A former member of the Church of Scientology can proceed to trial with a lawsuit alleging she was forced to work long hours before she was a teen and was coerced to have an abortion at age 17, a Los Angeles judge ruled today.
Superior Court Judge John Doyle denied a motion by lawyers for the Church of Scientology International and its Religious Technology Center to dismiss Laura Ann DeCrescenzo’s case. The only cause of action he tossed dealt with whether the plaintiff was deprived of a constitutional right of liberty.
The case was filed in April 2009, and the allegations include forced abortion, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, unfair business practices and wage-and-hour violations.
Robert Mangels, an attorney for the Religious Technology Center, said he will file papers asking a panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal to order Doyle to reverse his ruling and grant dismissal of the case.
Attorney Bert Deixler, on behalf of the Church of Scientology, declined to say afterward if he would join in the motion.
Deixler argued that the lawsuit wrongly involves the courts in the affairs of a religious organization.
“We do not have the civil courts investigate religious practices,” Deixler said.
Deixler said the DeCrescenzo case is “a question of faith, and not force” and that the plaintiff and her family made their own choices without intimidation.
But DeCrescenzo’s attorney, John Blumberg, said his client was effectively “brainwashed” by the church because she was not allowed to hear outside opinions about the religion’s practices.
“She was not a free-thinking adult at this point,” Blumberg said.
Although now-retired Judge Ronald Sohigian previously dismissed the case, a three-justice panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal reversed his decision in June 2011 and sent the case back to the judge to determine whether the church was permitted to raise the statute of limitations as a defense.
According to a sworn declaration by DeCrescenzo, she began volunteering to do church work at age 6 or 7 in Orange County. She says that at age 7, she was part of a Scientology group organized to picket the very civil courthouse where trial of her lawsuit will take place.
She claims the demonstration showed the church’s ability to “go to every length to bring down people who filed lawsuits” against the institution,” whose followers include Tom Cruise and John Travolta.
“I believed that if I took any action against the Church of Scientology — whether filing a lawsuit or even speaking negatively about the Church of Scientology — that I would be subjected to severe retribution, including significant financial penalties and loss of my family,” DeCrescenzo stated.
When DeCrescenzo was 12, she was recruited to join the organization’s elite Sea Org, which she said is responsible for overseeing the delivery of the religion worldwide.
DeCrescenzo alleges she was initially required to work daily from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. and that two more hours were later added to her work day. DeCrescenzo says she remained with Sea Org until 2004, when she was 25.
She says she was told she could not leave Sea Org and was released from duty only after she pretended to attempt suicide by swallowing bleach.
DeCrescenzo alleges she became pregnant in February 1996 and was convinced by the church to abort her fetus to show her allegiance to Sea Org and its long hours.
Deixler said DeCrescenzo was not coerced to terminate her pregnancy.
“She made a decision that she wanted to have this abortion,” he said.
Deixler also read passages of the plaintiff’s deposition which he said undermined her claims of false imprisonment and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
DeCrescenzo remained a member of the church until June 2008. Blumberg said she is now in her late 30s.
Doyle scheduled a June 3 status conference to discuss the outcome of any appellate court ruling and the setting of a trial date. Before a jury trial can be held, a judge will have to hear evidence on whether DeCrescenzo’s claims were filed within the statute of limitations.
Doyle said he may have to transfer the case for trial to another courtroom with a calendar more suitable to hearing lengthy trials.