NEW YORK — Filmmaker Paul Haggis took the witness stand Wednesday in the trial of a rape lawsuit against him, but he didn’t immediately discuss the sexual assault claims of five women who have testified.
Instead, the Oscar-winning screenwriter and director began what could be days of testimony by focusing on his yearslong clash with the Church of Scientology.
Haggis’ lawyers have been trying to suggest that the suit might be the product of a Scientology plot against him, though they haven’t provided direct proof of a connection between the star-studded church and his accusers, only one of whom is suing. Her lawyers, and the church, call the argument a bogus conspiracy theory.
Haggis said he was nervous but “very happy” to testify.
“For five years, I’ve been unable to clear my name, and now I will,” he told jurors.
The plaintiff, publicist Haleigh Breest, earlier gave the jury an extensive account of the alleged 2013 rape. Breest, 36, sued in 2017 for unspecified damages; there are no criminal charges in the case.
Haggis, 69, contends that the encounter was consensual.
A sometimes tearful Haggis acknowledged having “a number of affairs” while married to his second wife, actor Deborah Rennard, from 1997 until a 2010 separation and a divorce six years later.
Haggis, known for writing the early-2000s best picture Oscar winners “Million Dollar Baby” and “Crash,” hasn’t yet given the jury his account of what happened after he and Breest went to his Manhattan apartment following a movie premiere. He also hasn’t detailed his interactions with the four other women who testified that he sexually assaulted them on separate occasions between 1996 and 2015.
His testimony thus far has largely focused on his decades-long membership and highly publicized split in roughly 2009 with Scientology, a system of beliefs, teachings and rituals focused on spiritual growth. It was founded by science fiction and fantasy author L. Ron Hubbard in the 1950s.
Haggis’ lawyers have floated the notion that the church somehow generated the lawsuit to take down a famous dissenter, though they’ve agreed there’s no evidence that Breest has any ties to the religion. Nor have any witnesses testified that they know of a link between Scientology and Breest’s lawyers or between the faith and Haggis’ other accusers.
But one of Haggis’ lawyers, Priya Chaudhry, has said the “circumstantial evidence of Scientology’s involvement here will be powerful.”
The defense has had ex-Scientologists, including one of his daughters, relate what they portrayed as church efforts to scrounge up damaging information about him or his family after he left the organization and called it “a cult” in a 2011 New Yorker article.
“I was part of what ultimately was a very corrupt organization,” he told jurors Wednesday.
The church has said Haggis is trying to shame his accusers with an “absurd and patently false” theory.
“The church has nothing to do with the claims against Haggis, nor does it have any relation to the attorneys behind the case,” the organization said in a statement as the trial opened.
The Associated Press generally doesn’t identify people who allege they have been sexually assaulted unless they come forward publicly, as Breest has done.