Paul Haggis can argue Church of Scientology behind rape allegation, judge rules

<span>Photograph: Ciro de Luca/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Ciro de Luca/Reuters

Oscar-winning director Paul Haggis will be allowed to argue that the Church of Scientology is behind a rape allegation against him, a judge in New York has ruled.

Haggis, who was separately accused over the summer of sexually assaulting a woman at an Italian film festival, will be permitted to argue that church members were involved in a previous rape allegation brought by film publicist Haleigh Breest dating back to 2013. That case, stemming from a civil lawsuit pursued by Breest, is set to go to trial next month.

Haggis has claimed that the encounter with Breest was consensual and that the allegation against him came in retaliation for his decision to leave Scientology and to become a vocal critic of it.

“Haggis is no ordinary defendant in a civil case,” his lawyers wrote in court filings seen by Variety. “He is the most public enemy of a notorious, nefarious, powerful and well-funded institution which is known to destroy its detractors.”

In court documents, Breest’s lawyers have sought to block that defense at trial, calling it a “speculative fantasy” and saying that neither Breest nor witnesses have any connection to the church. “Haggis has not produced one shred of evidence to support this bogus story,” they have said.

But on Friday, the judge presiding over the case, Sabrina Kraus, ruled Haggis would be permitted to raise the argument in New York state supreme court and referenced the director’s “stormy exit from The Church”.

“The jury is entitled to be informed of any possible motive [Breest] may have and about [Scientology leaders’] efforts to discredit Haggis,” Kraus wrote. “Haggis should have the opportunity to present evidence that will show that the church was, in fact, seeking to embroil Haggis in ruinous, false allegations regarding women prior to Breest’s allegations here.

“He was a member of the church for over 30 years. As a routine part of membership in the church, he had to report any ‘sexual transgressions’ outside his marriage to the church. He rose to a top position in the church. In an interview in 2011 with the New Yorker, Haggis predicted there would be an allegation made against him, that the church would be behind the allegation,” the ruling said.

Haggis, who in 2006 won an Oscar for writing and directing “Crash”, left the church in 2009 over its opposition to gay marriage. He later called the organization founded by science fiction author L Ron Hubbard a “cult”, and he cooperated with an article in the New Yorker titled “Going Clear” that was later adapted for a documentary critical of the church.

The film director’s lawyers have said there is evidence the church was trying to “find dirt” on him, including “ruinous, false allegations regarding women” before Breest’s rape allegation was made in 2017. They have also argued that the Scientology church has come to see Haggis the way Iran regards Salman Rushdie, who was the target of an assassination attempt in August.

Kraus’s ruling places Scientology at the center of two rape trials, one involving Haggis and another, in Los Angeles, centering on church member and actor Danny Masterson.

Masterson’s accusers in his case have filed a civil suit claiming the church harassed them after they reported him to law enforcement. The judge in the criminal case against Masterson has indicated she allowed some discussion of the church into evidence.

In legal preparations for the New York trial, Breest was denied permission to bring up the Italian allegations against Haggis. In that case, the director was held under house arrest for 16 days. An Italian judge later ruled that there was insufficient evidence to continue to detain him. There are conflicting reports as to the status of the investigation itself.

Breest’s attorneys were successful in barring Haggis from bring up his finances, however. He previously claimed that the plaintiff’s allegations had caused emotional distress because it was impossible for him to work. Breest will be permitted to call three other witnesses – each identified only as “Jane Doe” – who have also made sexual assault allegations against Haggis.

Breest never took her allegations against Haggis to law enforcement for a criminal investigation, saying she feared police wouldn’t believe her.

In a statement to Variety, the Church of Scientology said it “has nothing to do with the claims against Haggis nor does it have any relation to any relation to his accusers.

“The claim is absurd and patently false,” the church’s statement said.

The church has also claimed that Haggis is a “con man” who “conspired with anti-Scientologists to shame his own accusers by ‘accusing’ them of making their claims on behalf of the Church of Scientology”.