In a staggering blow to the Church of Scientology of California, a Superior Court judge Thursday upheld a jury's $30-million damage award to a former church member who said the organization wrecked him mentally and financially.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ronald Swearinger denied without comment the church's hard-fought bid to win a new trial or to invalidate the award to ex-Scientologist Larry Wollersheim.
Wollersheim, 37, was granted $5 million in compensatory and $25 million in punitive damages after a long and bitter trial, marked by massive protests from Scientology supporters.
Since the July 22 verdict, church lawyers have argued before Swearinger that Scientology's religious beliefs were unconstitutionally placed on trial, and that the huge award reflected the jurors' prejudice and passion against Scientology.
At a press conference Thursday evening, church lawyer Earle C. Cooley called Swearinger's decision "the most outrageous evasion of judicial responsibility ever seen in this country." He accused the judge of effectively bucking the case to the appeals courts.
Moreover, said Cooley, the church could be forced to post a $60-million bond to prevent Wollersheim from receiving any money while the case is on appeal--a sum that he said dwarfs the church's net worth of $18 million.
Cooley said he will attempt to have the amount of the bond reduced and win a new trial even if it requires going to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Rev. Ken Hoden, president of the Church of Scientology of Los Angeles, criticized Swearinger for not explaining why the church's post-trial motions were denied and accused him of "taking the coward's route out."
"He just threw up his hands and he said 'denied.' Well I guarantee you," the angry, red-faced minister said, "this judge is not going to wash his hands of this like Pontius Pilate did because the appeals court is going to slap him in the face for what he did . . . to my religion."
By law, the judge was not required to explain his decision.
The church and its affiliates have been the target of a wave of lawsuits by ex-members in recent years. Before Swearinger's announcement, expectations of a victory had been running high among church leaders. Part of their optimism stemmed from their success in Portland, Ore., last year when a judge overturned a $39-million judgment against them, stemming from a suit by a woman who said she had been defrauded.
Wollersheim sued the church in 1980 after 11 years in the organization. At one point during that time, he served as a traveling spokesman, extolling the benefits of an advanced Scientology course.
Wollersheim said in his suit that, while a member, he was subjected to "psychological manipulations" and was robbed of his independent judgment through a Scientology practice known as auditing. During auditing, an individual is asked to reveal the most intimate details of his life while his responses are monitored on a polygraph-like device known as an E-Meter.
This practice, Wollersheim testified, created such severe mental problems for him that he now must take lithium to control broad mood swings.
Wollersheim also claimed further that after he fell out of favor with the group, a concerted effort was launched by the church to drive his novelty business into bankruptcy. According to testimony in the trial, Scientologists were ordered to boycott his products, to quit their jobs with him and to refuse to pay money owed to him.
This effort, Wollersheim said, was undertaken pursuant to a directive written in the mid-1960s by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, stating that perceived enemies "may be deprived of property or injured by any means by any Scientologist without any discipline of the Scientologist. May be tricked, sued or lied to or destroyed."
For its part, the church contended that the policy had been canceled years earlier and that any actions taken against Wollersheim's business amounted to nothing more than a lawful boycott. Church attorneys portrayed Wollersheim as an opportunistic, money-grubbing man whose mental problems predated his membership in the Church of Scientology, which freed him of drug addiction.
After Thursday's press conference, Cooley, Hoden and other church officials broke the news of the court action to hundreds of Scientologists who spilled into the street in front of the church's Hollywood headquarters at the old Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. Many of those in attendance had marched through the Civic Center daily for nearly two months, carrying American flags and protest placards and singing "We Shall Overcome."
Greeted by sustained applause, Cooley urged the cheering crowd to begin distributing Scientology literature throughout Los Angeles and spreading the word about Hubbard's teachings.
"Dissemination," he declared, "is the road to ultimate victory."
Despite the bad news, the mood of the crowd was upbeat. Again and again, the assembled Scientologists chanted "LRH, LRH," the initials of the church's late founder.
Hoden, in an interview, said Scientologists would be out in force distributing literature during this weekend's Street Scene Festival in downtown Los Angeles.