The young man whose lawsuit has pushed the Cult Awareness Network into bankruptcy has done an about-face and is no longer moving toward putting the group out of business.
He has abruptly dismissed his lawyer, a prominent member of the Church of Scientology, the anti-cult group's nemesis, and hired an attorney who has battled the church in the past.
The sudden shift by Jason Scott, 24, has raised the possibility that the Cult Awareness Network (CAN) will be able to emerge from bankruptcy and resume its work. The group is a once-influential clearinghouse that for two decades counseled families and others to beware of new and unconventional religions.
The gradual dismemberment of CAN in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, reported earlier this month by The Washington Post, has shaken some nonprofit organizations whose work involves taking controversial stands against powerful interests that they fear can afford to sue them into silence.
CAN declared bankruptcy after Scott won a $1.8 million lawsuit against the group. His previous attorney, Kendrick Moxon, often represents the Church of Scientology. By contrast, Scott's new lawyer, Graham Berry, has assisted CAN members in the past. Berry says he will seek a cash settlement that would allow CAN to keep its files and return to its original mission.
The CAN name, logo and telephone number were sold in Bankruptcy Court last month to a member of the Church of Scientology, whose members are also trying to buy the extensive files that CAN kept on Scientology and other groups.
CAN's telephone hot line in Chicago, dormant for six months, is operating again. The people answering have been instructed to tell callers that CAN has been "taken over" by "a new corporation," but "we would be happy to help you with information about religious groups you have an interest in," said Steven L. Hayes, the Los Angeles attorney and Scientologist who bought the rights to use CAN's phone number. CAN has filed an appeal objecting to the sale of its name and phone.
The key, if unwitting, figure in this saga is Scott, of Bellevue, Wash. In 1991, at the age of 18, Scott was kidnapped and held in an isolated beach house for five days by a "deprogrammer" and two assistants in an attempt to persuade him to renounce his loyalty to the United Pentecostal Church International.
"Jason Scott has no interest in being part of Scientology's campaign against the Cult Awareness Network," said Berry, Scott's new attorney. "His only concern is to be compensated for what happened to him."
Scott's former attorney, Moxon, has filed emergency motions in two states alleging that Scott has been coerced by CAN supporters to switch attorneys and settle for far less money than he won in court. "He's really been abused by CAN and disgustingly abused by this guy Berry," Moxon said.
The legal battle began when Scott successfully sued the deprogrammers and CAN in Seattle. CAN was sued because Scott's mother had hired the deprogrammer, Rick Ross, after a referral by a CAN volunteer.
A jury awarded Scott more than $5 million in October 1995; CAN owed Scott as much as $1.8 million, while Ross owed as much as $3.4 million. The attorney who represented Scott in the lawsuit was Moxon, a longtime Scientologist prominent in the church. For many years the Church of Scientology has denounced CAN and the activities of deprogrammers.
Scott later left the Pentecostal church of his own accord, though his wife and two daughters are still members, according to several acquaintances. For some time Scott worked cleaning houses and carpets while waiting to collect his judgment, but lately has been unemployed.
But Moxon says that Scott "hasn't collected anything" because both CAN and Ross declared bankruptcy. Before declaring Chapter 7 bankruptcy, CAN had offered to pay Scott $19,000, but Moxon said in an interview that he and other creditors rejected the sum because it was "a complete rip-off of Jason." When CAN went bankrupt it was taken over by a trustee, who is selling the group's assets piece by piece.
As a nonprofit organization, CAN had few assets besides its files, its name and logo, as well as a few lawsuits it hopes to win, including one in Illinois state supreme court filed against the Church of Scientolgy and Moxon's law firm accusing them of malicious harassment. According to CAN's bankruptcy trustee, Phillip Martino, Moxon has said he represents people who want to buy not only CAN's files, but also its pending lawsuits.
Moxon has spoken with leaders of several other new religious movements -- the kinds of groups that CAN considered cults -- asking for pledges of money to help purchase CAN's files, according to a knowledgeable source who asked not to be identified. "What they were really interested in was the files," this person said.
Moxon confirmed that he had done so because he suspects that "there's smoking guns in the files" about improper conduct by deprogrammers and by CAN. But the Church of Scientology had no particular interest in obtaining the files, Moxon said, because he has seen them "and maybe 5 percent of them concern Scientology."
CAN's files -- which fill 270 boxes -- range from newspaper clippings to confidential notes about families who sought CAN's help to find children who had joined cults, said Cynthia Kisser, CAN's former executive director. The Church of Scientology accuses CAN of being heavily involved in forcible deprogramming, but Kisser said that CAN had a policy against "involuntary deprogrammings" such as Scott's.
In his extraordinary turnaround this month, Scott decided to reconcile with his mother and with the deprogrammer who kidnapped him. Scott and Rick Ross signed a settlement agreement on Dec. 2, entitling Scott to $5,000 and 200 hours of Ross's time "as an expert consultant and intervention specialist," according to the confidential settlement agreement.
Ross said that "Jason felt he was being used, that this whole battle with CAN was not his battle . . . and he wanted to collect a settlement and get on with his life." Ross said he paid Scott the $5,000 that day.
The next day, Scott fired his attorney, Moxon, according to court documents filed in the case. In Moxon's place, he retained on a pro bono basis Berry, a Los Angeles attorney well known for litigating against the Church of Scientology. Berry said he wants to negotiate a settlement in which CAN would provide Scott with "some immediate money and further installments over a period of time" and allow CAN to continue operating in order to "generate" funds to pay Scott. Berry says this is preferable to having CAN in bankruptcy.
But Moxon disputes the notion that Berry can help save CAN from bankruptcy. "They're gone," he said. "CAN's over. They declared bankruptcy. They said `liquidate us.' "
Scott made his dramatic turnaround because in recent months he had become disenchanted with his former lawyer, Berry said, and felt that Moxon wasn't communicating adequately with him, allegations that Moxon denies.
Scott was not aware of the Scientologists' interest in buying CAN's name and files until he read a Dec. 1 story in The Washington Post, Berry said. Scott, he said, was also frustrated because he had not yet seen any of his settlement money.
But Moxon, in court papers, asserts that Scott is a victim of "foul play." It appears that Scott is "again the victim of a deprogramming," Moxon said in the court papers filed in Arizona, home to both Ross and Scott's mother. Moxon is asking the court to rescind the $5,000 settlement between Ross and Scott. Meanwhile, Moxon is asking a court in Seattle to appoint a "guardian" for Scott, whom Moxon asserts is incapacitated.
For his part, Scott said in a brief telephone interview, "I want to let everyone know I'm fine, safe, very happy and making my own decisions now." His attorney advised him not to answer further questions.
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company