Embattled Oscar-winning director Paul Haggis was painted by prosecutors as a serial predator who used his power to “manipulate” vulnerable young women.
Haggis’ sexual assault trial got underway at a New York City courthouse this morning. The filmmaker appeared in court alongside his defense attorneys in a black suit and gray tie as opening statements began shortly after 10 am
Attorneys for Haleigh Breest, the former publicist suing Haggis for allegedly raping her in 2013, opened the trial by framing the Canadian film mogul as a “powerful” and manipulative” serial predator who “doesn’t stop when women say no.”
“Mr. Haggis used his storytelling skills and his fame to prey on, to manipulate, and to attack vulnerable young women in the film industry,” Breest’s attorney Zoe Salzman told the court. “One of those women was Haleigh Breest.”
Haggis, 69, is accused of sexually assaulting Breest at his SoHo loft following a movie premiere in New York in 2013. She was 26 at the time. Breest sued Haggis in 2017 after the Million Dollar Baby writer penned an op-ed in The Guardian disavowing convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein. Four other women have also come forward alleging Haggis raped them after Breest filed her suit.
Haggis has long maintained the incident involving Breest was consensual. His legal team is arguing that the court case is part of the Church of Scientology’s efforts to smear Haggis’ name after he very publicly defected from the church in 2009 in a scathing letter to Scientology spokesman Tommy Davis.
Haggis’ lead attorney Priya Chaudhry, who described the Church as a “world-famous criminal organization,” moved quickly to call Breest’s credibility into question on Wednesday morning.
“We don’t have to affirmatively prove that Scientology is behind this because we don’t have the burden of proof here,” Chaudhry told the jury. “But as you will see, the circumstantial evidence of Scientology’s involvement here will be powerful.”
“Nonetheless, don’t let them turn this trial topsy turvy. Don’t let them suggest to you that if we can’t prove that Scientology is behind this, that Haleigh Breest should win. Haleigh Breest can only win if you believe her,” she said.
Following both teams’ opening statements, the first of four Jane Does who are accusing Haggis of rape testified.
The woman, who was 28 at the time, and who hasn’t been identified by The Daily Beast, tested how she first met Haggis while working as a publicist on the set of CBS’ Canadian crime drama Due South in 1996. She recalled in lurid detail how Haggis allegedly pushed her up against a wall and forcibly kissed her following a late-night meeting in her boss’ on-set office.
“He grabbed me by the arm and started kissing me, which was very shocking,” she said. “I just couldn’t believe that it was happening. There’s no indication that I was in the position that I would reciprocate, like there was no reason for him to think this was acceptable. I just froze. In hindsight, I wish I would have just run out of there, but I didn’t.”
The woman said when she resisted, Haggis became angry and threatened her career.
“Do you really want to keep working? Do you want to keep your job?” Haggis allegedly asked her during the course of the suspected assault.
“That terrified me,” she said.
The woman said Haggis later raped her on the floor. She noted that Haggis was the “most important person” on the television show.
“He was very creepy,” she said of Haggis’ demeanor. “It was like an attack mode is what it felt like to me.”
Last month, Judge Sabrina Kraus ruled Haggis could argue that the Church of Scientology was behind bankrolling the case against him. Breest’s team had previously filed a motion requesting the court disallow Haggis from presenting the defense, arguing it constituted nothing more than “speculative fantasy.” Breest herself has said she has no association with the Church of Scientology.
“The jury is entitled to be informed of any possible motive Plaintiff may have and about The Church’s efforts to discredit Haggis,” Kraus wrote in court documents obtained by The Daily Beast. “Haggis should have the opportunity to present evidence that will show that The Church was, in fact, seeking to embroil Haggis in ruinous, false allegations regarding women prior to Breest’s allegations here.”
Breest’s attorneys, meanwhile, previously scoffed at the suggestion their client was somehow actively embroiled in a conspiracy on behalf of the church to ruin Haggis. Attorney Ilann M. Maazel described Haggis’ strategy as a sham defense designed to distract the jury.
“There is no Scientology defense—it’s a cynical manipulative baseless conspiracy theory,” Maazel told The Daily Beast during a telephone interview. “I think it will be clear by the end of trial. [It’s] a sideshow. It has nothing to do with anything. We’re going to be focused on evidence and Haggis’ conduct and the jury is going to hear from a number of women who will testify under oath about Paul Haggis.”
Breest’s psychotherapist, Catherine Baker-Pitts, also tested Wednesday afternoon telling the court Breest first disclosed the sexual assault allegations during a June 2017 counseling session, months before filing her lawsuit against Haggis. She said Breest had initially framed the allegations as involving a “person in the film industry,” before later identifying Haggis as her assailant.
Baker-Pitts testified that Breest’s account of Haggis alleged rape at the Hollywood screenwriter was “clear” and “detailed.”
“She never wavered that the rape had happened — it was just a fact,” Baker-Pitts told the court.
The private psychotherapist, who treated Breest between June 2017 and July 2019, stated she’d completed approximately 65 counseling sessions with Breest. Baker-Pitts spoke of the lasting trauma Breest endured, which she attributed to the alleged sexual assault involving Haggis.
Breest, she said, lived in a state of “chronic stress” and was perpetually “on-edge” following her encounter with Haggis. Breest, who lost her publicist job in 2017 after bringing forth the Haggis allegations, later turned to alcohol to quell her anxiety issues and help her sleep, Baker-Pitts testified. She “dreaded” leaving her home, and particularly avoided New York’s SoHo neighborhood, out of fear she may run into Haggis.
Baker-Pitts said Breest, who became prone to self-neglect, isolated herself from family and social circles, which she described as a “total detachment.” She ultimately diagnosed Breest with anxiety order.
“She has a long road ahead,” Pitts-Baker said.
As short adjourned for the day, Haggis declined to speak with reporters.
“I’m not going to give any comments, thank you,” Haggis told the Daily Beast as he exited the courtroom.
In June, Haggis was arrested and placed under house arrest in Italy while attending the Allora Film Festival for separate allegations of sexual assault involving a British woman, who claimed she was raped “for days” by the Canadian filmmaker.
“I think it will be powerful testimony,” Maazel added. “I’m eager for the jury to hear the evidence after all these years… I’m looking forward to the case starting and at the end of the day it’s going to be in the hands of the jury.”
Breest will testify Thursday, according to her lawyers.
“This is a #MeToo case—accountability here is really important,” Maazel said. “It can be very difficult for women to stand up for themselves and speak out in cases like this. But I’m proud of Haleigh. I admire her and I think what she’s doing is hard.”
Roughly 20 witnesses are expected to testify on Haggis’ behalf—including possible former prominent Scientologists—however, exactly who remains shrouded in mystery.
The defense revealed on Wednesday, however, that celebrity Scientology whistleblower Mike Rinder will testify on Haggis’ behalf.
Rinder co-hosted A&E’s series Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath alongside fellow ex-Scientologist Leah Remini, who has also previously come out in support of Haggis’ assertion that the church could be responsible for manufacturing the sexual assault case against him.
“We expect the next ‘revelations’ about Paul Haggis in this campaign to destroy him to be based on information culled from his Scientology files in the form of more ‘anonymous’ accusers, hiding behind a lawyer who will never have to disclose who is paying their bill,” Remini and Rinder previously said in a statement.
Haggis’ case is playing out as actor Danny Masterson, another prominent celebrity Scientologist, faces trial in Los Angeles on three criminal rape charges. Masterson’s accusers filed a separate civil suit arguing that the Church intimidated and stalked them after the encounters were reported to law enforcement. Former film mogul Harvey Weinstein is fighting his own rape charges down the hall from Masterson this week.
The Church of Scientology has denied Haggis’ allegations against the church in the civil suit. They denied Breest was ever a member of the controversial religion.
“The Church has nothing to do with the claims against Haggis nor does it have any relation to the attorneys behind the case of the accusers,” Karin Pouw, a spokesperson for the Church, told The Daily Beast in a statement. “The Church has nothing to do with the claims against Haggis nor does it have any relation to his accusers.”