LOS ANGELES — One Hollywood star claimed he was arrested and charged on multiple counts of rape by police and prosecutors who are biased against his church.
Another prominent Hollywood figure charged with rape contends he was set up by members of a church he has publicly renounced.
In both cases, the church in question is the Church of Scientology.
No matter what happens at the trials of former “That ’70s Show” star Danny Masterson, who is accused of raping three women two decades ago, and Oscar-winning filmmaker Paul Haggis, accused of raping a publicist a decade ago, the spotlight is on the controversial church that has been embraced by some of Hollywood’s biggest names — and derided as a cult by celebrity defectors and others.
“This is not going to be a trial on Scientology,” Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Charlaine F. Olmedo warned at a pretrial hearing for Masterson, although she allowed the accusers to cite the church as a reason they waited to report the alleged rapes.
Scientology was started in 1952 by the science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. The religion asserts in its official statements of beliefs that man is an immortal spiritual being with unlimited capabilities, and it offers, for a price, one-on-one “auditing” and classes designed to help members achieve a “clear” spiritual state. It strongly opposes the science of psychiatry as “disastrous.”
Legal analysts said Scientology looms large over both proceedings.
“While it appears as if the judge is working hard to ensure that this trial is not about merits of Scientology, it is impossible for the witnesses to tell their stories without reference to the church,” said Sarah Krissoff, a top New York City defense attorney and former federal prosecutor who led investigations into sex trafficking and crimes against children. “It is all inextricably intertwined.”
All three of Masterson’s accusers were Scientologists, and two have testified that they were rebuffed when they told church officials Masterson had raped them and that they were subjected to stalking and other acts of retaliation after they reported the alleged assaults to police.
“She had told me not to use the word ‘rape,’” testified an accuser identified as Jane Doe #3, recounting a conversation she had two decades ago with Scientology ethics officer Miranda Scoggins at the church’s Celebrity Centre International in Hollywood.
The accuser said Scoggins told her: “I had done something to cause it. … We’re all responsible for the condition we’re in.”
There was no immediate response from a church spokesperson to the latest testimony. Scientology, whose celebrity devotees include Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Kirstie Alley, has received “plenty of bad press” about “supposedly punishing and investigating those who leave the church,” said NBC News legal analyst Danny Cevallos.
Priya Chaudhry, the attorney for Haggis, a two-time Oscar winner, said in her opening statement as the civil trial got underway in Manhattan that Haggis had predicted in a 2011 interview in The New Yorker that church leaders would try to “find dirt” on him for having parted with Scientology in 2009 over its opposition to gay marriage.
“Scientology is very successful at destroying its enemies without leaving a single fingerprint behind,” Chaudhry told the court.
Which means Haggis will have to come up with some fingerprints, legal analysts said.
“The success of this strategy really depends on what evidence Haggis has to support this argument,” Krissoff said. “He will have to demonstrate a very close link between his animosity with the church and the allegations against him. If he fails to do so, this strategy might be a distraction but not necessarily a defense to liability.”
Both trials began this month, five years after multiple rape allegations against the movie mogul Harvey Weinstein in 2017 sparked a tsunami of sexual misconduct claims in Hollywood and helped fuel the #MeToo movement.
Weinstein was convicted of rape in 2020 and sentenced to 23 years in prison before he was extradited from New York to Los Angeles. New York state’s highest court agreed in August to allow him to appeal the conviction. He is now on trial accused of attacking five women from 2004 to 2013 — in a courtroom down the hall from where Masterson’s trial is being held in Los Angeles County Superior Court. He has pleaded not guilty.
The Manhattan courthouse where Haggis is on trial is adjacent to the one where a jury concluded this month that the Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey did not molest the actor Anthony Rapp, who said he was 14 when Spacey assaulted him.
Haggis, who won screenwriting Oscars for “Million Dollar Baby” and “Crash,” is accused of raping the publicist Haleigh Breest in 2013, when she was 26. He claims the sex was consensual.
Breest claimed in a lawsuit against Haggis in 2017 that he lured her to his apartment and forced her to perform oral sex. Her move prompted three other women to come forward with their own rape allegations against Haggis.
Haggis denied Breest’s rape allegation in a counter-complaint and accused her and her lawyer of trying to extort $9 million from him.
“You many never know if [Breest] is lying because of Scientology, to get his money or some other reason,” Chaudhry told jurors. “But the evidence will show she’s lying.”
Breest’s lawyer, Zoe Salzman, insisted Breest has “nothing to do with Scientology.”
“Scientology has nothing to do with this case,” said Salzman, who said Breest came forward after Haggis condemned Weinstein for preying on female actors. “She decided she had to do something.”
In the Masterson case, he and his accusers are all current or former members of the Church of Scientology. One is his former longtime girlfriend.
He is charged with raping the women at his home from 2001 to 2003.
Masterson’s first lawyer, Thomas Mesereau, insisted police and prosecutors were going after him because he is a Scientologist. He also tried and failed to subpoena all communications between Masterson’s accusers and the actor Leah Remini, a former Scientologist who has become an outspoken critic of the religion.
Masterson’s new attorney, Phillip Cohen, has taken a different tack, stating repeatedly that the case against Masterson has nothing to do with Scientology, even though a witness list is filled with current and former members, including famous figures like Lisa Marie Presley, who is a friend of one of the accusers.
Instead, Cohen has signaled his intention to embark on a more traditional defense of his celebrity client.
“I do think it is prudent for Masterson’s defense counsel to focus the jury on the credibility of the accusers,” Krissoff said. “His job is to raise doubt about the accusers’ accounts. However, he needs to tread lightly in doing so, as juries are often repelled by overt attacks on accusers.”
Masterson’s defense can also refrain from any mention of Scientology and still win, Cevallos said.
“In a sex assault case, doing nothing and claiming the government has failed to prove its case can be effective, because the assault is often a ‘he-said, she-said’ case,” Cevallos said.