Courts Wrestle With Claims Of Church Fraud

Source: New York Times
Date: April 7, 1986

by Marcia Chambers

For the past five weeks a jury here has listened to accusations that the Church of Scientology defrauded a man when it promised him emotional and financial security and higher intelligence through Scientology.

The man, Larry Wollersheim, who was a member of the church for 11 years, is seeking $25 million. Mr. Wollersheim said he spent more than $100,000 on church programs, including personal counseling, in the belief that they would make him more healthy, stable, confident and productive.

Mr. Wollersheim is one of scores of people around the country who have filed lawsuits in recent years against a variety of churches that the plaintiffs had joined. All the lawsuits have sought substantial damages for pain and suffering, fraud or negligence because of church activities.

The churches have fought these suits vigorously, with most arguing that juries are constitutionally prohibited from inquiring into and ruling upon religious beliefs.

The results have been mixed. While juries have often awarded former church members monetary damages, the awards have often been reversed. In Oregon a former Scientologist has twice had favorable jury verdicts reversed, once by an appeals court and once by the trial judge.

Juries and Tenets

In both instances, the main conflict centered on how the jury weighed the role of the church and its religious tenets in relation to the claim that had been brought by the former church member. In California, at least, the courts have agreed to hear claims of fraud against churches, but they have limited jury inquiries into the validity of religious beliefs.

The latest such ruling was made Monday by a unanimous California Court of Appeal in San Francisco. In a fraud case brought by two former members of the Unification Church of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the court ruled in favor of the church.

The appellate court observed that the disaffected members had joined the church voluntarily and said that while their claims might have merit, they could not be resolved in a court that may not evaluate the "authenticity and force" of religious teachings.

The decision, while not binding outside the northern California district covered by the Court of Appeal, has already had a ripple effect nonetheless. The ruling became known here Wednesday, and the next day in Mr. Wollersheim's case, the presiding judge, Ron Swearinger of Superior Court, ordered the two sides to meet to try to reach a settlement.

Plaintiff's Arguments

The judge's order came as Mr. Wollersheim's case was still being presented. Mr. Wollersheim, 36 years old, said in court papers that the benefits promised by the Scientology programs did not materialize. He also contended that he had been ruined mentally and financially when the church forced him to separate from his parents and his wife and directed Scientologists, the main customers of his novelty store, to stop "paying their bills and buying his products." Mr. Wollersheim lost his store in 1980.

In its cross-examination of the plaintiff's witnesses, the church has tried to show that before Mr. Wollersheim joined the church he had what the church called "psychiatric disorders" that led to his problems. The church has also argued that, in any event, he was an adult and "assumed the risk, if any," associated with Scientology's personal counseling, in which the client confronts unpleasant influences of his past while being monitored by an electrical device.

Judge Swearinger has permitted no inquiry into the validity of the beliefs and practices of the Church of Scientology, which was founded in 1954 by the writer L. Ron Hubbard. When Mr. Hubbard died in January at the age of 74, his financial dealings were was under investigation by the Internal Revenue Service. In recent years the church has filed scores of lawsuits against governmental agencies, asserting that it is a victim of religious persecution.

Church's Inner Workings

Many of the church's inner workings have been disclosed as Mr. Wollersheim's case has moved through pretrial motions in the last several years. In November, for instance, more than 1,500 Scientology members blocked the Superior Court clerk's office in an effort to prevent the public from obtaining court documents that were filed in the case.

The documents, which the church deems sacred, deal with the so-called "upper levels" of Scientology, about which members do not immediately learn. The documents became public for a brief time because Scientology lawyers did not ask a judge to seal them.

At this trial, Judge Swearinger has kept the material under seal in part because in another case, this one in Federal Court, the documents were deemed to be trade secrets.