Scientology and Forced Abortion: Laura DeCrescenzo's Three-Year Legal Odyssey
Laura DeCrescenzo had just got out of a two and a half hour deposition with attorneys for the Church of Scientology when I talked to her on the telephone yesterday at her home in Albuquerque.
All told, over the three years she's been suing Scientology for the way she was treated as a young Sea Org employee -- including, she alleges, being forced to have an abortion at 17 so she could keep working extreme hours without interruption -- she's been deposed a total of four and a half days.
"The depositions are awful," she says. "It sets me on fire so I want to keep fighting, but it's also so exhausting."
Just keeping up with what's happened to her lawsuit since she first filed it in 2009 has also been exhausting -- the case has been to state and federal courts, to a state appeals court, and now back to a state trial judge, and it's still a year from an actual trial date. And, as our legal expert Scott Pilutik tells us, DeCrescenzo still has serious hurdles to overcome to even reach that jury trial. But a year ago, Pilutik explained to us that the consequences of this single case are enormous for Scientology, which helps explain why the church is fighting it so hard.
If Laura DeCrescenzo can get her story heard in court, the result could be devastating.
Those of us who have been watching the progress of her case were somewhat caught off guard, however, when a couple of tabloid websites yesterday proclaimed that DeCrescenzo's lawsuit was somehow new and also "exclusive" breaking news, neither of which are true.
"Yeah, that was really strange," Laura says. But even if her case isn't new, it's still a remarkable one that's worth wider coverage.
But here's the thing about that coverage: it really should explain that DeCrescenzo's experience has been as much about the way Scientology litigates a case as the horrors her lawsuit is alleging.
It's stomach-turning to hear about DeCrescenzo's life as a young Sea Org member, working under extreme conditions, and then forced to terminate a pregnancy or risk losing her job, her husband, her family.
But it's just as frustrating to learn that the reason she's had such trouble in court is that she says Scientology spent years intimidating her with even more threats to her well-being should she dare go against the church, and then had the audacity to argue in court that it was DeCrescenzo's fault that she didn't file her lawsuit sooner.
That's what is really at the center of the DeCrescenzo legal odyssey, and why she was being interrogated by five representatives from the church yesterday.
"They're still focusing on the statute of limitations," she says. "They're trying to discredit me."
Poring over thousands of documents from her time as a church employee, the attorneys were trying to build a case, DeCrescenzo says, that the documents showed that she had actual "successes" as a Scientologist, and had not expressed the kind of emotional distress that she's alleging in the lawsuit.
"Honestly, I was totally brainwashed and thought I was bettering myself," she says. And if she didn't show much emotion then, it was because a key part of Scientology is training members to banish it from their lives.
But now she knows better.
Also, she says, she constantly has to battle the church attorneys during the depositions over terminology. "They're always trying to put words in my mouth."
When she gave an answer about having a forced abortion, for example, she says one of the church attorneys began his next question by saying, "So, when you made the decision to have an abortion rather than leave..."
"I had to stop him. 'No, I was forced to have an abortion.' So we ended up going back and forth arguing about that," she says.
"I think my case is too unbelievable for most people to grasp," she adds. "It's almost too unbelievable for me. The fact that I started in the Sea Org at 12 and all that happened, it's just incredible."
Child Labor Pains
"I went on staff at 9," Laura says, and you have to make sure you heard that right. DeCrescenzo started working as an employee of the church when most kids are in third or fourth grade?
"And I joined the Sea Org at 12," she says. Children of Scientologists find themselves recruited for the Sea Organization -- the church's hardcore elite corps of workers -- at a very young age, and we've written many stories about children who signed billion-year contracts and went to work for pennies an hour at 12 to 15 years old. (In the media firestorm of the Tom Cruise/Katie Holmes divorce, the church made a public statement that today, the Sea Org takes no one under 16. We begged to differ.)
Laura left Albuquerque and her family to go work for the Sea Org in Los Angeles, one of Scientology's headquarters. For the next thirteen years, from 1991 to 2004, she dedicated herself utterly to the church. Like other Sea Org members, her formal schooling stopped. She had only completed the seventh grade. There just wasn't time for studies.
"When my grandpa died in 2001. Literally three hours after he died I had to get on a plane and come back or I would have been in deep shit," she says, trying to convey how little time there was for family, or schooling, or any other normal thing for a young person in the Sea Org.
"She could not visit her parents without special permission and being 'sec checked.' She would be 'sec checked' again upon her return," her original complaint reads. As we explained earlier, "security checking" is an interrogation technique using Scientology's e-meter. Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard designed a "sec check" for children as young as 6 years old. But for Sea Org teenagers, the list of questions would have been far harsher: sec checks are meant to intimidate Scientologists into giving up any secrets they might be harboring about the organization or about their sex lives.
Besides the interrogations and the incredible, 100-hour weeks of work for only about $30 to $50 in pay, Sea Org members usually have no privacy at all, bunking with many members of the same sex. It's very common for Sea Org members to marry very young -- only married couples get a room to their own. DeCrescenzo married at 16, and got pregnant at 17, in 1996.
And in the Sea Org, that was against the rules.
As the Tampa Bay Times revealed in its landmark 2009 investigation, "The Truth Rundown," it was in 1996 that Scientology began forbidding Sea Org members to have kids -- something the newspaper got the church's then spokesman, Tommy Davis, to admit.
DeCrescenzo isn't the only woman who has left the Sea Org and alleged that she was forced to have an abortion or threatened that she'd be kicked out of the organization, lose her husband, and even get disconnected from her family. Claire Headley filed a similar suit around the same time as DeCrescenzo, alleging that she had twice been forced to have abortions (her lawsuit was dismissed and is on appeal). In 2009, the Tampa Bay Times put together powerful testimony from Laura (here with her maiden name, Dieckman), Headley, and another former Sea Org member, Sunny Pereira...
Now that you've seen that, imagine Laura DeCrescenzo telling her story to a jury.
You begin to see why Scientology is fighting tooth and nail to prevent that from happening.
And it's not just these women who say they were intimidated into having abortions. You can see for yourself a man named Gary Morehead explain that as a Sea Org security officer, it was his task to do the intimidating and convince these young women that they had to terminate their pregnancies for the good of the organization. Last year, filmmaker Mark Bunker released this short excerpt of his upcoming documentary, Knowledge Report, with Morehead talking about how he did his job.
As DeCrescenzo explained in her lawsuit, when the pressure was applied to her, she simply felt she had no other option.
"Plaintiff had been working for far less than minimum wage, had no money, no car, no place to call her own, and no medical insurance or coverage. Plaintiff felt trapped and without viable options."
Five years after the abortion, DeCrescenzo moved on to another fresh hell: the RPF. The church continues to put out the story that the Rehabilitation Project Force is some kind of religious retreat, a voluntary assignment that helps a Sea Org member who has lost his or her focus get it back by spending some time in self-reflection.
No ex-Scientologist has ever described the RPF to me like that. Far from voluntary, Sea Org members who are found wanting in some way get assigned to the prison detail and are issued a black boiler suit, get assigned to the most primitive living space (in this case at the "Big Blue" headquarters building in L.A.), cannot speak to anyone outside the RPF, run from place to place, and eat food even worse than that given to regular Sea Org members. RPF members, meanwhile, do the most menial, degrading work -- and in her lawsuit, Laura alleges that at one point, she was assigned to clean out a dumpster with a toothbrush.
Paired up with another RPF inmate, DeCrescenzo and her "twin" then began the long, slow process to get themselves out of the RPF. Three years later, she was still stuck in it.
"By 2004 I had actually completed everything on the RPF program. My graduation had gone up for approval," DeCrescenzo tells me. "But it ended up being dragged out. For a month we had no idea what else we could do to graduate."
In a Catch-22 very typical of Scientology, she then was informed that she was losing the meager position she had attained because she wasn't advancing any longer in her program. "I didn't know what else I could do," she says.
From years of experience, she knew that if she objected and insisted that she had to be allowed to leave, she would be put in a "routing out" procedure that was actually designed to route her back in.
Desperate, she knew there was one sure way to get herself kicked out of the RPF and the Sea Org itself.
"I went to the cleaning closet, and grabbed a styrofoam cup. I took a gulp of bleach. Some of it I swallowed," she says.
"I went down the hall. I was sitting on the floor, trying to throw up. I told someone what I had done. They went for the RPF I/C [officer "in charge"], and he and a security guard came up.
"They told me to go lay down. But I ended up taking a walk and made them follow me. I walked through Griffith Park. That night I was given my fitness board interview, and the next morning I was gotten to sign a paper on video. They gave me 500 bucks and sent me over to the Travelodge until my dad came to pick me up.
"I was gone from the Sea Org the next day," she says.
The Clock Starts
Although she had been kicked out of the Sea Org as a suicide risk (which was her plan), DeCrescenzo remained a loyal member of the Church of Scientology for four more years. And during that time, she was still very much under a byzantine network of control.
She was hit with a "freeloader debt" of about $120,000, for example.
Scientology courses and auditing are extremely expensive. Sea Org members can't pay those prices while they're getting paid pennies an hour. So with what little time they have to work on their "cases," they're given discounted rates for auditing and training. But one way members are intimidated into staying in the Sea Org is the fear that once they leave, they will be hit with a debt, calculated for the full price of the discounted services they had received.
Feeling obliged to pay it, Laura began chipping away at her freeloader debt. She estimates that she paid up to about $10,000 toward it over the next four years.
Scientologists are also intimidated out of complaining about the church through the threat of disconnection, which we have heavily documented here at the Voice. If a member dares to criticize the church, he or she can be excommunicated -- "declared a suppressive person" or "SP" in church jargon. All other members have to completely cut that SP out of their lives, even if it means ripping apart a family. And at that time, Laura's other family members were Scientologists.
Then, in July 2008, she was shocked when she found that when she looked at her mother's computer one day, she found that her mom had been looking at a website where ex-Scientologists trade stories about the church's abuses. "What's this? I asked. What are you doing? She lied to me about it. Then, a couple of days later, she called me and asked me to come over," Laura says.
Her mother asked her to look at the website, and Laura also looked at a site written by ex-Scientologists who had grown up in the church. One of the founders of that site, Jenna Miscavige Hill, was the niece of church leader David Miscavige.
And Jenna had also been on Laura's "committee of evidence" that had assigned her to the RPF in 2001.
"It was like a light bulb went off," Laura says.
DeCrescenzo left Scientology, and then, only a year later, filed her lawsuit in 2009.
But by then, the church argued in court, she was too late. Scientology argued that if she was suing over how she'd been treated in the Sea Org, she should have filed her lawsuit within four years of her leaving it, which would have been in 2008.
A federal and then a lower state court agreed with Scientology's argument. But then, last June, California's state appeals court disagreed.
It simply wasn't fair, the appeals court pointed out, for Scientology to do what it could to intimidate DeCrescenzo for several years, preventing her from filing a lawsuit, and then turn around and say she didn't file her lawsuit in time. The appeals court returned the lawsuit to a state lower court for reconsideration. (See our legal expert Scott Pilutik's blog post from last year for a more detailed legal explanation of these decisions.)
DeCrescenzo and Pilutik both explained to me that even though Califorinia's appeals court breathed new life into the suit, it has gone right back to the same state lower court judge who had previously agreed with Scientology's statute of limitations argument. It will have to get past his objections again to reach a trial.
I asked Pilutik to assess Laura's chances.
As a general rule of thumb, trial court judges resent being overruled by appeals courts judges, and the big issue on remand will find the trial court attempting to decide the same issue it already decided in Scientology's favor. In Laura's favor, though, the appeals court directed the trial court to consider the reasonability of Laura's decision to not come forward within the prescribed statute of limitations period in light of alleged threats and intimidation by Scientology, both at the time she left Scientology and in the interim statute of limitations period.
So the ongoing discovery that's being conducted right now relates both to Laura's underlying claims (e.g., forced abortion, false imprisonment, labor violations, etc.), and the facts relevant to the reasonability for her delay in filing -- that is, Scientology's threats and intimidation. In other words, evidence regarding disconnection from her family, being told she owed $120,000 for her job training, and Scientology's knowledge of the validity and enforceability of releases and waivers signed by Laura. Pretty juicy stuff, which Scientology definitely doesn't want to hear discussed in court.
My understanding is that there will first be a bench (non-jury) hearing on the statute of limitations issue immediately prior to the jury trial, to determine, basically, whether there will even be one. And because this won't happen for a year, we'll all have to sit tight a bit longer.
In the meantime, now that Laura's depositions are finally over, she says Scientology's attorneys are now turning their attention to her family members, who will be deposed over the next few days. The current media firestorm, meanwhile, hasn't escaped her attention.
"I think Katie Holmes is awesome for doing things the way she did, that's for sure," she says. "And the Alexander Jentzsch news just breaks my heart."
I asked Laura what has been the hardest thing about her years-long ordeal. She answered that it can be very difficult to make outsiders (and judges) understand why she acted the way she did.
"The court doesn't seem to get that I was still completely a Scientologist," she says, which explains why it took her five years to file a lawsuit after getting kicked out of the Sea Org.
Getting people to understand the levels of control in the church, the culture of interrogation, the blotting out of emotion, the self-induced isolation: It is very difficult to get other people who didn't experience it to grasp it.
But I told her, after what's happened in the last few weeks, I think that may become an easier task.
I know that I'd like to see her on a witness stand. And it will be very interesting to see if she gets that chance.
What Katie is saving Suri from: Scientology interrogation of kids
Scientology's new defections: Hubbard's granddaughter and Miscavige's dad
Scientology's disgrace: our open letter to Tom Cruise
Scientology crumbling: An entire mission defects as a group
Scientology leader David Miscavige's vanished wife: Where's Shelly?
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Tony Ortega has been the editor in chief of the Village Voice since March, 2007. He started writing about Scientology in 1995. You can reach him by e-mail at email@example.com, and if you ask nicely he'll put you on his mailing list for notifications of new stories. You can also catch his alerts at Twitter (@VoiceTonyO), at his Facebook author page, on Pinterest, a Tumblr, and even this new Google Plus doohickey.
New readers might want to check out our primer, "What is Scientology?" Another good overview is our series from last summer, "Top 25 People Crippling Scientology." At the top of every story, you'll see the "Scientology" category which, if you click on it, will bring up all of our most recent stories.
As for hot subjects we've covered here, you may have heard about Debbie Cook, the former church official who rebelled and was sued by Scientology. You might have also heard about the Super Power Building, Scientology's "Mecca," whose secrets were revealed here. We also reported how Scientology spied on its own most precious object, Tom Cruise. (We wrote Tom an open letter that he has yet to respond to.) Have you seen a Scientology ad on TV lately? We debunked some of the claims in that 2-minute commercial you might have seen while watching Glee or American Idol.
Other stories have looked at Scientology's policy of "disconnection" that is tearing families apart. You may also have heard something about the Sea Org experiences of the Paris sisters, Valeska and Melissa, and their friend Ramana Dienes-Browning. We've also featured Paulette Cooper, who wrote about Scientology back in the day, and Janet Reitman, Hugh Urban, and the team at the Tampa Bay Times, who write about it today. And there's plenty more coming.