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Eighty-Six Million Dimes

A 22-year legal battle came to an abrupt end last week when the Church of Scientology paid $8.67 million to one of its harshest critics: a former member who claimed the church had harassed him for years and driven him "to the brink of insanity."

The settlement between the church's California organization and former Boulder resident Lawrence Wollersheim is notable not only for its size, but for its public nature. In the past, litigation involving the controversial "new religion" -- founded by science-fiction writer and Dianetics author L. Ron Hubbard in 1954 -- and disaffected ex-members has been resolved quietly, the terms kept strictly confidential. But Wollersheim says his settlement contained no such conditions and came minutes before a court hearing at which his attorneys planned to introduce a recently acquired document challenging the Church of Scientology International's tax-exempt status.

"I signed no gag orders," says Wollersheim, who now lives in Nevada. "The only reason they settled was that somehow they pierced our intelligence. Three hours after we [uncovered] an absolutely conclusive piece of evidence that [CSI's] corporate structure is a scam, the check was delivered to the court."

A former Scientology recruiter, Wollersheim says he became disillusioned with the group and was subjected to thousands of hours of intensive counseling at "thought-reform camps designed to make you crazy." He filed suit in 1980, claiming that members continued to harass him after he left the church. In 1986, a California jury awarded him $30 million in damages; the award was reduced to $2.5 million on appeal. But he was unable to collect from the Church of Scientology of California and spent years trying to "pierce the corporate veil" of its parent organization, CSI. Outside of court hearings, church supporters carried protest signs declaring that they would pay "not one thin dime to Wollersheim."

Other suits and countersuits followed. One action against Wollersheim resulted in a judge assessing a $500,000 fine against the church under California's SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) legislation.

In 1995, Wollersheim and a handful of other ex-Scientologists made headlines by disclosing portions of the group's secret upper-level teachings on the Internet. Alleging copyright violations, church officials obtained federal search warrants and seized computers from Wollersheim and other boardmembers of the group he founded, the Fight Against Coercive Tactics Network (FACTNet). That action resulted in more costly lawsuits and stirred international debate over the limits of free speech in cyberspace ("Nightmare on the Net," March 6, 1997) before it was finally settled in 1999.

Five years ago, Wollersheim told Westword that he'd rejected a $12 million settlement offer from the church because it would have required him and other FACTNet members to cease their anti-cult activities and destroy their extensive archive of Scientology materials ("Hush-Hush Money," August 14, 1997). At the time, church officials denied making such an offer and accused Wollersheim of attempting to extort a settlement.

Last week's payment of $8,674,643 represents the $2.5 million award from the 1986 trial plus sixteen years' interest. "The cult that vowed it would never pay me one thin dime has now paid over 86 million thin dimes," Wollersheim noted in a statement on FACTNet's Web site (www.factnet.org).

Asked for comment, Church of Scientology of California president Neil Levin provided a written statement noting that the judgment was against a church entity that has since undergone restructuring. "This is a twenty-year-old case involving an old Scientology church that doesn't exist anymore," Levin wrote. "We've been trying to pay Mr. Wollersheim for five years, but he has so many creditors, we couldn't do it. So finally, we put the money into the court."

Wollersheim, however, contends that the timing of the settlement indicates that the church didn't want him to present in court his "conclusive piece of evidence" -- which, he says, has been turned over to the Internal Revenue Service and other government agencies.

"This has nothing to do with getting me out of their life," he adds. "They saw what we had. But they haven't stopped anything. It's all going to be public someday. For my security, I need to be a government witness and have government protection."

Although much of the money is owed to attorneys, Wollersheim says there should be enough left over to allow him to continue to support FACTNet and to become involved in "less confrontational" activities -- "social work that's easier on the soul," as he puts it. He sees the settlement as a turning point in the tumultuous history of Scientology.

"Now victims who have been intimidated into silence by the belief that no one could ever get paid are calling their attorneys," he says. "These people are going to reach out and get justice, and hopefully, Scientology is going to change.

"This is also a tremendous encouragement to other social-advocacy groups -- the cigarette-company victims, environmental groups, whatever. The message isn't that Lawrence got paid. It's about justice and patience. It really can work if you just work the system."

 
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