Is Scientology facing its gravest crisis yet? After sickening claims of a church cover-up in the Danny Masterson rape trial, TOM LEONARD reveals shocking allegations of phone tapping, threats to kill… and even child abuse
When actress Bijou Phillips broke down in tears earlier this month as her husband and That 70s Show star Danny Masterson was sentenced to 30 years in prison, she was hardly the only one holding their head in their hands.
For while the actor, convicted for the rape of two women some 20 years ago, was technically the only one in the dock, his beloved Church of Scientology certainly shared the spotlight with him.
The controversial church, according to prosecutors and the victims, had for years protected Masterson, one of its cherished celebrity members, to such a grotesque extent that he had felt able to rape fellow Scientologists with impunity.
In court, Masterson’s victims – themselves former Scientologists – testified that in the early 2000s, at the height of his fame, he drugged and then violently raped them, while their church did all it could to stop them from seeking justice.
In explaining why it took them so long to come forward, they spoke of their fear of an organization that allegedly harassed and threatened to excommunicate them if they went to the police, a punishment that would not only have expelled them from the church but cut them off from family and friends who were also Scientologists.
When actress Bijou Phillips broke down in tears earlier this month as her husband and That 70s Show star Danny Masterson was sentenced to 30 years in prison, she was hardly the only one holding their head in their hands. (Pictured: The couple walking into court in May).
For while the actor, convicted for the rape of two women some 20 years ago, was technically the only one in the dock, his beloved Church of Scientology certainly shared the spotlight with him. The controversial church, according to prosecutors and the victims, had for years protected Masterson, one of its cherished celebrity members, to such a grotesque extent that he had felt able to rape fellow Scientologists with impunity.
Masterson was initially charged with rape in 2020, four years after his accusers finally reported the crimes, but a jury was hung on all counts against him late last year, leading to a retrial and his subsequent conviction this year.
It was this second trial that significantly increased Scientology’s exposure as the judge controversially allowed expert testimony on the workings of the church that she hadn’t permitted the first time. Prosecutors said the actor used his prominence in the church to avoid consequences for years.
Attempts by the church to distance itself from the Masterson case were undermined during the first trial when two of the actor’s lawyers were fined by the judge who ruled they had improperly shared information about the actor’s victims with the church. (They were removed from the case before the second trial).
However, the church – which is considered a cult in some countries – insists it has no policy that prohibits Scientologists from reporting any crimes to law enforcement, and that its members are expected to abide by all laws of the land. It denies all wrong-doing, including claims that it harassed and intimidated Masterson’s accusers.
In a statement after the verdict the church said the ‘testimony and descriptions of Scientology beliefs’ during the trial were ‘uniformly false’. A senior spokeswoman also emphasized that Scientology was not a party to the Masterson case.
But while that is true, the church most certainly is a party in a string of forthcoming civil cases that some of its detractors now hope may finally lead to Scientology facing a reckoning for what they say has been decades of abusive behavior towards its brainwashed members.
Two of these lawsuits involve complainants from the Masterson trial while a third case – alleging ‘psychological torture’ and ‘harassment’ – has been brought by former celebrity Scientologist Leah Remini, an actress who has become a thorn in the church’s side.
That reckoning, Remini and others hope, could involve the US government reconsidering Scientology’s tax-exempt status, a crucial financial advantage it secured in 1993 after a protracted battle with the IRS to gain official recognition as a religion.
In recent decades this has been a crucial tool for Scientology – in its bid to win international respectability. Meanwhile, savings in millions of tax dollars have, say critics, helped the church devote vast sums to silencing detractors.
Scientology is a set of beliefs and practices dreamt up by sci-fi writer L Ron Hubbard. He founded the church in 1952.
Its accusers say it’s a profit-hungry business rather than a religion, charging large sums to members for ‘self-improvement’ courses that lead in later stages to the ‘revelation’ that the Earth was colonized 75 million years ago by extraterrestrials.
It’s been particularly popular with Hollywood stars and famous actor members – led by Tom Cruise – include John Travolta, The Handmaid’s Tale star Elizabeth Moss, Michael Pena and Simpsons star Nancy Cartwright. Bijou Phillips is also a Scientologist.
The church now faces a string of civil cases that some of its detractors hope may finally lead to Scientology facing a reckoning for what they say has been decades of abusive behavior towards its brainwashed members. Two of these lawsuits involve complainants from the Masterson trial while a third case has been brought by actress Leah Remini (pictured).
The church was founded by sci-fi writer L Ron Hubbard in 1952. Its accusers say it’s a profit-hungry business rather than a religion. It’s been particularly popular with Hollywood stars and famous actor members – led by Tom Cruise (pictured speaking in 2004 at the inauguration of a Scientology church in Madrid).
Earlier this month, the UK Charity Commission delivered a blow to the church by announcing its refusal to grant Scientology tax exempt status in Britain cannot be appealed. Crushingly for an outfit whose members sometimes boast they can save the planet, the commission said ‘the Church of Scientology is not established for the public benefit’.
So what might these forthcoming US civil cases have in store for the embattled church?
We know a lot about one of them – brought by Masterson’s ex-girlfriend, actress and former Scientologist Chrissie Carnell Bixler, her husband, rock singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala, and three others – because of Masterson’s rape trial.
(Three of these five complainants, including Bixler, were Masterson’s accusers in the rape trial. However, the jury didn’t reach a decision on her case).
They allege they were ‘systematically stalked’ by the church after going to the police in 2016 with their claims against Masterson.
This alleged harassment reportedly included Scientology members staking out their homes, sending them threatening messages, tapping their phones, hacking their emails, threatening to kill them, running them off the road, poisoning trees in their yards, breaking their windows and even posting fake adverts purporting to be from them soliciting anal sex.
Bixler and her husband also claim Scientologists killed their dog.
The church, according to the lawsuit, employs so-called ‘Fair Game’ tactics to ‘attack, harass, embarrass, humiliate, destroy, and/or injure individuals who defendants declare to be an enemy of Scientology.’
Some details of these ‘Fair Game’ tactics were aired during testimony in Masterson’s rape trial.
One accuser, identified as ‘Jane Doe 1’, said that when she alerted the church Masterson had drugged, choked and raped her after throwing her into the jacuzzi at his Hollywood Hills home in April 2003, Scientology officials punished her.
She told the jury that a Scientology ‘ethics officer’ told her she could not use the word ‘rape’, and she could not go to the police or she’d be declared a ‘suppressive person’ – an enemy of the church – who would be excommunicated.
She said she was forced to undertake an ‘ethics program’ that included pseudo-therapy to work out what she had done to ‘cause’ the rape.
‘I was on a very extensive program… to see if I had any evil purposes to harm myself that caused this to happen – had I raped anyone in a previous lifetime,’ she testified. ‘I was struggling with that concept.’
Scientologists usually don’t struggle with that concept as they believe in reincarnation (its ‘Sea Org’ group, of which Jane Doe 1 was a member, sign on for billion-year contracts).
One civil case against the church is being brought by Masterson’s ex-girlfriend, actress and former Scientologist Chrissie Carnell Bixler (pictured), her husband, rock singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala, and three others. They allege they were ‘systematically stalked’ by the church after going to the police in 2016 with their claims against Masterson.
Bixler and her husband also claim Scientologists killed their dog. (Pictured: Bixler and Masterson in 2001).
She also testified that ‘my understanding, from Scientology, my entire life was that you can never be a victim. Nothing ever happens to you that you didn’t cause.’
Scientology have dismissed the ‘scandalous allegations’ in the Bixler lawsuit – the next hearing of which is scheduled for later this month – as ‘complete fabrications’ and an ‘attempted money grab’, claiming: ‘Every single instance of supposed harassment by the Church has been debunked.’
However, Jane Doe 1, who was born into Scientology in 1974, has also filed a separate lawsuit against the church, Scientology leader David Miscavige and Gavin Potter, another Sea Org member, in which she claims Potter sexually abused her when she was 16.
She claims that when she alerted officials she was given a choice: go to Sea Org’s ‘prison program’, known as the Rehabilitation Project Program, or marry Potter.
She says she felt compelled, still aged 16, to do the latter.
At 19, she became pregnant but rejected Potter’s insistence that – in line with what she says was Sea Org policy – she have an abortion (children are said to get in the way of members’ work). She later divorced him.
She is suing Scientology for negligence because it ‘failed to take reasonable steps or to implement reasonable safeguards to avoid acts of childhood sexual assault’.
She is also suing Potter for childhood sexual abuse, child molestation, and sexual battery.
Scientology dismiss this lawsuit, too, as ‘a con job orchestrated by the same small group of anti-Scientologists bent on harassing the Church’, adding: ‘The allegations are false.’
The church also says Jane Doe 1 is being represented by an attorney who was declared a ‘vexatious litigant’ by a California judge because of his long history of suing the church.
Now, as for actress Leah Remini: She spent 35 years in the church before leaving in 2013 and becoming an outspoken critic.
The star of CBS sitcom The King of Queens filed a detailed lawsuit this summer against Scientology and leader David Miscavige for ‘civil harassment, stalking, defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, intentional interference with prospective economic advantage.’
She is seeking punitive and compensatory damages.
She alleges in it that her mistreatment by the church started even before she resigned, specifically after she questioned the whereabouts of Miscavige’s wife Shelly (who has not been seen in public since 2007) and was punished with ‘months of psychological torture’ which left her close to ‘psychotic breakdown’.
Leah Remini has filed a detailed lawsuit against Scientology and leader David Miscavige (pictured) for ‘civil harassment, stalking, defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, intentional interference with prospective economic advantage.’
After she left the church, Remini says Scientology ramped up its ‘Fair Game’ efforts to ‘destroy’ her.
She claims they pressured her family – who remained members of the church – to make false public statements defaming her, and set up hundreds of websites and social media accounts to do the same.
After she published a best-selling book about the church in 2015, she said it hired private investigators who shadowed her so oppressively she felt the need to hire bodyguards.
She says the church recruited a man with a ‘history of mental illness and a violent criminal record’ to stalk her, even ramming his car into the gates of her Los Angeles gated community. Remini also names a security company she says Scientology used to spy on her from a neighbor’s home.
She also claims the church wrote letters to advertisers, sponsors and producers of her TV and podcast programs which caused her to lose work and income.
Last week, the actress amended her complaint to claim the church has ‘dramatically’ escalated its campaign against her since she filed the lawsuit in August, targeting not only her but her friends and family.
She says at least three of her credit cards and two belonging to her assistant have been hacked. She also alleges that when a friend took an Uber ride to her gated-community home last month, an unauthorized car tried to sneak in and get wedged in the barrier, later speeding away.
On September 3, she claims two men dressed in black were caught on security cameras knocking on her mother’s front door at 5 a.m. Remini believes the men were Scientology agents ‘sent to my mother’s house as a threatening message to me’.
Remini says that ‘while this lawsuit is about what Scientology has done to me, I am one of thousands of targets of Scientology over the past seven decades’.
‘People who share what they’ve experienced in Scientology, and those who tell their stories and advocate for them, should be free to do so without fearing retaliation from a cult with tax exemption and billions in assets.’
She hopes her case will help other ‘victims’ to come forward.
Again, the church rejects all these claims, dismissing them as false, ‘ludicrous’ and ‘pure lunacy’.
Could Scientology finally face its courtroom Waterloo?
Mike Rinder, one of the most senior church officials to have defected, told CNN earlier this month he expects the Bixler civil case ‘is going to expose a lot more information to the world about what really goes on inside Scientology’.
He said the Masterson case was ‘really just the tip of the iceberg as far as covering up, protecting and keeping out of the hands of law enforcement the activities that go on internally within Scientology’.
Remini alleges that, after she left Scientology, the church tried to ‘destroy’ her, recruiting a man with a ‘history of mental illness and a violent criminal record’ to stalk her, even ramming his car into the gates of her Los Angeles gated community. The church denies all claims. (Pictured: Remini with Vanessa Hudgens, left, and Jennifer Lopez, right).
Leah Remini told the same program: ‘I do hope that this is the beginning. I hope that the IRS will look into their [tax] exemption, revoke it or open up an investigation.’
However, some experts on the church are more cautious.
Journalist Tony Ortega – who has spent years monitoring the organization – tells the Mail he believes Masterson’s rape convictions makes it more likely the civil lawsuits ‘will do real damage’ to the church, but adds: ‘What often happens is Scientology spends top dollar on really good attorneys who find ways to delay or derail lawsuits. And then, if that doesn’t work out, they just write a big check. And it never seems to dent Scientology because they have so many millions in reserve.’
Nonetheless, there’s a widespread perception that, after multiple scandals, Scientology is now on the backfoot.
Reports that Tom Cruise, the church’s most glittering celebrity asset, hasn’t visited its UK headquarters for three years have sparked excited speculation that the actor star has ‘cooled’ on the church. Ortega is unconvinced, however, saying Cruise remains committed as ever.
It is also more than possible that Cruise – who at one time happily hectored interviewers who dared criticize the organization – has simply learned the value of being less obvious about his attachment such a deeply contentious group.
What’s more, while Ortega also believes Scientology’s global membership has shrunk from a peak of 100,000 in 1990 to less than 20,000 now, internal church communications indicate the generosity of its richest members – often donating millions of dollars at a time – has actually increased.
If true, it’s hardly short of cash to pay the penalties it may face in these latest civil cases.
Ortega told the Mail that what will ultimately do real damage to Scientology is government action that ‘shuts things down, takes away tax exempt status, stops the pipeline of money, seizes assets’.
The church’s opponents must now hope that such action will finally come after the courts hear the horrifying claims of women, even ones raped by a Scientologist, who say they were punished simply for daring to speak out.
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