LOS ANGELES — A former Scientologist has filed the first of what her attorneys say will be multiple lawsuits against the Church of Scientology International and its leader, alleging retaliation, child abuse, human trafficking and forced labor against her and other members who have left the church.
The suit, filed Tuesday in Los Angeles County Superior Court, seeks unspecified general, special and compensatory damages, as well as unpaid wages, from the church, its Religious Technology Center and its "ecclesiastical leader," David Miscavige, and 25 unnamed co-respondents at a jury trial.
Allegations in the lawsuit include libel, slander, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress and seek double or triple damages on claims the plaintiffs violated California labor and human trafficking laws.
An attorney for the Church of Scientology said the church "will vigorously defend itself against these unfounded allegations."
The woman who filed the lawsuit, identified in court papers as "Jane Doe," said she was raised in the church from birth and at age 15 became a personal steward to Miscavige, whose formal title is chairman of the church's Religious Technology Center.
The church identifies Miscavige as the "ecclesiastical leader of the Scientology religion," which was started in 1952 by the science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. Scientology asserts in its official statements of beliefs that man is an immortal spiritual being with unlimited capabilities, and it offers, for a price, one-on-one "auditing" and classes designed to help members achieve a "clear" spiritual state. It strongly opposes the science of psychiatry as "disastrous."
According to the suit, Jane Doe joined the Sea Organization, described as an association of the church's "most dedicated members," who sign 1 billion-year contracts with the quasi-naval group. The lawsuit says she moved to the church's Gold Base in San Jacinto, California, southeast of San Bernardino.
She remained there for 11 or 12 years until 2015, when she was removed as a steward and placed in an isolation program called "the Hole" because, according to the suit, she knew too much about what it describes as marital problems between Miscavige and his wife.
Banished to Los Angeles to work on church publicity, the woman escaped in late 2016 in the trunk of a car driven by a non-Scientologist actor with whom she was assigned to produce promotional videos, according to the complaint.
Scientology actively recruits celebrities to advocate for it. After she left the church, Jane Doe went to work for the actor Leah Remini, a former Scientologist, whose documentary TV series, "Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath," has chronicled the stories of former Scientologists who allege the church abused them as members and harassed them after they left.
The Church of Scientology International has mounted a vigorous, often scathing public campaign against Remini and the TV series. It has posted websites condemning both Remini and Jane Doe, which NBC News confirmed were still active at the time of publication but which it isn't linking to in order to protect Jane Doe's identity.
"The lawsuit comprises nothing more than unfounded allegations as to all defendants," Rebecca N. Kaufman, an attorney for the Church of Scientology, told NBC News on Wednesday night, saying it was "littered with anti-religious slurs culled from the tabloids and accusations that have been disproven in courts decades ago."
"We are confident the lawsuit will fail," Kaufman said. "Federal courts have already determined that service in the Church of Scientology's religious order is voluntary and protected by the First Amendment. Moreover, the evidence will establish that while serving the church, plaintiff came and went freely, traveled the world, and lived in comfortable surroundings. The church will vigorously defend itself against these unfounded allegations."
Brian Kent, an attorney for Jane Doe, said that for decades, the church "has sought to quash dissension, cover up its long history of physical, emotional and sexual abuse of its members, including its most vulnerable members, its children, and weaponize its doctrine against those who escape and find the courage to speak up."
"This is just the beginning, and we are not going to stop until they do," Kent said.
The Internal Revenue Service recognizes Scientology as a tax-exempt religion, a status it won in 1993 after years of litigation. But another of Jane Doe's attorneys, Marci Hamilton, academic director of Child USA, a nonprofit children's advocacy group, argued that religious liberty defenses don't apply in this case.
Church members "have the right to believe anything they want," Hamilton said. "But they cannot do whatever they want. This lawsuit continues the important work of the #MeToo era to bring institutions and individuals to account for child abuse, trafficking and neglect."