Scientology case settled out of court

Irish Times, Mar. 14, 2003

The long-running action for damages by a woman against the Church of Scientology and three of its members came to a dramatic end at the High Court yesterday when the judge was told the case “appears to be settled“. The costs of the action could amount to £2 million.

The surprise development came on the 31st day of the case taken by Dundalk-born Ms Mary 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 criticised 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 under way between the sides and at 1.20 p.m., Mr Cush told the judge that 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 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 church representatives. 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 last December 3rd. Ms Johnston’s case had not concluded, and the church’s case had yet to open, when the proceedings were settled.

Opening the case for Ms Johnston, Mr Sen 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.

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 – 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 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 did what she claimed they did. She did not criticise scientologists in general.

Her issue was with the coercive and manipulative techniques devised by the founder, L. Ron Hubbard, and used in pursuit of the church’s activities, she said. Mr 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 Prof Stephen Alan Kent, a sociologist, and, this week, from Dr Naish. Mr Michael Collins SC, for the church, objected 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 practice 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 critical of it would be akin to conducting a judicial inquiry into the legitimacy of the Mass in Roman Catholicism.

In his evidence, Dr Naish said material from the book Dianetics – The Modern Science of Mental Health, by 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. In written submissions, the church denied any use of hypnosis, trance techniques or drugs during auditing and said it disapproved of hypnosis.

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