UPDATED with the more details: Paul Haggis took the witness stand today in his Manhattan trial for sexual assault, and the Oscar-winning Crash filmmaker and former Church of Scientology member’s first words when asked by his lawyer Priya Chaudhry how it felt to be testifying were: “I’m incredibly nervous, of course, and I’m very happy. Because for five years I’ve been unable to clear my name.”
Prosecution lawyer Ilann Maazel immediately objected, arguing that Haggis statement was irrelevant, but was overruled by Judge Sabrina Kraus.
The 11th day of testimony in the civil suit brought by Haleigh Breest began with Haggis’ ex-wife and fellow ex-Scientologist Deborah Rennard, who told the court he never was violent with her and never forced sex on her.
“I know of no reputation with him regarding women,” Rennard testified. “He had great relationships with women. I never heard of anything negative.”
Haggis wept on the stand as he talked about Rennard, his second wife, who he admitted cheating on repeatedly before and after they married in 1997. They separated in 2010 and officially divorced in 2016, two years before the lawsuit. “She’s been my best friend ever since,” he said, removing his glasses to wipe away tears with a handkerchief. “So few people stand up for you in situations like this.”
The couple’s adult son James Haggis was in court today, watching along with the defendant’s three daughters from the earlier marriage, and Rennard after she had finished testifying.
When the court recessed for lunch, Haggis had not yet addressed the rape allegations directly. Breest is seeking unspecified unspecified damages from a claim that he forced her into unprotected oral sex and intercourse in his apartment in Manhattan in 2013. Four other women called to testify by Breest’s team thus far said that Haggis assaulted or tried to assault them sexually in separate incidents between 1996 and 2015. Breest was working as a freelance events publicist at the time of the alleged incident. She was 26, and Haggis was 59.
But his first 90 minutes of testimony — much of it autobiography — laid the groundwork for him to deny that he had ever committed rape or tried to force sex on anyone. In discussing his 31 years in Scientology — to which he said he gave a “stupid amount” of money in the millions — Haggis said he also paid for so called “auditing” sessions that church clergy conducted using a so called “E-Meter,” a kind of lie detector for the soul.
Haggis said he underwent these spiritual, confessional interrogations into “what have you done that the church would want to know about” willingly. They ranged from 30 minutes to 12 hours, and he collectively paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for them. The test administrator took handwritten notes, and Haggis said he later learned that many sessions were videotaped unbeknownst to their subjects.
The auditing revealed a church hierarchy “fixated” on sexual behavior as well as any sign of disloyalty to the church, he said.
“I grew up Catholic,” Haggis, a native of London, Ontario, Canda, said. “So I confessed absolutely everything in auditing.”
Chaudhry asked if the sex he confessed to in the audits was consensual, non-consensual or “something else.”
“Consensual,” he said.
“Did you ever reveal anything else regarding women?” she asked.
“There was nothing else to reveal regarding women other than sexual relationships,” Haggis said.
Haggis said that at one point he glimpsed the collection of file folders containing the handwritten notes of his auditing sessions. It was “a big pile as high as the ceiling,” including “hundreds of folders with my name on them,” and enough folders in all to fill a room 15 feet across and 12 feet high.
Haggis, on the stand, was also the self-deprecating figure that many witnesses talked about before him.
“Can you tell us some of the shows you have worked on?” Chaudhry asked.
“Just the good ones? Or?” he replied to laughs.
Ticking off work for shows including Love Boat, Three’s Company, One Day at a Time, Diff’rent Strokes and Facts of Life, he said, “I made a very good living as a very bad writer for many many years,”
He said his work on the prestige ‘90s lifestyle drama, Thirtysomething, marked a change in his outlook and his fortunes. He won his first Emmys, and then became the show runner of a CBS drama, Family Law, based loosely on the lawyers who handled his first divorce. Then he turned the show over to someone else to concentrate on breaking into film.
Threaded between his career arc were stories of a dysfunctional relationship with his first wife Diana Gettas. He said that once, when they were engaged, he “hit her in the cheek with my fist” when she attacked him with a chef’s knife. He said that otherwise she did all the hitting in their relationship. He said he would ether endure the blows or lock himself in the bathroom.
He said he was still living in Canada, working in construction for his father and dreaming of Hollywood when he met a couple of “long-haired freaks” like himself, and one showed him a copy of “Dianetics,” the founding book of Scientology. He said one led him into a small office above a Woolworth’s five and dime store, where he made the decision to join the church in hopes of finding help for his relationship with his future wife. “They said basically they could fix it,” he said.
On her cross-examination, second wife Rennard said she didn’t know the substance of the allegations from Breest and the other accusers and didn’t know that he told some of these women intimate details about his married sex life. She said a letter she wrote in support of him after the lawsuit was not influenced by the $20,000 in monthly alimony support she was receiving from Haggis at the time.
She said she was “trepidatious” about testifying, fearing Scientology — which she quit with Haggis — might come after her. The Haggis legal team has argued, so far without evidence, that the Breest case might be a Scientology operation to destroy him for qutting and becoming a Scientology critic.
Maazel challenged Rennard on this point, saying. “You said you were “trepidatious … but you issued a public statement and sent it to press outlets around the world.”
Erik Pedersen contributed to this report.