NEW YORK — Filmmaker Paul Haggis told jurors on Wednesday that it was years before he learned that a woman now accusing him of rape saw their sexual encounter as “anything other than consensual.”
Taking the stand as the defendant in a civil rape trial, the Oscar-winning screenwriter and director began to address publicist Haleigh Breest’s allegation that he forced her to perform oral sex and then raped her in 2013 as she repeatedly told him no.
Haggis says that the encounter was consensual and that Breest never indicated otherwise until he heard from her attorneys in 2017.
“She never gave me any indication it was anything other than consensual” and “a one-night stand,” he said.
Breest, 36, earlier gave the jury an extensive account of the alleged assault.
“I said, ‘Stop! Stop! Stop!’” she testified. She sued in 2017 for unspecified damages; there are no criminal charges in the case.
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Haggis, 69, testified that he thought Breest had been flirting with him in encounters at movie premieres and occasional emails about screenings and show business, though Breest has said those interactions were just professional friendliness.
“For five years, I’ve been unable to clear my name, and now I will,” Haggis told jurors.
Haggis and Breest went to his Manhattan apartment following a premiere. She was working for the organizers. Haggis, known for writing the early-2000s best picture Oscar winners “Million Dollar Baby” and “Crash,” was a guest.
He hasn’t yet told the jury his version of his interactions with four other women who testified that he sexually assaulted them on separate occasions between 1996 and 2015.
In testimony that veered from self-deprecating humor to a few tears as he recalled a failed marriage, Haggis did say he has “always been a big flirt” and 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.
Much of Haggis’ testimony has focused on his decades-long membership and highly publicized split in roughly 2009 with the Church of 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.
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