Behind Bijou Phillips’ surprise divorce from Danny Masterson

Reports say Phillips may have needed Scientology’s permission to file for divorce, while the couple could also be worried about protecting their assets as Masterson faces civil liability

San Jose Mercury News/September 20, 2023

By Martha Ross

Tuesday’s news that Bijou Phillips filed for divorce from Danny Masterson came as a shock to many, even though his prison sentence — 30 years to life — means that he’s been geographically removed from the day-to-day life of the former actor and their 9-year-old daughter.

Still, Phillips publicly stood by her husband through his arrest on multiple rape charges. She also attended every day of his two trials and reportedly let out an anguished sob when a jury in the second trial found him guilty on two of three counts of rape. But one report says that the divorce filing may be less a statement about Phillips’ feelings about her husband and more about the couple’s need to protect their assets. Another report said that the Church of Scientology could have played a role in her decision.

Phillips and Masterson are prominent, longtime members of the organization, whose controversial practices became an issue in both both trials in Los Angeles. The three women who accused Masterson of drugging and raping them in the early 2000s were Scientologists, and prosecutors alleged that the actor used his prominence in Scientology to receive the church’s help in keeping these women from reporting his crimes to police for years, the Associated Press said.

“The church taught his victims, ‘Rape isn’t rape, you caused this, and above all, you are never allowed to go to law enforcement,'” Deputy District Attorney Ariel Anson said during closing arguments. “In Scientology, the defendant is a celebrity and he is untouchable.”

Masterson maintained his innocence in both trials and said his encounters with the women were consensual. Scientology also complained about the inclusion of its policies in the trials and issued a statement denying that it had a policy discouraging members from going to law enforcement, the Associated Press said.

Now, it’s possible that the church had power over Phillips’ move to divorce Masterson, according to journalist Yashar Ali in his email newsletter Tuesday.

“It remains to be seen what this move means for Phillips’ and Masterson’s relationship to the organization,” Ali said. But, if Phillips intends to remain a Scientologist in good standing, “she would have needed to receive permission from a Scientology ethics officer to file for divorce,” Ali also said. This officer, in turn, would have been guided directly by Scientology’s leader David Miscavige on how to handle the matter, Ali added.

Meanwhile, journalist Tony Ortega spoke to New York attorney Scott Pilutik, who agreed with many people’s assumptions that Phillips could be divorcing Masterson to protect the couple’s assets, including their Santa Barbara County farm, as Masterson’s legal troubles shift to civil courts.

In 2019, before Masterson was criminally charged, three women filed a lawsuit against the “That 70s Show” star, as well as against Miscavige and the Church of Scientology. This lawsuit didn’t allege sexual assault, but said the women faced “a barrage of harassment and abuse” after they filed sexual assault reports with the Los Angeles Police Department, The New Republic and Los Angeles Times reported. The harassment included surveillance, wiretaps, property damage, threatening phone calls and poisoning their pets.

This lawsuit was put on hold during both criminal trials. The first trial ended without a verdict when the jury deadlocked. The lawsuit should resume now that the second trial has ended with a conviction, and Masterson has been sentenced, Ortega said. Masterson also could face additional lawsuits that allege rape.

Pilutik said that Masterson and Phillips have reason to file for divorce before those civil lawsuits proceed, according to Ortega’s newsletter.

“Masterson is facing down civil litigation from some of the same women who served as witnesses in his criminal trial, and given that the burden of proof is lower in civil court, Masterson could easily be subject to sizeable judgments,” Pilutik said.

“In any event, it’s in Phillips’ obvious interest, and possibly even Masterson’s interest, to get large assets (such as, say, a farm) into Phillips’ name, and soon, and a divorce will accomplish that by way of a partition or settlement agreement,” Pilutik told Ortega. “If Masterson and Phillips are on the same page, the more assets are divided in a way that favors Phillips, the less will be available for plaintiffs.”

Austin, Texas-based family law attorney Holly Davis agreed that protection of assets is a common reason for couples to divorce when one spouse is imprisoned.  Davis also said in an email to this news organization that Phillips could have stood by Masterson during the trial for “legal strategic reasons,” even if she had long before decided the marriage was over and she wanted a divorce.

“In this instance, Bijou would have the option to delay divorce proceedings if she thought it might be a benefit to his jury trial to avoid the distraction of a divorce, and the possibility that the plaintiff’s counsel would try to use her as a witness against Danny in the jury trial,” Davis said.

When filing for divorce, Phillips cited “irreconcilable differences” as the reason for the split, People reported. In a statement, her attorney Peter Lauzon said Phillips had decided to file for divorce “during this unfortunate time” and that “her priority remains with her daughter.” He explained that “this period has been unimaginably hard on the marriage and the family.”

Phillips also acknowledged that Masterson has been “a wonderful father to their daughter,” Lauzon said.

In her divorce filing, Phillips requested that she be granted full legal and physical custody of their daughter, while Masterson is giving visitation rights. She also asked for spousal support and legal fees from Masterson and asked that their assets be divided up by the court as separate property, with no indication in the papers that the exes had a prenup in place.

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