Ex-CUT members consider lawsuit

Bozeman Chronicle/July 21, 2001
By Scott McMillion

Livingston -- Two lawyers and some ex-members of the Church Universal and Triumphant are investigating the possibility of filing a class action lawsuit against the New Age sect headquartered in Corwin Springs. Some former members have complained for years that the church took their money and didn't deliver on promises.

"After watching with dismay the disintegration of CUT's plans and promises, and the influx of tens of millions of dollars from the sale of land bought with the extreme effort and sacrifice of members, some people have expressed an interest in participating in a class-action lawsuit against CUT," says a Web site run by Kenneth Paolini, a former member who has become a critic of the church.

"There are many ways that people have suffered from their association with the group," the Web site continues. "The stories are endless." Both of the lawyers looking into the possibility of a lawsuit have successfully sued the church in the past.

Lawrence Levy, of Sherman Oaks, Calif., bested the church and former leader Elizabeth Clare Prophet in a case that went all the way to the United States Supreme Court in the 1980s. Prophet and the church defrauded former member Gregory Mull and had to pay his estate $1.5 million, the courts ruled.

Stephen Roberts, of Bozeman, worked with Levy in a suit that alleged church negligence in the death of one of its followers, Mitchell Mandel. He was shot to death by several Park County lawmen after he lunged at them with a sword in the church-owned subdivision of Glastonbury, near Emigrant. That case was settled about three years ago with undisclosed payments from the church and the county, Roberts said Friday.

Roberts stressed that there is no suit at this time and that he is not soliciting clients. "It's just an investigation at this point," he said. "I've met with some people who are very upset with the church and how they were treated." Church spokesman Chris Kelley said he believes the suit will never happen. "We feel there are no grounds for any alleged class action lawsuit," he said. "If one ever is filed, we would defend it vigorously."

Although the church's presence in Park and Gallatin counties has dwindled in recent years, it remains active around the world, Kelley said, operating 240 teaching centers in 40 countries. It publishes and sells ibooks in 20 languages that outline the church's theology, a mixture of Christianity, Buddhism and other faiths. "We bring a lot of hope and faith and feeling into into a lot of people's lives," Kelley said.

The church has had a number of legal difficulties in the past. In addition to the Mull and Mandel cases, it has been in court with Park County, the state of Montana and the Internal Revenue Service, which revoked its tax-exempt status for two years in the early 1990s. Paolini said Friday that possible causes of action in a lawsuit could be unjust enrichment and fraud.

People donated time and money to buy and build church properties here and the church has sold most of its Park County land in the last two years. When the church came to Park County in 1986, leaders said they would build a self-sustaining spiritual community. Those plans have been abandoned and the church's former holdings of about 33,000 acres are now down to about 10,000 acres.

The Web site includes a questionnaire for "potential participants." It asks for information about positions in the church, contributions to the church, "representations made to you by the church to persuade you to purchase property or convey anything of value" and "all financial losses you feel you suffered as a result of your reliance on misrepresentations of the church."

It also asks for copies of relevant documents. Paolini said he plans no legal action against the church on his own behalf but other people have been talking about lawsuits for a long time. "It's a situation a lot of people have been agitating for for a long time," he said. "It's time for people to decide what they want to do with this."

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