Scoop: Travolta Trial Shines Spotlight on Scientology

Actor says publicly for first time that son Jett had autism

By Courtney Hazlett
|  Thursday, Sep 24, 2009  |  Updated 4:45 AM EDT
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HOLLYWOOD - APRIL 25: Actor John Travolta attends the ceremony honoring former Disney chief Michael D. Eisner with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on April 25, 2008 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Vince Bucci/Getty Images)

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During court proceedings in the Bahamas on Sept. 22, John Travolta said that his 16-year-old son Jett, who died after a having a seizure in January, suffered from autism.

“My son was autistic and he suffered from seizure disorder every five to 10 days,” Travolta told the court.

This appeared to be the first time the actor has publicly recognized Jett’s autism — previously he’d said only that his son suffered from Kawasaki disease, a blood disorder.

The fact that Travolta and wife Kelly Preston have not previously recognized their son’s autism has drawn criticism from many. Some have claimed that the Travoltas' longtime devotion to the Church of Scientology — which separates psychiatric conditions from medical conditions — has prevented them from being open about Jett’s autism.

A source close to the Travolta family said that Jett’s autism “was more on the profound end of the autistic spectrum. He didn’t have meaningful verbal communication skills, and required 24-hour supervision. The family didn’t talk about it.”

"The Church of Scientology has no position on autism," said Tommy Davis, a spokesperson from Scientology International. “As with any medical condition, the Church believes that these matters are best diagnosed and treated by a medial doctor. Scientologists can and do then also seek spiritual assistance." 

Travolta’s testimony was part of an extortion trial that alleges that paramedic Tarrino Lightbourne and his attorney, Pleasant Bridgewater, a Bahamian senator, conspired to extort $25 million from Travolta in return for not publicizing a document that would indicate Travolta didn’t want Jett transported to a hospital.

In the end, Jett was transported to the hospital, so the document seems moot — which is why some wonder why Travolta and Preston are going through the process of litigating.

"Celebrities are constantly being extorted, but you rarely see things get to the point where they go to court over it,” said one source. “There’s talk they’re in court because the church (of Scientology) advises they do that.”

Another recent celebrity extortion case centers around another Scientologist: Tom Cruise.

In July 2007, the FBI arrested Marc Lewis Gittleman and David Hans Schmidt for trying to extort Cruise for $1.3 million in exchange for stolen wedding photos of the actor.

In January 2008, Gittleman pled guilty to interstate transportation of stolen property and was sentenced to two years probation and fined $3,000. Schmidt pled guilty to transmitting threatening communications with the intent to extort, but hanged himself in September 2007.

Sources familiar with the FBI’s case said that other Scientologists were pictured in the stolen photos, and that was part of the drive to prosecute. (Davis did not comment on this case).

In the case of Travolta, Davis said that a Scientology link is “utterly ridiculous” and “the church does not dispense legal advice” and did not advise Travolta and Preston to move forward with their extortion case. 

Keeping tabs: Heigl’s baby
Because it’s inconceivable that Jennifer Aniston is pregnant for like, the second or third time this year, as one magazine asserts, and because it’s equally inconceivable that Brad Pitt is moving out, for at least the fourth or fifth time this year, as another magazine asserts, it’s easy to give this week’s prize to People for their story about Katherine Heigl adopting her baby daughter from Korea.

Competition notwithstanding, Heigl’s story is a compelling one: Not many in Heigl’s position choose to adopt children with special needs. Depending on how frank she is, her story could be extraordinary.

Courtney Hazlett delivers the Scoop Monday through Friday on msnbc.com. Follow Scoop on Twitter @courtneyatmsnbc

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