Tara Savelo was born into Scientology and remained active in it into her 20s. She grew up in Clearwater, Fla., one of the church’s main outposts, and later moved to Los Angeles, where she became Lady Gaga’s makeup artist.
She drifted away from the church as she built her own life. But over the last few weeks, as she has read about the Danny Masterson rape trial, many of the church’s teachings and practices have come back to the surface.
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“The verbiage the victims use – the first time I read it, it was so upsetting,” she said. “There are specific words and descriptors they’ve used that are ingrained in my DNA. It makes my stomach turn.”
For a lot of former Scientologists, the Masterson trial has been a subject of intense fascination. It combines celebrity, sex and justice, and it is set within a society that they know intimately.
“This is the O.J. trial of Scientology,” said Karen de la Carriere, an ex-Scientologist who now calls herself a “cult whistleblower.” “It’s huge.”
Masterson’s lawyer, Philip Cohen, has sought to minimize references to the church during the trial. But in his closing argument, he noted the church had nevertheless been mentioned more than 700 times.
Karin Pouw, a spokeswoman for the church, blasted Deputy District Attorney Reinhold Mueller for “shamefully centering his prosecution on the defendant’s religion.” But Mueller argued in his closing that the church had exerted a powerful influence over the victims’ beliefs and actions.
“Scientology cannot be avoided,” he argued.
Scientology was invoked in two ways. The first is the church’s attitude toward rape and gender dynamics. The second is the church’s approach to the justice system.
The three accusers – all now ex-Scientologists – all described a belief system that discouraged them from classifying their assaults as “rape.” Christina B., who was in a six-year relationship with Masterson, said she went to the church to report him for rape in December 2001. A Scientology ethics officer told her that “You cannot rape someone you’re in a relationship with,” she testified.
She also testified that a chaplain told her that “I was not fulfilling my duties” as Masterson’s girlfriend. She said the message she received was: “Basically, if I didn’t say no, it wouldn’t happen.”
She and Jane Doe #1 also described a broader teaching in which negative experiences are understood to be the responsibility of the person experiencing them. In the case of rape, that amounted to telling them they had invited the assaults, or “pulled it in,” they testified.
Those descriptions resonated with Tara Savelo.
“That’s exactly how they talk,” she said.
She said that growing up, her parents had books like “The Second Dynamic” – a comprehensive text that covers the teachings of church founder L. Ron Hubbard on marriage, sex and family.
“He was a very good writer, and he was amazing at organizing a cult, but underneath it all he was a very sexist man,” Savelo said. “The basic books that my parents had when I was a kid, they are blatantly sexist. The woman is supposed to be at home taking care of the babies.”
Her friends’ parents used “The Second Dynamic” as a guide to family life. They were also taught about it in school, where they made clay models depicting the two parts of the dynamic – family and sex.
“If you want your second dynamic to do well, you have to do well on both parts,” she said she was taught. “If your family wasn’t doing well, you’re lagging on the sex part.”
Savelo said she was raped when she was 16. The next day, she reported it to a Scientology ethics officer. She had been drinking, and knew she had been “out-ethics,” the religion’s term for immoral behavior.
But she was still surprised to be told that she would have to make amends to the perpetrator.
“I knew it would be my fault. I went in knowing there would be punishment,” she said. “I didn’t think I would have to make amends to the guy.”
As she understood it, she had been “promiscuous” – conduct that is low on Scientology’s “tone scale” – akin to “perversion” and “sadism.”
“Promiscuity is talked about a lot more often than rape is,” Savelo said.
Worse yet, she had also been promiscuous with a non-Scientologist, who might get a bad impression of the faith, which would alienate him from the church and make it harder for him to achieve true freedom.
Though she never wanted to see him again, she was told to bring him to the church to watch an introductory video. That would be his amends.
“I sat in a car and watched him go inside while they dealt with that,” she said.
She did not tell her parents until much later.
“It just never crossed my mind that there would be another way to handle that – that an adult would say ‘Let’s call the police,’” she said. “It’s been enough years and I’m pulled out enough that I’m able to look back and go, ‘Oh my God, that’s so fucked up.’”
The prosecution in the Masterson case wanted to call an expert, Claire Headley, to address Scientology’s attitude toward the police. Judge Charlaine Olmedo rejected that request, reasoning that the accusers themselves could give their understanding of the church’s practices.
Headley is an ex-Scientologist who sued the church in federal court for human trafficking, and lost. In an interview, Headley said she would have testified that Scientology policies preclude its members from going to the police. (The church has denied this.)
“Scientology policy dictates you use Scientology ethics and procedures,” Headley said. “It’s not optional.”
Two accusers testified that they initially reported Masterson to the church. Christina B. testified that she was ordered to complete courses, but that Masterson didn’t have to do anything to atone.
“He said he didn’t have to,” she told the jury.
In her understanding, Masterson was seen as an “upstat,” Scientology’s term for its most successful members. Masterson, the star of the popular sitcom “That ’70s Show” “was flourishing and prospering in life,” and was therefore immune from punishment. When she realized that, she said she decided to leave the relationship.
Jane Doe #1 testified that after going to church officials, she resolved to go to the police as well. She did so despite fearing she would be excommunicated and that her 7-year-old daughter would be forced to leave her Scientology school.
“My parents would never talk to us again,” she said. “We would have nothing and would have to start over.”
Christina B. also testified about the fear of being declared a “suppressive person.” As she spoke on the stand, she had a panic attack and the court took a recess.
“I can’t breathe,” she said.
All three accusers testified that they have been subject to harassment and retaliation from the church since coming forward to the police. The church has also denied this.
In addressing charges of sexism in the past, the church has noted that many women hold positions of high authority in the church, and that more than half of the Sea Org — the church’s religious order — are women.
“There is no discrimination whatsoever,” the church has said.
Savelo, now 38, said she hasn’t been involved in the church for at least a decade or so. But she said she has tried to avoid reading too much about the Masterson case because some of the feelings it stirs are still too upsetting.
“The feeling you get living in that world – it’s a constant feeling of dread and fear,” she said. “It’s nothing tangible. It doesn’t compute to a lot of rational people. But that fear is so palpable. I feel it in the pit of my stomach.”
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