REUTERS - A woman who brought a sexual misconduct suit against the former co-director of the Kabbalah Center, a spiritual group whose brand of Jewish mysticism has drawn many celebrity devotees, was awarded $177,500 in damages by a jury on Tuesday.
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The Los Angeles County Superior Court jury found Yehuda Berg, 43, known in Hollywood as "a rabbi to the stars," liable for inflicting emotional distress on a former follower, Jena Scaccetti, according to her lawyer, Alain Bonavida.
The case marked the latest controversy faced over the years by the Kabbalah Center, a non-profit organization founded in 1965 by Berg's late father, Philip, a rabbi who espoused teachings rooted in metaphysical principles of Jewish belief.
The center has attracted such stars as Madonna, Lindsay Lohan, Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher among its followers, who are often identified by red-string wrist bracelets worn as a talisman.
Scaccetti accused Berg, who is married, of inviting her to an apartment and giving her alcohol and pain pills before groping her legs as he tried to overpower her.
Berg acknowledged in trial testimony that he offered Scaccetti a drink and some Vicodin, saying she had complained of painful kidney stones, and that he touched her leg to see if "anything intimate" might happen.
He denied forcing himself on her.
Jurors rejected Scaccetti's claim that Berg's actions constituted battery but they found he acted with malice, Bonavida said.
Attorneys for Berg and the Kabbalah Center could not be reached for comment late on Tuesday.
The jury awarded Scaccetti $135,000 in compensatory and punitive damages from Berg and also found that the center supervised him negligently, Bonavida said.
Scaccetti was awarded another $42,500 to be paid by the organization, he said.
"My client Ms. Scaccetti is very happy that the jury found in her favor and awarded her damages and is especially happy that by bringing this lawsuit she may have saved others from being victimized by Yehuda Berg," he said.
In her lawsuit, Scaccetti sought tens of million of dollars in damages. However, the case took a turn against her when, according to court records, the judge barred her attorney from calling an expert on religious cults to the witness stand.
Critics in mainstream Judaism accuse the Kabbalah movement of corrupting the ancient, esoteric mystic traditions of the faith by taking them out of context and repackaging them with a popular new-age bent.