Scientology case settled out of court

 

The long-running action for damages by a woman against the Church of Scientology and three of its members has came to a dramatic end at the High Court today when the judge was told the case "appears to be settled".

The costs of Ms Mary Johnston's action could mount to euro2 million.

The surprise development came on the 31st day of the action taken by Dundalk-born Ms Johnston, who was involved with the Church from 1992 to 1994.

A chartered psychologist, Dr Peter Naish, was about to resume his evidence, which had been critical of the nature of auditing sessions which Ms Johnston underwent with one of the defendants, Mr Tom Cunningham, when Mr Michael Cush SC, for Ms Johnston, asked Mr Justice Peart for time.

Talks then got underway between the sides and at 1.20pm, Mr Cush told the judge he and Mr Michael Collins SC, for the Church, "are delighted to tell you the case appears to be settled". He asked the judge to list the matter for mention on Tuesday.

Mr Justice Peart thanked the parties for the "professionalism, expertise and courtesy" shown both to the court and witnesses. This had made "what has been a very difficult case for everyone more easy".

No settlement details were disclosed to the court and neither party would comment afterwards. Ms Johnston, who attended every day of the case, said she could not comment and similar statements were made by representatives of the Church. It is believed the settlement involves a strict confidentiality clause.

The proceedings were taken by Ms Johnston (40), who operates a sports equipment centre at Westwood, Foxrock, Dublin, and is a former interprovincial squash player for Leinster, against the Church and Mr John Keane, described as a "mission holder", Mr Tom Cunningham and Mr Gerard Ryan. She alleged conspiracy, misrepresentation and breach of constitutional rights. She also alleged deliberate infliction of emotional harm. The defendants denied the claims.

The case began on December 3rd last. Ms Johnston's case had not concluded, and the Church's case had yet to open, when the proceedings were settled today.

Opening the case for Ms Johnston, Mr Sean Ryan SC claimed she suffered a personality change after she was "sucked into the grasp" of the Church and subjected to mind control techniques. He claimed she reluctantly signed up for a number of courses, including a "purification run-down" course. The starting point for her entry into the Church was a personality test which, he argued, was not a proper psychological test.

He also claimed Ms Johnston was trained to resist her family and, when she tried to leave, there were efforts to silence and intimidate her and members of her family. It was alleged Ms Johnston suffered psychological and psychiatric injuries.

The court heard extensive evidence from Ms Johnston about her experience with the Scientology religion. It also heard evidence from members of her family, who told of their concerns about Ms Johnston's involvement with the Church. Her brother in law, Mr Paul O'Kelly, said Ms Johnston was like someone in a pantomine while she was involved with the Church.

During her evidence, Ms Johnston said she began auditing sessions with Mr Cunnigham in late 1991 and these continued into 1992. She became very distressed during one session in January 1992 and had recounted an event that no-one else knew about her - that she had been pregnant and had had an abortion. After the auditing, issues regarding abortion were in her head all the time. It was as if she had "opened a Pandora's box and I could not shut it".

She said that after she underwent a Standard Oxford Capacity Analysis Test, comprised of 200 questions, Mr Keane went through it with her and basically told her she was in pretty poor shape and needed some professional Dianetic auditing. She said Mr Keane told her there would be a price. She had resigned from the Church in May 1994.

In cross-examination, Ms Johnston said her criticism of Scientologists was based on things that had happened to her and was levelled against the individual Scientologists who perpetrated what she claimed they perpetrated. She did not criticise Scientologists in general.

Her issue was with the coercive and manipulative techniques devised by the founder of the Church, L Ron Hubbard, and used in pursuit of its activities, she said. Hubbard had written that anyone who was antagonistic to Scientology may be tricked, sued, lied to, cheated or destroyed.

The case entered a different phase earlier this month with evidence from Professor Stephen Alan Kent, a sociologist, and, this week, evidence from Dr Naish. Mr Michael Collins SC, for the Church, delivered lengthy submissions objecting to the admissibility of evidence from those professionals.

In objecting to Dr Naish's evidence, Mr Collins said Ms Johnston's side were seeking to introduce evidence critical of the practise of auditing in Scientology. He said auditing was the core and single most important way in which Scientologists professed and practised their religion and to allow evidence criticial of it would be akin to conducting a judicial inquiry into the legitimacy of the Sacrament of the Mass in Roman Catholicism.

Counsel also clarified aspects of the case and stated that a fundamental issue in the action was whether Ms Johnston's free will was overborne or compromised in her decision to take up certain coruses run by the Church. The Church was contending free will was a concept that could not be measured.

However, Mr Justice Peart ruled the evidence from both Professor Kent and Dr Naish was admissible. He also declined as premature an application by Mr Collins for a finding that Scientology is a religion.

In his evidence, Dr Naish said material from the book Dianetics - The Modern Science of Mental Health, by the founder of Scientology, L Ron Hubbard, and Ms Johnston's account of her auditing experience indicated that, in Ms Johnston's first auditing session, hypnosis was being used as a therapy. This was a "very curious form" of therapy and not very good.

In written submissions, the Church denied any use of hypnosis, trance techniques or drugs during auditing and said it disapproved of hypnosis.