There is an interesting case brewing between Scientology and one of the many former members alleging abuse by the church. While not attracting much attention in the main stream press, Anti-scientology sites have been following an important case out of California where an appellate court has turned down a claim of the church that it can refuse discovery under clergy-penitent privilege. The church is using the privilege to deny a demand for a “pc folder” containing notes from interrogations of Laura DeCrescenzo by church officials. The case is important not only in the understanding of the privilege but a potential breakthrough for alleged victims of the church who accuse Scientology of being a cult or criminal organization.
The case involves an alleged forced abortion of Laura DeCrescenzo. She filed a complaint against Scientology in April 2009 alleging that she began working for Scientology at the age of nine. By ten, she said that she was working full time and then left her family to move to another state to work for the Church for less than minimum wage (a common complaint in lawsuits against the Church). She alleged that she married a co-worker at the age of sixteen and became pregnant. She says that church officials forced her to have an abortion at the age of seventeen. She says that she was made a member of the Sea Org which is often accused of abuses of members who must sign a contract for “the next billion years.”
The claim of Scientology is interesting because the subject of the sessions is the one seeking the folder. These folders are key pieces of evidence in church litigation but Scientology insists that they are like confessions or other religious rites. Yet, it is the Church that is being accused of the abuse. Scientology has until May 6th to turn over the documents and has decided to appeal. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ronald M. Sohigian has agreed to create a new production date in light of the appeal.
In its opposition, Scientology insists that confidentiality is key to its religion. The record in the case, and the second motion to compel, is an insight into the Scientology’s reputation for scorched earth litigation.
California codified the privilege in
Section 1032 defines “penitential communication” as “a communication made in confidence, in the presence of no third person so far as the penitent is aware, to a member of the clergy who, in the course of the discipline or practice of the clergy member’s church, denomination, or organization, is authorized or accustomed to hear those communications and, under the discipline or tenets of his or her church, denomination, or organization, has a duty to keep those communications secret.” To invoke this privilege, the Church must show the penitential communication (1) was intended to be in confidence; (2) was made to a member of the clergy who in the course of his or her religious discipline or practice is authorized or accustomed to hear such communications; and (3) the member of the clergy “has a duty under the discipline or tenets of the church, religious denomination or organization to keep such communications secret.” People v. Edwards 203 Cal. App. 3d 1358, 1362–1363 (1988).
In Trammel v. United States, 445 U.S. 40 (1980), the Supreme Court held that “The priest-penitent privilege recognizes the human need to disclose to a spiritual counselor, in total and absolute confidence, what are believed to be flawed acts or thoughts and to receive priestly consolation and guidance in return.”
That would seem to describe this type of session, though this is being sought by one of the two people in the “penitential communication” who is accusing the other party and the Church of abuse. The Church has previously sought to deny discovery on the basis of the privilege. It was unsuccessful in People v. Thompson, 133 Cal. App. 3d 419 (1982), the California Court of Appeal upheld the admission of internal communications on the basis that it found that the Church member was not ordained as an “auditor” or minister of the Church of Scientology and there was no expectation of confidentiality.
These cases present difficult challenges when the session itself is part of the allegation of abusive and coercive acts in the lawsuit.
What do you think?
Kudos: Michael Barger