Scientology church looms over actor Danny Masterson rape case
The two sides agree on one thing: The Church of Scientology is not on trial.
Yet, when prosecutors and actor Danny Masterson’s defense team met in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom recently for a final meeting before Masterson’s rape trial, much of the legal wrangling was over the role the controversial religion would play in the proceedings.
Masterson’s lawyers wanted Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charlaine Olmedo to bar any mention of Scientology throughout the trial, which is expected to begin Tuesday. Deputy Dist. Atty. Reinhold Mueller argued that he should have free rein to invoke Scientology.
Masterson, a Scientologist, is charged with raping three women between 2001 and 2003. The women allege he plied them with alcohol and sexually assaulted them at his Hollywood Hills home.
The women were also members of Scientology and allege that church officials tried to stop them from reporting Masterson to police.
One accuser testified that when she reported the rape to Scientology officials, she was told “not to use the ‘R-word.’” Another testified that a lawyer for Scientology came to her home and warned that she would be expelled from the church if she went to authorities about Masterson.
Women who have accused Danny Masterson of rape testified that Scientology officials tried to stop them from reporting the alleged attacks to police.
“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 trial is not about Scientology. The trial is about Danny Masterson. But that being said, the facts of what happened, why certain things happened, who was involved ... it’s so interwoven that certain parts of the trial will necessarily have to involve Scientology,” said Brian Kent, who represents Masterson’s accusers in a civil lawsuit they brought against the church and Masterson.
Masterson, who gained some level of celebrity for his role in the popular sitcom “That ’70s Show,” faces decades in prison if he is convicted of raping the women.
At a preliminary hearing last year, each of the women testified, recounting the alleged attacks in graphic detail. One said Masterson threatened her with a gun as he raped her while she faded in and out of consciousness.
A California appeals court says Danny Masteron’s accusers’ case against the Church of Scientology can move ahead.
“You’re not gonna f—ing tell anybody,” she recalled him saying.
Another accuser said she had awoken to Masterson, her boyfriend at the time, penetrating her. When she tried to stop him by pulling his hair, he hit her in the face, she testified.
The Times does not name victims of alleged sexual assault unless they choose to identify themselves.
Scientology practices were scrutinized during the preliminary hearing. Masterson’s accusers testified about a range of topics, including the religion’s “international justice chief,” described as the church’s ultimate authority, and “wog-law,” a term the church uses dismissively to refer to the secular world’s police and courts.
Danny Masterson’s case has refocused attention on religious arbitration, in which disputes are settled outside of courts, with little or no public scrutiny.
But that was not in front of a jury.
With impressionable jurors set to determine Masterson’s fate, his attorney Phillip Cohen argued at the hearing earlier this month that the actor’s proximity to the much-maligned religion will be used to paint him as guilty by association.
“It is disingenuous to say the government is not placing Scientology on trial,” Cohen told Olmedo. He added that being forced to battle over Scientology doctrine will make the trial an unfair “war on two fronts” and suggested the judge allow only nonspecific references to “the church.”
Prosecutors countered that Scientology, founded by L. Ron Hubbard in the 1950s, is fundamental to everything the women went through and should be mentioned by name at trial.
“It’s about their entire life being wrapped up in this church,” Mueller said at the Oct. 3 hearing. “If they don’t follow certain policies ... they lose that entire life.
“It’s not just as simple as not talking about Scientology,” he added, saying jurors would be confused if the prosecution referred to Scientology merely as a church.
Prosecutors also sought the judge’s permission to have a former Scientologist testify as an expert witness about the structure of the organization and how it operates.
Olmedo struck a middle ground in her ruling.
Saying the church’s “tentacles” undeniably reach into many facets of the trial, she excluded the prosecution’s proposed expert, but found that the religion is relevant. She rejected Cohen’s argument that it should not be named because of negative views jurors may have.
“Evidence presented in criminal cases often involve subject matters that many of the public view with disdain, including gangs, guns and violence,” Olmedo said. “The fact that any individual has a negative view of any particular subject matter does not, per se, render that person unfit to serve as a juror.”
The accusers can explain how Scientology led them to delay reporting their sexual assaults to police, Olmedo said. She added that they could tell jurors about their belief that church policy prohibits reporting crimes committed by other Scientologists to law enforcement.
The Church of Scientology declined to comment on the pending criminal matter, but said the religion has no policy against reporting crimes committed by Scientologists to law enforcement.
“Church policy explicitly demands Scientologists abide by all laws of the land,” spokeswoman Karin Pouw said.
The court is performing a balancing act, letting in references to Scientology where it is necessary to give context, while not allowing the case to devolve into a trial within a trial, said Lou Shapiro, a defense attorney and former public defender in Los Angeles County.
“Judges are reluctant to let trials go down rabbit holes,” Shapiro said.
Olmedo compared the case to the 2011 rape prosecution of Warren Jeffs, the self-proclaimed prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The tenets of the Mormonism offshoot were admitted at trial to provide context for why a 15-year-old girl and a 12-year-old girl submitted to rapes at the hands of Jeffs, Olmedo said.
According to a list of potential witnesses filed in court, prosecutors plan to call Brie Shaffer, an actress and high-ranking Scientologist who has defended Masterson on social media in the past. They also may call Lisa Marie Presley, Elvis Presley’s daughter, a Scientologist who reportedly left the church in 2014.
Mike Rinder, a former high-ranking member who left the church in 2007, said Scientologists involved in other criminal cases have been relocated by church officials outside a court’s jurisdiction to keep them from testifying.
“There are certain people who apparently are very integral to the events ... and I wonder if they are going to appear at the trial,” Rinder said.
The three women alleging Masterson raped them are also plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed against the Church of Scientology in 2019. They say they were harassed and stalked by Scientology after reporting Masterson to police. The lawsuit will move forward after the criminal trial.
The women allege that representatives of Scientology followed them, came to their homes and went through their trash in an attempt to intimidate them.
One says in the suit that her dog may have been poisoned to death by representatives of the church.
Masterson’s lawyers fought to keep the allegations of stalking and harassment from the civil case out of the criminal trial.
“The only thing the jury could use this evidence to really consider would be emotional bias to convict Mr. Masterson based on the conduct of this alleged, uncharged co-defendant of the Church,” Karen Goldstein, another attorney for Masterson, said at the Oct. 3 hearing.
Goldstein noted that prosecutors had turned over to the defense a photo of the “admittedly ... very cute little dog.”
Olmedo ruled there was to be no mention of the dog. The women, she decided, can speak in general terms about the alleged harassment or stalking, but they cannot go into detail of specific incidents.
Times staff writers James Queally and Matthew Ormseth contributed to this report.
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