Who would have thought a “That 70’s Show” celebrity would lead to the downfall of Scientology?
As his trial on criminal rape charges kicked off in Los Angeles last week, “That 70’s Show” actor Danny Masterson’s lawyers presumed that the Church of Scientology would be the elephant in the room throughout proceedings.
Masterson is a second-generation Scientologist, and the three rape accusers are all former members of the church. By the tenth day of the trial, witnesses discussed the church every single day. The church’s presence was not just a metaphorical elephant in the room — it has eclipsed elements of the trial and reverberated beyond the courtroom.
Though the Church of Scientology is not on trial with Masterson, facets of its operation are woven throughout testimony, inextricable from the allegations of rape witnesses have detailed. The trial is demystifying the religious organization, particularly its celebrity allure and hierarchy, in a way many observers have never seen before.
“This trial is one of the biggest moments in Scientology history,” Tony Ortega, a journalist who has followed Scientology since the 1990s and broke the Masterson story in 2016 for his outlet The Underground Bunker, told Insider.
Masterson and his legal team have denied the allegations, calling them “outrageous” and he has pleaded not guilty to the criminal charges. In a statement to Insider, a church spokesperson disputed the testimony made in court by the witnesses. She added that the church demands that its members “abide by all laws of the land” and that the church cooperates with law enforcement.
The first few days of witness testimony have already introduced a vast lexicon of specific church terms, offering jurors a window into the complicated language rampant within the ominous organization. Here’s what the trial has revealed about the Church of Scientology, per witness testimony and experts’ observation of the trial.
A fear of retaliation from former members
One of Masterson’s accusers, identified as Jane Doe 1, after emotionally recounting the multiple instances she alleged that Masterson raped her, acknowledged that some 20 years after the incidents she still felt Scientology’s invisible hand.
When asked if she still feared retaliation from Scientology for speaking with authorities, she dryly, without missing a beat, said, “half of this courtroom,” inferring that the organization packed the court.
And on Tuesday, another accuser, identified as Jane Doe 3, had a panic attack while talking about how church officials gaslit and punished her for attempting to internally report a rape. Jane Doe 3’s emotions were so visceral that Judge Charlaine Olmedo offered her a chance to step outside the courtroom to compose herself.
“I don’t want to go out there,” Jane Doe 3 said, later adding that she feared retaliation from the church at that very moment.
The celebrity factor still to come
Later in the case, prominent former Scientologist and American singer Lisa Marie Presley may testify, marking one of the first times she has publicly spoken about the Church since her 2012 exit.
The prosecution has planned to call her, as she and Jane Doe 1 knew each other, and she was one of the first people that Jane Doe 1 claimed she confided in about Masterson’s sexual assault.
But celebrities are a crucial component of Scientology’s operation, said Chris Shelton, a former Scientology member and anti-cult activist.
Shelton, who worked for Scientology in the 2000s and has since conducted academic research on the church, said the organization’s membership has been dwindling for years. The institution, however, does not publish transparent membership numbers.
Scientology’s penchant for famous people dates back to founder L. Ron Hubbard, himself, who long stressed the importance of influential members who could effectively evangelize.
In exchange for their clout, celebrities are catered to and pampered, according to Shelton: “They experience a different level of Scientology,” he said.
A church spokesperson said the claims that celebrities are given special treatment is false.
Privately, it’s possible that Masterson is in deep trouble with the church for exposing Scientology to such a spectacle, Shelton said. But publicly, the organization has painted Masterson’s accusers as vindictive liars and evidence of supposed persecution against the church.
“If you’re an earner and you’re loyal, they’ll do anything for you,” Shelton said.
The social hierarchy baked into Scientology
In testimony so far, accusers have claimed that through interactions with Church officials, they were discouraged from reporting their allegations against Masterson to authorities and that Masterson’s “good standing” in the Church led officials to protect him and lash out against them.
On Tuesday, Jane Doe 3 testified she was instructed by Church officials not to use the word “rape,” and was told that she “pulled it in,” meaning that she did something in this life or past life to deserve the alleged assault. Later, she testified that she was told that if she didn’t say no, she wouldn’t be raped, and that providing sex for Masterson was part of her “exchange” and “hat,” or job.
The two women testified that they eventually signed different legal agreements with Masterson – officiated by church officials and attorneys – after they had taken steps to report his misconduct.
Jane Doe 1 last week said that the Church gave an NDA and settlement agreement for her to sign in 2004 – the same year she reached out to the LAPD – which she testified that she signed, and received $400,000 for. This week, Jane Doe 3 claimed that she was threatened with ex-communication if she didn’t sign onto a 2002 agreement written by a Church chaplain, which included a clause for her not to sue Masterson.
Both women told the courtroom that they had trusted the Church’s justice system when they initially tried to take their claims through it.
These functions and rules make church officials “masters of coercive control,” Shelton said.
“I doubt the jury is even going to get an inkling of the levels of control it exerts over members through ethics,” he said.
The three accusers have a pending civil suit filed in 2019 which lists Scientology as a defendant, alleging that the Church has harassed and stalked them since Los Angeles Police started investigating Masterson in 2016. The accounts in the civil lawsuit led to three criminal charges of forcible rape filed by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office in 2020.
The Church has called the allegations in the civil suit “obvious, cynical, and self-serving fictions.”
Translating Scientology’s lexicon on the stand
Jane Doe 1 and Jane Doe 3 testified that Scientology chaplains and “ethics officers” turned against them for sharing information about Masterson and alleged that Masterson’s close associates wrote “knowledge reports” as kinds of witness statements denying the women’s accounts. The ultimate threat levied by the Church, the women said, was that they were told they would be declared a “suppressive person” for reporting the rapes to authorities.
The Church of Scientology said in response that this process is “extremely rare and results in expulsion from the Scientology religion.”
“This can be done through criminal acts already recognized by society as unlawful or through the commitment of acts deemed Suppressive Acts in the Scientology Justice Codes — which includes the Suppressive Act of publicly renouncing the faith,” a spokesperson told Insider. “When someone has been expelled from the religion, that person loses both his or her fellowship with the Church as well as with other Scientologists. The condition lasts until they have been restored to good standing.”
It’s what happened to Shelton in 2013 when he finally left the church after more than 30 years.
“When I first got out, I didn’t have a goal of speaking out or speaking up,” he told Insider. “But they took my whole life from me.”
Jane Doe 3 echoed Shelton’s experience in court on Tuesday, explaining why she held off on speaking to authorities for years: “I’m afraid I wouldn’t have survived it,” she said.