Two former members of the Church of Scientology claimed in a lawsuit filed on Wednesday that the church and its affiliates deceived members into donating millions of US dollars to misrepresented causes.
Luis and Maria Garcia of Irvine, California, filed the complaint in federal court in Tampa, Florida, near the church’s national headquarters in Clearwater.
The couple claims they were duped into giving more than US$420,000 for a building campaign, disaster relief efforts and other causes, only to find the bulk of the money went to inflate the church coffers and line the pockets of its leader, David Miscavige.
Scientology spokeswoman Pat Harney said the church had not yet been served with the lawsuit, but challenged any contention that money was misappropriated.
The Garcias were 28-year members of the church, rising to upper levels of Scientology. They left in November 2010 over their disenchantment with its direction under Miscavige, who has led the church since founder L. Ron Hubbard’s death in 1986.
The lawsuit names various trusts and nonprofits linked to Scientology as defendants and says they collectively engage in fraud.
Attorney Theodore Babbitt of West Palm Beach, Florida, who is among those handling the suit, said it would be followed by other similar claims from former Scientologists.
He said the Garcias still believe in the precepts of Scientology and that the litigation is not a commentary on whether it is a true religion, a question that has dogged it across the world since it was founded in the 1950s.
Among the accusations made in the lawsuit is that the Garcias and others were repeatedly approached with urgent requests for funding of Scientology charity work around the globe.
Babbitt said high-ranking former Scientologists would testify that the church knowingly rerouted such collections for other spending, including financing a “lavish lifestyle” for Miscavige, stifling inquiries into church activities and finances, and intimidating members and ex-members.
A common tactic, Babbitt said, when a disaster unfolded somewhere in the world, would be to send a small group of Scientologists with a camera crew that would pay locals in the affected area to appear on camera. A scene would essentially be staged in which people would be begging or appear to be starving, even if it were not the case, he said.
A cornerstone of church practice is personal counseling sessions, known as auditing, in which members disclose many facets of their personal lives.
Babbitt says members’ financial statuses would be known from those sessions and then be used in tandem with footage from disaster sites in desperate and urgent pleas for money.
“There’s an emergency, we need your money right now, we know that you have X dollars in the bank in Los Angeles,” Babbitt said.
Those contributions, the lawsuit says, were collected by a Scientology-linked group called IAS Administrations, which Babbitt says former church members will testify accumulated more than US$1 billion in contributions.