Column: How the Church of Scientology hopes to quash a lawsuit by Danny Masterson’s accusers
Danny Masterson will soon face trial on charges he raped three women, and that’s a victory of sorts.
In the past, prosecutors have often taken the easier road of not pursuing charges against alleged serial sexual assaulters like Masterson, a lifelong member of the Church of Scientology who rose to fame as a star of the hit TV sitcom “That ’70s Show.”
But fame and power no longer have the same inoculating effects for alleged perpetrators that they used to.
The #MeToo movement and the horrific revelations about widespread sexual abuse in the Catholic Church have helped to level the legal landscape for people claiming to have been victimized by the famous and powerful — at least when it comes to criminal prosecutions.
Masterson’s alleged rape victims are looking to the civil courts for relief, too. And they are not suing just Masterson; they are also suing the Church of Scientology, its Religious Technology Center and Scientology leader David Miscavige.
The women, along with other plaintiffs, filed a civil lawsuit alleging that after they reported Masterson’s assaults to the church — and, eventually, to Los Angeles police — they were tormented by agents of the church, which has strict policies forbidding members from involving police and courts in their conflicts.
The church denies it engaged in retribution. Its spokeswoman, Karin Pouw, on Friday described the civil lawsuit as “a sham,” saying it was filled with “false and scandalous allegations about the church dating back more than 15 years.”
In their complaint, the plaintiffs allege that those who go outside the church to resolve conflicts may face extreme levels of harassment — which, in the secretive, insular world of Scientology, is called “fair gaming.” They say their trash was pilfered; their technology was hacked; they were followed and watched, verbally harassed, subjected to credit card fraud and, in one case, suffered the mysterious death of a family dog, whose trachea was later found to have been crushed.
But the lawsuit faced a big obstacle.
Three of the former church members had signed arbitration agreements when they became Scientologists, in which they agreed not to sue the church and instead let any disputes be resolved by a church-appointed panel.
After the lawsuit was filed, the church responded with a motion asking the judge to compel religious arbitration.
Late last year, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge agreed with the church, ruling that the three plaintiffs who were church members would have to go through arbitration before they could seek a trial. By the church’s rules, according to court documents, the arbitrators would be three Scientologists “in good standing,” and Masterson would have the right to be present. An appeals court upheld the decision.
But how, asked the plaintiffs’ attorney Marci Hamilton, could people who have rejected the faith — and been reviled as apostates — be forced into what would essentially be a religious ritual with the very church they claim inflicted cruelty upon them?
Forcing them to undergo arbitration under the church’s rules would be tantamount to forcing them to undergo a religious exercise, said Hamilton, a University of Pennsylvania expert on religion and the 1st Amendment. “The courts in this case are being asked to enforce religious retribution against individuals who were raped and who have rejected the faith,” she wrote in an appeal to the California Supreme Court.
On Wednesday, the state Supreme Court unanimously directed the lower courts to reconsider the issue.
But the church isn’t likely to quit fighting — in the civil case or in its support of Masterson in the criminal case. The Church of Scientology, founded in 1954 by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, is known for its special treatment of celebrities, who are considered important ambassadors for the religion.
So last week’s ruling in the criminal case that there was enough evidence to bring Masterson, 44, to trial, must be considered a blow to the church, even though it is not a party in the state’s case against Masterson, who has denied the charges.
As my colleagues James Queally and Matthew Ormseth reported, explosive testimony at Masterson’s pretrial hearing was rife with details about the secretive church’s policies and practices, and its absurdly misguided defense of its high-profile members.
“One woman testified,” they wrote, “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.”
Hamilton and her clients were especially worried that they would be forced into arbitration before the conclusion of Masterson’s rape trial, which has yet to begin.
“The notion that you would have rape victims testifying in criminal court — which is already stressful — and then be told they have to go into arbitration with their perpetrator?” said an incredulous Hamilton.
That, like so much else about this sordid case, is unthinkable. Or, at least, it should be.
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