Sapporo -- The Sapporo District Court on Friday ordered the Unification Church and its affiliates to pay 29.5 million yen to 20 former followers who claimed that their youth was ruined by the church because the church illegally enticed them to join.
Presiding Judge Yoichi Sato acknowledged the mental suffering of the former followers, who are all women, and determined that the church's systematic enticement program is illegal because those who recruit followers "take advantage of people's weakness while concealing their true purpose of spreading religious teachings."
"The (enticement) system uses methods which deviate from socially-accepted levels and is feared to violate people's freedom of belief," Sato said.
He also said that enticement leads to "deprivation of followers' properties and unpaid work" for the church and that it is based on "unjust purposes" of increasing the numbers of followers who are destined to suffer the same conditions.
The plaintiffs had sought 91.5 million yen.
Since the Sapporo suit was originally filed in 1988 by one plaintiff, similar suits have been filed at seven other places across Japan. One of those led to compensation payments to plaintiffs and three led to out-of-court settlements.
According to the ruling, the 20 were enticed by Unification Church followers between 1985 and 1991 through questionnaire surveys conducted on the street and seminars. They joined the church when they were students and young company employees.
The women engaged in door-to-door sales of seals and donated money as part of their church activities.
The church has denied that it is engaged in profit making, saying it is a religious body and that its methods of attracting new followers is different from brainwashing.
Masaki Gouro, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, lauded the ruling as the first among similar cases to refer to freedom of belief.
Unification Church officials said that the ruling was "based on prejudice" and was "unjust" and that it was tantamount to "profanation" of those who have faith in the church's teachings. They said the church will appeal the ruling.
In an unusual move, Sato said before handing down the ruling that the court would face criticism for the lengthy hearing of the case, which was originally presented more than 13 years ago.