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Six years ago, when I was a reporter at New Times LA, Id written several stories about Scientology (Los Angeles is one of its headquarters), and I was about to uncork the longest one yeta 7,000 word piece about an embarrassing, $8 million defeat Scientology had just suffered, when the weekly paper suddenly folded.
That unpublished story has been sitting in storage ever since. Fast forward to 2008, and the world of reporting on Scientology has changed radically, thanks in part to the lunacy of Tom Cruise, but also in part to a worldwide, leaderless movement that calls itself Anonymous. Ravenous for any information about L. Ron Hubbards strange organization, Anonymous scours the world for the least tidbit about Scientology.
Well, here was a pretty meaty morsel just sitting in my hard drive. Its still a substantial bit of reporting, and it fills in some gaps in the historical record of one of the most humiliating court losses Scientology has ever suffered.
Originally scheduled to be printed in October 2002, the piece follows. (Its unchanged except for updates in [brackets].) This material may come as a revelation to some readers, but even for the know-it-alls at Anonymous, there are juicy bites.—Tony Ortega
Even before it started, the 1986 trial of Lawrence Wollersheim v. the Church of Scientology of California caused a mob scene at L.A.s downtown superior court.
When a judge decided during pretrial motions that documents describing confidential Scientology beliefs should be put in a file open to the public, 1,500 Scientologists swamped the court clerks office to keep anyone else from requesting them. The next day, the judge resealed those records. But an L.A. Times reporter managed to get past the crush of Scientologists and copy the file. Newspapers around the country had a field day with what the Times reported: the documents showed that high-level Scientologists are taught that each human contains the souls of alien creatures banished to Earth 75 million years ago by a galactic overlord named Xenu.
Scientologys process of dianetics, developed by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard over a period beginning in the late 1940s, was supposed to rid the body of those alien creatures. But Lawrence Wollersheim, who had defected from Scientology after serving 11 years and making about $50,000 in payments, claimed that the organizations pricey rituals instead had made him insane and drove him to the brink of suicide. He filed suit in 1980, and six years later his trial was a sensation. Still the most expensive civil trial in L.A. court history, [This was true even in 2002, post-SimpsonT.O.] it made headlines almost daily in the spring and summer of 1986 as Scientologists jammed the courtroom and protested outside of it, complaining that their religious freedoms were being trampled on. For many in the public, reports of the trial gave them their first detailed description of Scientology, which today counts such celebrities as John Travolta and Tom Cruise among its members. Travolta himself made a visit to the trial that May which was widely reported.
In the lawsuit, Wollersheim claimed that after he left Scientology in 1979 the organization retaliated by destroying his business and attempting to destroy him. In five months of testimony, Wollersheim, his psychologist, and former Scientologists described the coercion he was subjected to, sacrifices he was expected to make, and bizarre teachings he was fed, which made Hubbards outfit sound more like a mind control cabal out of The Manchurian Candidate than the mainstream faith it claimed to be. Scientologys attorneys countered that Wollersheim had come to the organization with a preexisting mental condition and was a drug user. Wollersheim was seeking $25 million in damages.
The jury awarded him $30 million.
It was a stunning blow to Scientology, but probably the most lasting impression that many took from the trial was the reaction of Scientologists themselves, who continued to protest at the courthouse day after day for more than a month after the verdict. Staging their demonstrations from a tent city set up across the street, the members wore pins made from ten cent coins and chanted over and over: Not one thin dime for Wollersheim!
It was a vow that Scientology kept for 16 years.
In 1989, an appellate court upheld the verdict but reduced Wollersheims award to $2.5 million. But even before the original trial started, and for years afterward, various Scientology entities hit Wollersheim with other lawsuits, exhausted every possible appeal, filed mountainous legal briefs, claimed that the particular entity he had sued was broke and could never pay him, and found other ways to put off paying the money.
Even after the case had twice been to the U.S. Supreme Court and the last possible appeal had been denied, Scientology seemed determined that it would never go back on its promise to deny Wollersheim even one thin dime.
And then, suddenly, Scientology threw in the towel.
On May 9 , the Church of Scientology of California, an entity which had once been considered the mother church but for a decade was supposed to have been dormant and broke, submitted a check to the superior court for $8,674,843 to cover the $2.5 million judgment and the interest it had accrued.