit card expenses, and the appellate court opinion indicates there were no drugs in Vic's system when he died.

The French courts ruled that Mazier and Scientology used high-pressure sales tactics and free personality tests analyzed by unqualified employees to lure people into Scientology. Mazier and others created the situation that encouraged Vic's suicide, the courts ruled.

The scheme succeeded in part, the court said, because Scientology officials used their "moral authority" as a church and picked prospective members who seemed vulnerable. Scientology representatives often concealed their connection with the church at first, the court noted.

Witnesses called by prosecutors compared Scientology auditing courses to hypnosis, with severe psychological consequences because auditors had no medical training or experience and were incapable of helping psychotic people.

"Auditing made emotions surface, but they didn't know how to deal with them," the court noted. "It becomes like a dream one is living, but this dream is full of agony."

One witness, Christine Cleostrate, said she was forced by Mazier to stop psychiatric treatment and sign a letter saying the Scientology center in Lyon would not be responsible if she committed suicide.

Court experts said E-meters, electronic devices akin to polygraphs that Scientology uses in counseling, have no scientific value and produce whatever result the auditor desires. "It's clear the apparatus was nothing but a lure to give a scientific aspect to an operation that has nothing scientific," said Francois Kirchner, an electronics expert hired by the court.

Scientology's own experts, including a Vatican sociologist, described Scientology as a bonafide religion that helps people and criticized French authorities for prosecuting the group. They also praised Scientology's purification programs as accepted practice. The French court rejected the testimony in ruling against Scientology.

Dr. Jean Marie Abgrall, a psychiatrist who is an expert on cults, testified that some people who seek help from Scientology feel better for a short while but may quickly see negative effects.

"They become dependent and psychiatric problems resurface and they have no medical treatment," Abgrall said. "It all leads to depressions, phobias or psychotic troubles and sometimes they become so anxious the only alternative is suicide."

Patrice Vic was one of those people, Abgrall said. "He faced an impossible choice, his family or Scientology."

©Copyright 1998
St. Petersburg Times.
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