Facing multimillion-dollar lawsuits ... Church of Scientology. Photo: AFP
WASHINGTON: The Church of Scientology is facing a multimillion-dollar wave of lawsuits from defectors who claim it misused donations to pay for its leader's lavish lifestyle.
A couple from California, who alleged they were defrauded of US$420,000 ($402,000) filed this week what their lawyer said would be the first of up to 20 cases being prepared against the church, which denied any wrongdoing.
Luis and Maria Garcia, of Irvine, who fled the church in 2010, claimed they gave it money for building projects that were never completed and humanitarian initiatives that were never carried out.
Charismatic … Scientology leader David Miscavige. Photo: Reuters
In the 35-page lawsuit filed in Florida, they blamed David Miscavige, the church's charismatic leader for the past 25 years and the best man at the last wedding of Hollywood star Tom Cruise, its most famous member.
''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 couple alleged.
They said funds were instead used ''to finance the lavish lifestyle of Miscavige'', to ''stifle inquiries'' into the church's activities and to ''intimidate members and ex-members''.
They alleged that less than half the $US200 million raised by the church to build its so-called Super Power Building in Clearwater, Florida, was spent on construction, and that it remained empty 14 years after being unveiled. Contributions intended for schemes such as eradicating child pornography were ''never utilised, vastly underutilised or misappropriated'', the Garcias alleged.
Their lawyer, Theodore Babbitt, said their case would be ''the first in a wave'' of lawsuits from disgruntled former members around the US.
''I have been contacted by 20 defectors who basically have the same story,'' he said. ''They want their money back, but they also want injunctions to stop the church doing this in the future.''
Mr Babbitt said the former members preparing to take action had claims ranging from ''$30,000 to millions of dollars''.
The church vehemently denied the allegations. A spokesman described the lawsuit as the ''frivolous'' and ''blatantly false'' work of a repeatedly untruthful ''group of apostates''.
The dispute came amid heightened scrutiny of Scientology in the publication of two books. The Church of Fear, by BBC reporter John Sweeney, alleged that its ''dictatorial'' leadership physically and verbally abused members. Going Clear, by the Pulitzer Prize winner Lawrence Wright, alleged that members judged to have wronged the church were sent to rural California to do hard labour.