A California couple filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against the Church of Scientology, saying hundreds of thousands of dollars they donated for specific purposes was spent elsewhere, including on the lavish lifestyle of the church's leader.
Attorney Theodore Babbitt said the couple asked for their money back and were excommunicated by the church and denied a refund.
The couple filed the lawsuit in Tampa. Their attorneys say the suit is the first of a series of complaints that will be filed by former church members across the nation, alleging fraud, deceptive trade practices and breach of contract.
The 35-page, nine-count suit names five church entities in Clearwater as defendants: The Church of Scientology Religious Trust, the FLAG Service Organization, the FLAG SHIP Service Organization, IAS Administrations and the United States IAS Members Trust.
Babbitt said the validity of the church as a religion is not part of the suit. Rather, his clients "seek to highlight the secular commercial nature of the fraudulent activities and inappropriate business dealings which give rise to this complaint," he said.
A Church of Scientology spokesman reached Wednesday afternoon said the paperwork had not yet been served and declined to comment on specifics.
"However," said Pat Harney, church public affairs director, "we understand from media inquiries this has something to do with fundraising and we can unequivocally state all funds solicited are used for the charitable and religious purposes for which they were donated."
The plaintiffs, Luis A. Garcia Saz and his wife, Maria Del Rocio Burgos Garcia, of Irvine, Calif., want their $420,000 back. They said in the suit that they gave the church $320,000 toward construction of a new building near its headquarters in Clearwater and that more than a decade passed with completion nowhere in sight.
Garcia Saz said the church uses the construction project as a way to raise funds. "It's a money-making machine for the church," he said.
The couple also gave money after viewing church videos showing members helping victims of the 2004 tsunami or feeding starving children in Africa. Babbitt said those videos were shams, staged by the church to squeeze funds from sympathetic church members.
Garcia Saz said he had been a member of the church for 28 years, but ended his affiliation in 2010 after he began reading online stories by ex-members with similar complaints.
"I came to the conclusion that the church had departed form its original ideals," he said, "and that I had been deceived with regard to all my donations all these years. I found out that these causes were not really true. I had been lied to and that is the basis for this lawsuit."
All along, the suit says, church officials at the highest levels knew of the fraudulent practices.
Garcia Saz said he and other members for years believed the church was helping mankind and that donating money toward that cause "was the honorable thing to do." But the solicitation of members was relentless, he said.
"They never would take no for an answer," he said. "They would just not back off." He said fellow members took out mortgages on homes or maxed out their credit cards to stay in good standing with the church.
The couple's attorneys, Babbitt and co-counsel Ronald P. Weil, said they expect a wave of similar federal suits from ex-church members around the country, some of which already have been filed.
The couple's suit said David Miscavige, who assumed leadership of the church in 1986, lives an opulent lifestyle off the donations to the church – donations that were given with other purposes in mind.
"The church, under the leadership of David Miscavige, has strayed from its founding principles and morphed into a secular enterprise whose primary purpose is taking people's money," the suit said.
The church has amassed a fortune, "a vast percentage of which has never been used for humanitarian initiatives," the suit said. "Instead, the funds are hoarded and/or used to finance the lavish lifestyle of persons within the church, such as Miscavige and/or to destroy critics and fund elaborate investigations of potential critics."
Babbitt said he plans to depose Miscavige first.
The suit identifies what it describes as three unfulfilled initiatives toward which Garcia Saz donated:
Instead, the suit said, the church "improperly utilized the contributions and deposits to, among other things, engage ranks of professionals to stifle inquiries into the church's activities and finances, to intimidate members and ex-members, to finance the lavish lifestyle of Miscavige and to fill the coffers of the church or its subsidiary/affiliated organizations."
The suit seeks compensatory and punitive damages and an injunction against such fundraising practices.