The misunderstanding of new religious movements becomes especially dangerous when it occurs on an institutional level. Although the law should protect or condemn an individual based on objective facts, popular opinion and the portrayal of a story in the media can have a devastating impact on the outcome of a person’s future. CICNS argues that the outcome of the following case was greatly affected by the “sectarian” rhetoric in France, which is one of fear.
The text has been extracted from an article published by CICNS, which can be accessed in it's original language (French).
It took no more than three hours for the jurors in the Assize Court of Ariège, on September 18, 2010, to condemn 'the guru' Robert Lé Dinh to 15 years (more than what the Advocate-General had suggested, which was 'ten to twelve years' imprisonment). The accusations were heavy. What are the facts? According to several witnesses in the trial, the accused was not very convincing, he seemed to suit the profile of a 'cult guru' and there was even a form of automatic repulsion from the early days of media coverage of his case. We can't yet say that the evidence is overwhelming. It was all about emotional and "intimate conviction" (the general council stated that "the will of the victims was annihilated". On what basis, the debate on mental manipulation, a pseudo-scientific concept, that has never been decided upon?), elements which do not mix when we really seek justice. Everything leads to the belief that this 51-year-old man sexually abused his followers. Already convicted in 1984 for extortion, this time he was accused of abusing adult women and minor girls. He denied this. Even at the end of the trial, everybody reached this conclusion. Doubt was permitted. The conclusions were provided in the personal opinion of the jurors.
But beyond this unsound trial, eloquent arguments from both councils deserve attention, so they can be applied generally to all other cases of a similar kind, as well as, in the anti-sect groups in the general debate. Here is their testimony:
Mr. Lebonjour, lawyer at the Toulouse Bar: "We have spoken a lot about sects in this trial. Be careful not to mix facts and beliefs... When morality enters into a court, it is a sort of ayatollah justice (a high-ranking religious leader among Shiite Muslims) which enters... You are here to judge what Robert Lé Dinh did or did not do. (…) Here, there are no material facts, no technical elements, just words, and they are very contradictory! (…) There is a problem of credibility of the so-called witnesses 'neutrality'... Everything is the fault of Robert Lé Dinh... I don't believe it. No one has been deprived... He enriched himself, he took advantage, but others did as well!”
Mr. Martial, lawyer at the Agen Bar: “I am angry and scared because we are putting sects in question. We have remained fixated on the discourse of the derivatives of sects... Before being a victim of a cult, one is a victim of oneself. Will I have enough power to get you out of this spider web?” He addresses the main accuser, Isabelle Lorenzato, with these words: "she laughed in the face of the world! Don’t believe that she could be "violated for 22 years without ever reacting, unless she has a minimum of free will to say no! (…) What is extraordinary, is that, as soon as Ms. Lorenzato speaks, no matter what she says, is believed, because there is this assumption about sects... We believe her when she says she was touched by her grandfather, without evidence, when she says she was violated once, at sixteen, coming home from work, without evidence, when she says she was abused, without a medical certificate in support, when she paints herself as a victim of Lé Dinh... The moral influence is an illusion! (…) When she speaks, to the Bar, tears in her eyes, sobs in her voice... difficulty articulating...” Do you believe her? I don’t! … We’re stuck in anti-sectarianism... Mrs. Lorenzato has lived a lie for 22 years... and when she left, she was believed the moment she expressed it... She totally manipulated her husband! The truth is that Mr. and Mrs. Lorenzato had essential, important, and decisive, positions in the Organization of the group, him a "Steward", her the "favorite." When the group moved to Ariège, they lost this strategic position and didn’t tolerate it! There was only one more step to accomplish. For the jury to tell Robert Lé Dinh: "You violated Isabelle Lorenzato for 22 years!". If you say that, you give her back her moral virginity, which has been lost for 22 years. You'll be the launderers of 22 years of lies!”
Despite the great relevance of the comments made by these lawyers (who pointed out how the French anti-sect associations’ climate was decisive in our Court decisions), the jurors remained intractable and decided in favour of a severe condemnation: “15 years’ imprisonment for rapes, sexual assaults on minors, and abuse of weakness." The convicted person decided to appeal, but the doubt that hangs over the actual relationship between Robert Lé Dinh and a few women in his group will persist, as is usually the case in many of the cases where emotion trumps evidence in Justice, without that nobody sees much to complain about. Lé Dinh gave this verdict: "I'll go, but this it isn't the truth that prevailed. It may be ten years of suffering, but I'm not afraid. I will continue battle."
CICNS takes note of this decision of Justice of the first instance and commend the courage of the individual lawyers who managed to see the sound rational in such a passionate climate.
*The original article can be accessed at CICNS' website.