The Bertolucci lawsuit: SF Chronicle Article

The Bertolucci lawsuit:
Veteran ‘Guru Hunters’ Take On Palo Alto Swami – Pair wages religious war in courtroom

San Francisco Chronicle
Monday, February 9, 1998
By Benjamin Pimentel

The civil trial of a self-described Palo Alto swami has brought together two lawyers who have devoted much of their careers to one goal: guru-hunting. Michael Flynn and Ford Greene represent Anne-Marie Bertolucci, a 34-year-old Palo Alto woman who sued J. Donald Walters, head of Ananda Church of God-Realization, for fraud and infliction of emotional distress.

A San Mateo County jury in Redwood City awarded Bertolucci $625,000 in compensatory damages last week and is scheduled to return today to determine punitive damages.

For Flynn and Greene, the Ananda civil case is the latest in a series of legal skirmishes with religious organizations and cults they deem exploitative and abusive.

“The reason I went to law school is to do guru-hunting,” said Greene, 45, who grew up in Marin County and now has an office in San Anselm. “These guys are public health hazards.”

However, members of some of the churches that Flynn and Greene have targeted denounce them as unscrupulous attorneys who have manipulated the legal system and the media in a campaign against religious freedom.

“They capitalize on people’s fears and prejudices,” said Asha Praver, a 50-year-old minister with the Ananda Church. “I think they are grievously misusing the legal process for their campaign…. We think they are not a credit to their profession…. To be their target is an experience I would not wish upon anyone.”

Greene says his crusade against religious organizations such as Ananda grew out of his own experience as a former member of the Unification Church—the controversial group commonly known as the Moonies, after its leader, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

At 22, Greene went to one of the church’s camps in Boonville, Mendocino County, to “rescue” his sister from the organization, he said. He ended up joining the group. But he said he left eight months later, disillusioned and convinced that such organizations are dangerous.

He then went to law school, thinking that key battles with such groups would be fought in the legislative and judicial arenas.

Greene has primarily represented disgruntled former members of such organizations as the Unification Church and the Church of Scientology.

He denies that he is opposed to religion on principle, stressing that he is very careful “not to throw the baby of legitimate religious beliefs and practice out with the bathwater of deception and coercion.”

“I look to see whether the group is authoritarian or open,” he said. “There are red flags. Secrecy is certainly one of them. Punishing or disregarding dissent is another. Uncritical and unconditional adulation of the leader is another. Exploitation, financial or sexual or labor, is another.”

Andrew Wilson, a San Francisco attorney who has represented the Church of Scientology against Greene, criticized this philosophy.

“You apply that list to any religion, and some would come out worse than others,” said Wilson, who is not a Scientologist “His style is very broad-brushed personal attacks on whatever ‘religion’ he is attacking.” Peter Ross, a Unification Church member and Napa County attorney who has also worked on cases where Greene has been involved, dismissed him as an extremist and opportunist.

“The guy is a contemporary Chicken Little to any unwary listener whom he’ll convince the sky is about to fall,” he said. “Who are they gonna call? Ford Greene…. He is the crassest ambulance chaser you can imagine.”

Flynn, 53, who is based in Boston, is a veteran of many legal battles with the powerful Church of Scientology, with which he has traded countless lawsuits over the past 10 years.

“I believe in spirituality and God when practiced correctly,” said Flynn, who has represented New Age guru Deepak Chopra in a defamation case.

His battles with religious groups have sometimes turned ugly. His office has been broken into and ransacked many times by his opponents, he said. Most recently, in 1995, a private investigator hired by Ananda to dig up information on Flynn’s legal strategy was caught pilfering documents from the garbage at his San Diego office.

As a result, San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Lawrence Stevens barred Ananda’s attorneys from cross-examining Bertolucci or either of the two other women who claimed that Walters had had sex with them.

[Note: This was a tragic turn in the case. What really happened? Ananda did hire an investigator as described. However, he was instructed by Ananda to do his best, but never to do anything illegal. The investigator and the investigator’s manager both testified that they received this careful instruction from Ananda. Sadly, the investigator testified that he was tempted on his own to illegally reach over a fence into a trash container, and did so without telling Ananda. For this, Ananda was prevented from cross-examining the witnesses, a fatal blow to Ananda’s case, and such a striking punishment by the judge that many legal experts advised that Ananda could easily win on appeal. Unfortunately, Flynn had succeeded in bankrupting the community. No appeal was possible.]

Flynn and Greene also used a 1988 state Supreme Court ruling—in a case that Greene also handled—that allowed attorneys to probe the teachings of any church or religious organization to prove illegal conduct.

The ruling, which in effect said such teachings are not totally protected by the First Amendment, aided Flynn and Greene in trying to prove that Ananda leaders used church teachings to manipulate and exploit members.

Rockhill said Flynn and Greene’s interpretation “opens the doors to the regulation of church activity without limit.” Flynn countered that the First Amendment has been misused by many cults, and cited the example of the People’s Temple and the scores of followers whom Jim Jones incited to commit suicide. “They use it as a sword, to steal, embezzle, and in the Jim Jones case, kill,” he said.

But Flynn and Greene’s legal arguments have not impressed Ananda church members. Ananda’s bruising court battle with Flynn and Greene, Praver said, has only strengthened its ranks. “It’s a tremendous experience for increasing your faith,” she said, “for you have people shouting at you that everything you believe in is not true, and you ask yourself what you really believe in.”