An ex-Scientologist filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles on Tuesday against the Church of Scientology and its leader, David Miscavige ― alleging the church put her through years of “heinous abuse, human trafficking, and intimidation.”
The legal challenge seeks to force the church, which has long been battling abuse allegations, into the new era of accountability brought about by the Me Too movement, according to Marci Hamilton, an expert on child abuse prevention and one of the lawyers involved in the case.
“We learned through the Catholic Church cases and then with the development of the Me Too era that organizations that are held accountable in the courts end up being forced to do the right thing,” Hamilton told HuffPost. “It’s not enough for people to tell their stories and simply come forward. You have to subject them to the legal system.”
Scientology was founded in the 1950s, based on the teachings of the science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. One of its core beliefs is that man is an “immortal spiritual being” with unlimited capabilities. Members participate in one-on-one personal sessions, called “auditing,” to achieve “higher states of spiritual awareness.” The church was recognized by the Internal Revenue Service as a tax-exempt religion in 1993, after years of litigation.
People who leave Scientology have long raised concerns about the church’s practices, claiming that as members, they were subjected to physical abuse, forced labor and intimidation. The church has typically dismissed and denied these claims.
But over the past two years, the topic of abuse prevention has been roiling America’s biggest religious denominations, fueled by the Me Too movement. Just this month, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Southern Baptist Convention addressed the issue at national meetings and resolved to make changes to hold leaders accountable.
Hamilton, the founder of Child USA, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing child abuse and neglect, said that she isn’t aware of any abuse accountability structures within the Church of Scientology. She said several characteristics of the church stand out as red flags to her, signaling that this is an environment where abuse could occur without accountability.
“They are a top-down, male-run institution that does not permit questioning of the leadership or the dogma and they are very isolated, which means the vulnerable are extremely at risk,” Hamilton said.
Asked to elaborate on what practices or systems the church has in place to handle abuse allegations and promote accountability among leaders, the Church of Scientology said the following, through its lawyers:
“Allegations of abuse by the Church are absolutely false and unfounded, as are claims the Church ignored or covered up such abuse. The Church never ignores criminal behavior of any individual, especially at the expense of alleged victims. The Church follows all laws and reporting requirements, and it cooperates with law enforcement.”
The alleged victim in Tuesday’s lawsuit, identified only as “Jane Doe” in court documents, claims she was born into Scientology in 1979 and that “her entire life was dictated and controlled by Scientology’s abusive policies, procedures and rules.” According to the complaint, Doe lived in strict, “military-like conditions” as a child at the church’s spiritual headquarters in Florida, called “Flag Base,” and was taught from a young age to never report what happened to her to police. The complaint states that Doe was subjected to “bullbaiting” as a child, a practice in which members are trained not to show any visible reaction to offensive language. Doe claims she was forced to endure sexually explicit, verbal abuse from adults as part of this practice.
Hamilton said she believes this practice amounts to child abuse.
“Until this lawsuit was filed, the vast majority of the American public honestly didn’t understand the risk to children that comes from this practice of bullbaiting,” she said. “Now that it’s coming out in the light of day, it’s going to be what it appears to be, which is child abuse.”
The lawsuit does not allege that Doe was physically sexually abused, but does refer to an alleged pattern of “sexual abuse and/or assault” in the church.
As she grew older, Doe claims she was forced to work long, grueling hours for inadequate pay at various Scientology branches, at one point working directly for Miscavige. She alleges she was placed in solitary confinement for months and restricted from communicating with the outside world.
When Doe escaped in 2017, the complaint states that she began working for the actress Leah Remini, who was also raised in Scientology and often speaks up against the church. After Doe appeared in an episode of Remini’s Scientology docuseries in November 2018, the complaint states that the church retaliated by attacking Doe’s reputation online and through social media.
“These publications were disseminated by Defendants with the intent to harass, intimidate, embarrass, humiliate, destroy and alarm Jane Doe in all aspects of her personal and professional life,” the complaint states.
The alleged victim is seeking an unspecified amount in damages and unpaid wages.
The Church of Scientology told HuffPost that the lawsuit was full of “anti-religious slurs” and “accusations that have been disproved in courts decades ago.”
“We are confident the lawsuit will fail. Federal courts have already determined that service in the Church of Scientology’s religious order is voluntary and protected by the First Amendment,” the church’s statement read. “Moreover, the evidence will establish that while serving the Church, Plaintiff came and went freely, traveled the world, and lived in comfortable surroundings. The Church will vigorously defend itself against these unfounded allegations.”
The church also denied that its practices “encourage, foster or condone sexual abuse.”
“There is no scenario in which the Church would ever ignore or cover up the sexual abuse of a child,” the statement read.
Doe is represented by a team of seven victims’ rights attorneys including Hamilton. They have previously represented victims of abuse at Penn State University, within the Catholic Church, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other institutions. The lawyers are calling on other potential victims to come forward with their own stories. They’ve set up a website to help gather allegations, with the stated goal of holding the church “accountable for a history of extensive abuse.”
Hamilton told HuffPost that the team has already heard from several alleged victims through the site. Compared to previous times the church has been taken to court, Hamilton said she believes having a group of Scientology victims come forward together ― what she called the “Me Too wave effect” ― could make a difference this time.
“The Me Too era has encouraged victims of institutions, both secular and religious, to come forward,” she said. “It’s going to take more than one victim.”
This article has been updated with comment from the CSI, and to clarify that Doe is not claiming she was physically sexually abused.