Ahead of the Me Too movement gaining traction in the fall of 2017, That ’70s Show star Danny Masterson faced numerous allegations of sexual misconduct. In March 2017, reports revealed that Los Angeles police were investigating three women’s claims Masterson had sexually assaulted them in the early 2000s. The actor, who is also a high-ranking member of Scientology — a church with dozens of Hollywood actor members — denied their allegations, effectively claiming that bitter ex-Scientologists had an ax to grind, pointing toward former Scientologist Leah Remini and her show Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath. The allegations intensified, as did the fallout. In November 2017, HuffPost reported the number of accusers had grown to four and that the alleged evidence was with Los Angeles prosecutors. Netflix announced in December 2017 that Masterson was being removed from his show The Ranch.
Several days after this announcement, Netflix’s then-director of children’s programming, Andy Yeatman, was fired after allegedly telling one of Masterson’s accusers the streaming giant didn’t believe the claims. Later that month, a fifth woman accused Masterson of sexual assault. More than three years after allegations surfaced, Los Angeles prosecutors announced on June 17, 2020, they were charging Masterson with forcibly raping three women in separate alleged encounters from 2001 to 2003. On October 11, Masterson will go on trial in Los Angeles, starting with jury selection. Masterson’s trial could also potentially reveal secretive details about Scientology’s inner workings, as his accusers have said they were deterred from coming forward over concerns that doing so would violate church doctrine. Several accusers, three of whom are women in the rape case, filed a civil suit against the church in August 2019, alleging they were harassed after coming forward. In regard to the allegations in this lawsuit, a spokesperson for the church shared a statement with Vulture stating they are “confident we will prevail in the civil matter, where we know the slanderous allegations about the Church are completely false.” Masterson’s lawyer did not respond to Vulture’s request for comment.
Ahead of the trial, Vulture spoke with Scientology expert Rick Ross, as well as two legal experts, about Masterson’s charges and their opinions on what they could ultimately mean for the church. “Scientology did not want this sexual abuse scandal to be made public. They did everything they could to avoid it,” Ross told Vulture. “There were women that had said that Danny Masterson hurt them. They have also said that Scientology made every effort to keep this thing quiet.”
What are the charges against Danny Masterson?
Masterson is charged with raping three women at his Hollywood home during separate incidents in the early 2000s. He is accused of raping a 23-year-old woman between January and December 2001. He is also accused of allegedly raping a 28-year-old woman in April 2003. At some point between October and April of 2003, prosecutors said, Masterson allegedly raped a 23-year-old woman. If Masterson is convicted, he faces a maximum prison sentence of 45 years to life. When prosecutors announced charges against Masterson, they also said that they declined to file charges relating to two other allegations. One of these was because of insufficient alleged evidence. The other was because of the statute of limitations, prosecutors said in a statement.
How does this relate to Scientology?
When the allegations against Masterson first came out, he denied them and framed the accusations as stemming from anti-Scientology sentiment.
“Based on reading the anti-Scientology blog that posted this story,” a 2017 statement from Masterson’s rep said, referring to Scientology investigator Tony Ortega’s Underground Bunker website, “these false allegations appear to be motivated to boost Leah Remini’s anti-Scientology television series since [alleged victims] only came forward after connecting with Leah Remini.” Masterson’s accusers in this case have reportedly said that they worried about suffering retribution if they said anything about the alleged rapes. These concerns are echoed in the civil complaint against the church.
Masterson’s attorneys continued to oppose Scientology coming up at trial, although it’s virtually impossible not to in some capacity. Most recently, on October 3, 2022, they even asked for proceedings to be postponed until after the L.A. mayoral election because of a campaign ad that criticizes the church. Meanwhile, Masterson’s accusers secured a legal victory on October 3 in their civil suit against him. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Scientology’s arguments that the women’s claims had to be arbitrated within the church. This means they can pursue their civil claims in court, Deadline reported.
How prominent is Masterson in the church, exactly?
Ross, a professional cult deprogrammer and Scientology expert, said that Masterson has a high status in the church — which could help explain why it took so long for allegations to come out. “Danny Masterson comes from a family of Scientologists and he was raised in Scientology and he, like other celebrities that are in Scientology, is at the highest level of their subculture,” Ross said. “He is someone who receives very preferential and special treatment, or he has historically, and Scientology has made every effort to help him and protect him, and they see him as a very valued member — someone that potentially could recruit others.”
“In Scientology, you go through courses and you reach what they call ‘clear,’ and that can take quite a while. A lot of people that you may meet in Scientology might not ever reach ‘clear’ because it’s expensive. You then reach clear and then there are [eight Operating Thetan (OT) ] levels [above clear]. Danny Masterson is an OT-7 … the second-highest level, and you have to understand: Someone who has reached OT-7 is supposed to be a more advanced human being.” Ross continued: “It doesn’t look good for Scientology when someone who’s an OT-7 is being accused of rape. Is that evidence of the success of Scientology training?”
What role does his influence within the church play?
Winter Wheeler, an arbitrator and mediator who previously worked as a litigator, said that the power dynamic appeared prominent in this case. “He’s got young women, and he’s got fame, and he’s got money, and he’s got the religion behind him,” Wheeler said. “It makes a lot of sense that women would never question anything that he did.” If accusers believe an abuser has the backing of a major religion, the stakes are even higher.
“We’re talking about Scientology. It’s so big, it takes a hold of its members of its believers and does not let go. If we believe the things that we hear from former members, they are essentially stalked, they are harmed, they are excommunicated, and the fear of what that can look like when someone is no longer a member is enough to keep someone in,” Wheeler said. “If you’re dealing with someone who is your superior in the group, perhaps has more power than you in general, not only in the group but in life, I think that it makes it doubly hard for you to get away, for you to say no.”
Will Masterson’s trial affect Scientology’s standing in Hollywood?
For years, Scientology counted dozens of Hollywood elite among its ranks. While being a Scientologist might not be as much of a thing for celebrities as it once was in, say, the 1980s, the proceedings could mark an even greater shift in public perception. “Legal and public relations winds can change dramatically. When it comes to Me Too and Time’s Up in Hollywood, people can get canceled pretty quickly — even someone like Tom Cruise,” Neama Rahmani, president of the Los Angeles West Coast Trial Lawyers, told Vulture. “If the Church of Scientology becomes toxic, if there is a belief among the public — and even among lawmakers — that the Church of Scientology is trying to keep victims quiet, I think you’re going to see a lot of people distancing themselves from the church.” Rahmani added: “Maybe years ago, whether it was John Travolta or Tom Cruise, people thought the Church of Scientology was a person’s in into Hollywood, your career was going to move forward faster if you were affiliated with the church. If the church winds up being toxic, then the same folks that really care about their careers, I think they’re going to want to have nothing to do with Scientology.”
What does Scientology have to say about the allegations?
Scientology provided Vulture with a comment in response to inquiries about Masterson. They denied the church discouraged reporting crimes to outside law enforcement. Here’s their statement regarding the allegations against their church member and claims the church discouraged accusers from coming forward:
The Church believes it is inappropriate to comment on a pending criminal matter. As you know, the Church is not a party to the matter in question. With respect to your inquiry regarding Church doctrine, the Church has no policy prohibiting or discouraging members from reporting criminal conduct of Scientologists—or of anyone—to law enforcement, quite the opposite. The Court’s earlier ruling on Church policy is flat-out wrong. Indeed, Church policy explicitly demands Scientologists abide by all laws of the land, including the reporting of crimes. Moreover, interpretation of Church doctrine by the courts is prohibited under the First Amendment. With respect to the denial of cert, we are, of course, disappointed that the petition was not granted. The Church, however, is confident we will prevail in the civil matter, where we know the slanderous allegations about the Church are completely false.
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