NEW YORK – The #MeToo movement is having another moment in the spotlight as high-profile sexual assault trials play out in courtrooms from coast to coast.
Five years after allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein triggered a wave of sexual misconduct claims in Hollywood and beyond, he and “That ’70s Show” actor Danny Masterson are fighting criminal rape charges at trials down the hall from each other in Los Angeles.
Sexual assault lawsuits against two Oscar winners — actor Kevin Spacey and screenwriter-director Paul Haggis — are underway in adjacent New York courthouses, where Spacey’s defense rested Wednesday while lawyers for Haggis and his accuser gave opening statements. All of the men deny the allegations.
A forcible touching case against another Academy Award winner, actor Cuba Gooding Jr., wrapped up in New York last week with a guilty plea to a non-criminal harassment violation and no jail time, to the dismay of at least some of his accusers.
The confluence is a coincidence, but a striking one, amid a cultural movement that has demanded visibility and accountability.
“We’re still very early on in this time of reckoning,” said Debra Katz, a Washington-based lawyer who has represented many sexual assault accusers. She isn’t involved in the Haggis, Masterson, Spacey or Weinstein trials.
Besides their #MeToo reverberations, both Haggis’ case and Masterson’s have become forums for scrutinizing the Church of Scientology, though from different perspectives.
In the case against Haggis, publicist Haleigh Breest claims that the “Crash” and “Million Dollar Baby” screenwriter forced her to perform oral sex and raped her after she reluctantly agreed to a drink in his apartment after a 2013 movie premiere. She’s seeking unspecified damages.
She didn’t go public until after the allegations against Weinstein burst into view in 2017 and Haggis condemned him.
“The hypocrisy of it made her blood boil,” lawyer Zoe Salzman said in her opening statement.
Jurors will also hear from four other women who told Breest’s lawyers that Haggis sexually assaulted them, or attempted to do so, in separate encounters between 1996 and 2015. The jury won’t hear, however, that Italian authorities this summer investigated a sexual assault allegation against him, which he denied.
Haggis maintains that his encounter with Breest was consensual, and his lawyers have said he never raped anyone. Attorney Priya Chaudhry told jurors that he’s “relieved that he finally gets his day in court.”
Both sides are pointing to what Breest texted to a friend the day after the alleged attack.
Her lawyer emphasized that Breest wrote that “he was so rough and aggressive. Never, ever again … And I kept saying no.” Haggis’ attorney, meanwhile, said Breest added “lol” — for “laughing out loud” — when she mentioned performing oral sex, and that she told the friend she wanted to be alone with Haggis again to “see what happens.”
Chaudhry argued that Breest falsely claimed rape to angle for a payout. But the attorney also suggested another explanation for the allegations.
Promising “circumstantial evidence,” she suggested that Scientologists ginned up Breest’s lawsuit to discredit him after he split with the church and became a prominent detractor.
The church denies any involvement, and Breest’s lawyers have called the notion a baseless conspiracy theory. Haggis’ accusers have no ties to the religion, Salzman said.
“Scientology has nothing to do with this case,” she told jurors. The church has said the same.
Scientology is a system of beliefs, teachings and rituals focused on spiritual betterment. Science fiction and fantasy author L. Ron Hubbard’s 1950 book “Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health” is a foundational text.
The religion has gained a following among such celebrities as Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Kirstie Alley. But some high-profile members have broken with it, including Haggis, singer Lisa Marie Presley and actor Leah Remini. In a memoir and documentary series, Remini said the church uses manipulative and abusive tactics to indoctrinate followers into putting its goals above all else, and she maintained that it worked to discredit critics who spoke out.
The church has vociferously disputed the claims.
Haggis says he was a Scientologist for three decades before leaving the church in 2009. He slammed it as “a cult” in a 2011 New Yorker article that later informed a book and an HBO documentary, and he foreshadowed that retribution would come in the form of “a scandal that looks like it has nothing to do with the church.”
The church has repeatedly said that Haggis lied about its practices to grab the attention for himself and his career. The church didn’t respond to a request for comment this week.
Masterson’s lawyer, meanwhile, is asking jurors to disregard the actor’s affiliation with Scientology, though prosecutors say the church discouraged two of his three accusers from going to authorities. All three are former members.
In Spacey’s case, closing arguments are scheduled for Thursday in a $40 million lawsuit brought by actor Anthony Rapp. He says Spacey made a sexual pass at him in 1986, when Rapp was 14 and Spacey 26. Spacey has denied the encounter ever happened.
Weinstein is facing his second criminal trial, this time set in L.A. and involving five women and multiple rape and sexual assault charges. He is already serving a 23-year prison sentence on a rape and sex assault conviction involving two women in New York.
The Associated Press does not usually name people alleging sexual assault unless they come forward publicly, as Breest and Rapp have done.
Associated Press writers Larry Neumeister in New York and Deepa Bharath in Los Angeles contributed.
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