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Suit challenges tactics of church

Title: Suit challenges tactics of church
Date: Sunday, 27 April 1986
Publisher: New York Times
Author: Marcia Chambers
Main source:

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A former official of the Church of Scientology, testifying at the trial of his suit charging the church with fraud, says church staff members engaged in a pattern of lies, tricks and deception in efforts to keep him from disclosing how the organization operates.

The former official, Larry Wollersheim, who says the church should pay him $25 million in damages because it ruined him financially and emotionally, has spent three weeks testifying before a Superior Court jury here.

For its part, the church has sought to describe Mr. Wollersheim as a draft-evading hippie dropout whose bad temper led him to become a wife-beater and a malcontent. The church contends he had a history of mental illness predating his encounter with Scientology.

The trial has attracted scores of Scientology members who daily line up outside the courtroom in hopes of getting in. Sometimes some of the church's stars, such as the actress Karen Black, lend support.

It Charges Attack on Religion

The church maintains the case is a broad-based attack on the freedom of religion and that it should never have been allowed to go to trial. In the courtroom, church lawyers have fought vigorously to keep Mr. Wollersheim from discussing religion and have won the support of the trial judge to keep secret what they call the "upper levels" of Scientology, which the organization says constitute sacred church doctrine.

Twice this month a judge has ordered both sides to attempt a settlement. Both attempts failed. One issue in dispute is Mr. Wollersheim's demand that his church files be returned to him.

Mr. Wollersheim, who rose through the ranks to become a member of an elite church branch, the Sea Organization, joined the church in 1968 shortly after arriving in San Francisco, where he went after dropping out of the University of Wisconsin. By the time he left 11 years later, after years of attending expensive counseling sessions, he described himself as a fearful, desperate and "near suicidal" man.

Now 37 years old, Mr. Wollersheim told the jury that in one course recruits were expected "to stare at each other without blinking, twitching or moving for hours and hours and hours at a time."

'A Floating Sensation'

At another session, he reported he experienced a "floating sensation like I was not in this world." His experience was measured by a device Scientologists call an "E meter," and he said his counselors were delighted with the results.

Scientology promises members who have been counseled that they will eventually reach a "clear" state and be in full control of their thoughts, a state Mr. Wollersheim said he reached on Jan. 18, 1976.

While he was a Scientologist, Mr. Wollersheim testified, recruits devoted their lives to the organization, whose headquarters are here in Los Angeles and in Clearwater, Fla. He said, they were sometimes asked to infiltrate other groups. He said he had been asked to steal any files the American Medical Association in Chicago might have kept on Scientology. He failed, he said.

Mr. Wollersheim testified that infiltrating was one of the ways the church gathered sensitive information about people.

As he got deeper into his sessions of counseling, which Scientologists call "auditing," Mr. Wollersheim testified, his responses became more bizarre until he no longer had a grasp on reality.

In Psychotic State, She Says

Dr. Margaret Singer, a clinical psychologist, testified previously that Scientology practiced thought control and that Mr. Wollersheim was in a psychotic state from 1972 until 1979.

He testified that he eventually collapsed in an intense counseling session at which he was forced to repeat commands for hours at a time. Later, after not sleeping for three days, he was ordered to sign "confessions," some of which he said were blank, he said.

Looking back at his confessions, which he said the church had demanded to avoid liability, Mr. Wollersheim charged that his tormentors had used "lies and tricks," to make him sign. "What kind of fanatacism would create that kind of a human being?" he asked. Earle Cooley, the church's lead lawyer, who is a Scientologist, replied, "What had you done to create that?"

Mr. Wollersheim bristled and moved forward in the witness box. To a hushed courtroom, he said in a loud voice: "That's an auditing question. He is trying to audit me." Mr. Cooley denied it.

'Response That Broke Me'

"What had I done, you ask," the plaintiff said. "Nothing. I wrote a confused note, a plea for help. What I got was a twisted response that broke me."

He left the church but returned soon after because, he said, he was "addicted" to the counseling. He said he needed to be counseled "so I could try to be a human being again."

Under cross-examination, Mr. Wollersheim has often referred to his counseling files to answer Mr. Cooley's questions. However, Mr. Cooley will not allow Mr. Wollersheim to discuss any aspect of the files on the theory they constitute "upper-level" religious teaching. Justice Ronald Swearinger has told Mr. Wollersheim that under the court's guideline he is to ignore upper-level material.

The church maintains the files fall under the priest-penitent privilege, but other testimony has shown that others in the organization read the files. Mr. Wollersheim recently waived the priest-penitent privilege in an effort to get his files into the court record.

Copyright New York Times Company