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The Church of Scientology works hard to keep its inner workings out of the public eye.
It has hired private detectives to keep tabs on straying members, and experts say its lawyers vigorously defend against legal incursions, arguing to judges that Scientology’s beliefs are not courtroom fodder.
But at a hearing last week in the rape case against actor Danny Masterson, church officials were unable to stop their practices from being debated in open court.
Three women took the stand to recount sexual assaults allegedly committed by the celebrity Scientologist, and each told similar stories of how church officials tried to stop them from reporting Masterson to police.
One woman testified that a church official instructed her to write a statement showing she would “take responsibility” for a 2001 assault, in which she alleges Masterson raped her while she was unconscious.
Another woman, who was born into Scientology and planned to report Masterson to police in 2004, a year after she said he raped her at his Hollywood mansion, recounted how a Scientology attorney showed up at her family’s home. The lawyer, according to the woman, warned that she would be expelled from the church if she went to authorities.
“We’re going to work out how you can not lose your daughter,” the attorney told the woman’s father, according to her testimony.
The focus on Scientology during the preliminary hearing, which stretched over four days and included lengthy discussions of internal church texts and doctrine, wasn’t lost on Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Charlaine Olmedo.
In ruling that there was sufficient evidence against Masterson to allow the case to proceed toward trial, Olmedo concluded that Scientology has “an expressly written doctrine” that “not only discourages, but prohibits” its members from reporting one another to law enforcement. The policy explained why several of the women did not report Masterson’s alleged crimes to the police for more than a decade, the judge found.
It was a type of public dissection that is unusual for the insular, enigmatic institution. The church, which counts a number of high-profile actors among its parishioners and operates a “Celebrity Centre” in the heart of Hollywood, has long been accused of going to extraordinary lengths to keep criminal allegations and other claims of wrongdoing in-house, experts said.
“The activities of Scientology have been so much a part of the evidence that’s being put forth as to why these women were not immediately going to law enforcement ... that it’s sort of brought the dirty laundry out into public view, which is exactly what Scientology does not want to have happen,” said Mike Rinder, the church’s former top spokesman, who left the faith in 2007.
In statements to The Times, the church denied it has a policy that dissuades members from reporting crimes, despite repeated references to Scientology texts during the hearing that appeared to include the directive. Karin Pouw, the church’s top spokeswoman, said Olmedo’s comments were “flat-out wrong” and dismissed the allegations against Masterson as “nothing more than a money shakedown” by women who are also engaged in a civil suit against him.
The women, Pouw claimed without evidence, are parroting comments made by Leah Remini, an actress who became an outspoken critic of Scientology after breaking with it in 2013. Rinder is a co-executive producer with Remini of an A&E series about Scientology.
“Church policy explicitly demands Scientologists abide by all laws of the land, including the reporting of crimes. This is blatantly clear in the documents we understand were put before the Court — and many others,” Pouw wrote, repeatedly noting the church is not a party in the criminal case. “The Court either did not read them in full or ignored them. It should have done neither. Interpretation of Church doctrine by the courts is prohibited and the ruling is evidence of why.”
The case against Masterson, who starred in the 2000s sitcom “That ’70s Show,” is a relatively rare example of a Scientologist facing criminal charges based on accusations from other church members, Rinder said.
The church’s doctrine generally dismisses government institutions like courts as invalid and directs members to deal with complaints internally, said Rinder, who described himself as having worked closely with L. Ron Hubbard, the late science fiction author who founded the church. Knowing that contacting law enforcement can lead to excommunication and being cut off from family and friends who remain in the church, members often remain silent, according to Rinder and testimony delivered in court last week.
The case against Masterson, Rinder added, is also unusual for the outsize role the inner workings and rules of Scientology played at the preliminary hearing — a likely preview of what is to come if the case goes to trial. For the most part, Rinder said, cases involving the church have played out in civil court, where lawyers for Scientology have largely been successful in convincing judges that its practices are irrelevant.
"Scientology had managed to persuade courts … that you can’t inquire into our religious practices and beliefs and have managed to dissuade much discussion about Scientology," Rinder said.
In a 2019 trial, lawyers for Scientology failed to shield the church from court scrutiny when defense attorneys for a man accused of beating his sister-in-law and her husband to death in Prescott, Ariz., argued that his belief in the religion drove him to commit the crime, according to a report in the Arizona Republic. In that case, a jury found Kenneth Wayne Thompson carried out the slayings to protect his nephew from receiving psychiatric treatment, which his attorneys argued is barred by the church's doctrines.
Jurors heard testimony about the church's origins, and how members use a polygraph-like "E-meter" during a process meant to lead to spiritual clarity. Both prosecutors and church lawyers opposed the strategy to involve Scientology in the case, but a judge allowed it. Attempts to subpoena church records and call former Scientologists to testify, including Remini, were unsuccessful, however.
Testimony at Masterson’s preliminary hearing at times was as much an explanation of the church’s processes and cryptic vocabulary as an accounting of the actor’s alleged sexual abuse.
One woman testified that she wrote a letter to an “International Justice Chief,” whom she described as the church’s ultimate authority on disputes between Scientologists, seeking permission to sue Masterson and report him to police. References were made in court to “knowledge reports,” “Things That Shouldn’t Be reports,” and “O.W. write-ups.” A prosecutor repeatedly evoked books and letters written by Hubbard.
When a woman explained during her testimony that “wog-law” is the church’s disdainful term for police and courts, Olmedo asked if Scientologists refer to nonmembers as “wogs,” much like wizards in the fictional universe of “Harry Potter” call non-magical people “muggles.”
“I suppose,” the woman responded. “It’s not a nice thing.”
The three women who have accused Masterson of rape were identified in court by their first names and initials of their last names. The Times generally does not name victims of alleged sexual assault unless they choose to fully identify themselves.
Masterson’s attorney, Thomas Mesereau, initially tried to minimize Scientology’s place in the case, asking Olmedo to issue an order limiting mentions of the church or its practices in court. He argued the restrictions were needed because of “religious bias” that investigators from the Los Angeles Police Department and Masterson’s accusers harbored against Scientology.
Olmedo slapped down the request, saying she found it “interesting” that Mesereau argued Scientology should have little to do with the case, but also referred to the church “88 times in a 29-page brief.”
As the hearing wore on, Mesereau appeared to change tactics, introducing church documents as evidence in an attempt to undercut the credibility of Masterson’s accusers.
While cross-examining one woman, he read from an “O.W. write-up” and suggested the church document amounted to an admission by the woman that her encounter with Masterson had been consensual and driven by her promiscuity. She fired back that the document had been written by church officials, who took comments she’d made to a Scientology counselor out of context and repurposed them to defend Masterson.
Mesereau also brought out a copy of “Introduction to Scientology Ethics,” a 528-page tome written by Hubbard, as he cross-examined another alleged victim.
When it was his turn to question the woman, Deputy Dist. Atty. Reinhold Mueller took the book from Mesereau and had it admitted into the court record. He and the woman read aloud passages that she said she understood were official church doctrine that discourages Scientologists from reporting fellow parishioners to law enforcement.
As he finished his questioning, Mueller handed the book back to Mesereau and thanked him, saying it was “very helpful.”
One of the women who testified at the hearing said that when she reported the alleged rape to church officials, she was told to read the chapter of "Introduction to Scientology Ethics" that instructs members not to go to police in such cases. In a one-on-one meeting, a church "ethics officer" told her "not to use the ‘R-word'" and said it would be a “high crime” to report another Scientologist to law enforcement, the woman testified.
She also said she was required to complete an "ethics course" because she had done "something to ... deserve what [Masterson] did to me.”
Rinder said that in recent years, the church's responses to media inquiries had become "hermit-like." The fact that the church issued a detailed defense of its practices to The Times is a sign the Masterson case has become a significant problem for the church, he said.
“The fact that it's Danny Masterson from 'That '70s Show' … it’s not just local media reporting on a local case, it blows it up way bigger. It becomes part of Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein," he said, referring to the #MeToo movement, which has identified several celebrities as sexual predators. "That instantly puts it into a different zone. Within Scientology, this becomes panic stations, high alert.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.