Scientology's Terrible, Horrible,
Very Bad Year
weeks after the January 12 earthquake that killed over 200,000 Haitians,
actor John Travolta piloted his own Boeing 707 into Port-au Prince, where he
was able to unload food and medical supplies when many others were not.
But instead of celebrating the heroics, journalists
focused on the fact that the longtime member of the Church of Scientology (CoS)
brought along a shipment of E-meters—the signature CoS device that purports
to register the problems people have experienced in their past and present
lives—and a host of yellow-clad Scientology volunteer ministers. Writing on
the NPR Newsblog January 26, Korva Coleman called attention to “controversy”
over the arrival of “Scientologists, who say they are working to heal
injured and ill Haitians with ‘healing touch’.” The next day, a New York
Newsday's headline agreed: “Some question church’s relief efforts in
Unfair, perhaps, since other religious organizations doing relief work
tucked Bibles into their donated blankets, but the gimlet-eyed coverage was
a fitting coda to a symphony of bad press—from the frivolous to the
seriously damaging—that slammed the Church of Scientology in 2009.
terrible, etc. year kicked off on January 5 with a lawsuit filed in Los
Angeles County Court by Marc Headley, a former member of CoS’ elite Sea
Organization, accusing the church of unfair labor practices, including
“refusal to pay minimum wage and overtime” and “engaging in human
trafficking.” The complaint accused the church of the “longstanding practice
of evading laws and depriving workers of basic human rights.”
Sea Org, as it is known, is as mysterious to many rank-and-file
Scientologists as it is to the outside world. Launched in 1968 by
Scientology’s founder, science fiction writer and former Navy junior
lieutenant L. Ron Hubbard, it asks members to sign a billion-year contract
to dedicate their lives to “bring about spiritual freedom of all beings
through the application of LRH’s technology.”
Although the CoS website (www.scientology.org/)
calls the Sea Org a fraternal religious organization whose members are free
to leave at any time, critical websites identify it as a quasi-military unit
that staffs the prestigious orgs (or churches) around the country, from
Clearwater, Florida to Los Angeles. David Miscavige joined the Sea Org out
of high school, later becoming L. Ron Hubbard’s personal assistant and
assuming leadership of the church shortly after Hubbard’s death in 1986.
(While Miscavige’s official title is Chairman of the Board of the Religious
Technology Center, he is described on the CoS website as the Church’s
Worldwide Ecclesiastical Leader.)
Headley’s lawsuit, which was later joined by his wife Claire, would
percolate through the year, as more and more Sea Org members defected (or
“blew,” in Scientology jargon).
the pop culture front, on January 28 Huffington Post outed high-ranking
Scientologist Nancy Cartwright (the voice of Bart Simpson) for making robo-calls
in which “Bart” invited church members to a conference with the promise, “It
will be a blast, man!” The next day, Simpsons’ executive Al Jean was
obliged to assure viewers on Foxnews.com January 29 that the show “does not,
and never has, endorsed any religion, philosophy or system of beliefs any
more profound than Butterfinger bars.” The calls stopped.
February 16, the BBC website reported that Scientology had been banned in
the Karaganda region of Kazakhstan. According to the story, Judge Zhaksylyk
Baymoldin ordered the “liquidation” for “illegal entrepreneurship and
profit-making,” based in part on a price list of spiritual services found in
a raid of the local Scientology office.
added another country to those that do not recognize Scientology as a
legitimate religion, including the U.K., Germany, Israel, Canada, Ireland,
Greece, and Denmark.
France, which recognizes Scientology as a cult, the trial of six top CoS
officials for organized fraud got under way May 25. This was the culmination
of a nine-year investigation by investigating magistrate Jean-Christophe
Hullin, who, Time magazine’s Bruce Crumley reported May 28, described
Scientology as “first and foremost a commercial business” interested in
“ensnaring psychologically fragile people.” The story was big news around
the world, getting prominent play from the Irish Times to the
June 5, Kate Linthicum of the Los Angeles Times broke the story that
Wikipedia had blocked access to multiple accounts traced to CoS-operated
computers along with those of some of the church’s most vocal critics: The
two sides were engaged in a fierce battle of editing hundreds of entries
relating to Scientology. While CoS spokesperson Karin Pouw told the
Times that she was “not aware of any editing,” Wikipedia’s Dan Rosenthal
tartly responded, “If you don’t want to play by the rules, go home.”
biggest PR blow came not from cyberspace, however, but from old fashioned
investigative reporting—by Thomas C. Tobin and Joe Childs of the St.
Petersburg Times. On June 21, “Scientology: The Truth Rundown”—the first
article in what would turn into a five-part series—made an explosive case
against church head David Miscavige.
The main accusers—Marty Rathbun (former Inspector General
of the Religious Technology Center), Mike Rinder (former Chief Spokesman for
the CoS), Tom De Vocht (former head of the Church’s Spiritual Headquarters
in Clearwater), and Amy Scobee (a 28-year Sea Org member who worked at the
Los Angeles’ Celebrity Center)—had worked by Miscavige’s side for decades.
Their videotaped interviews, which can be seen in full
laid out a litany of sensational charges, including:
• Miscavige hit Rinder
at least 50 times
• Rinder, Rathbun and
DeVocht were encouraged by Miscavige to beat other Sea Org members to prove
• De Vocht estimated
that from 2003 to 2005, he saw Miscavige strike staffers as many as 100
Org members were humiliated, made to publically confess their “sins,”
separated from their families, and forced to play bizarre games of musical
chairs in which the losers were sent to remote Scientology outposts.
Church staff members covered up incriminating evidence after the death of
Scientologist Lisa MacPherson, who died after 17 days after being held in
isolation for “treatment.”
Though all four voiced regrets about leaving the church,
they agreed in blaming Miscavige for the violent direction it had taken.
“You cannot call yourself a religious leader as you beat people, as you
confine people, as you rip apart families,” Scobee told the Times.
Although Miscavige did not agree to be interviewed by the Times, he
sent the paper a letter before the article was published claiming that he
had never received a response to his offer to meet and provide “information
annihilating the credibility of your sources.”
CoS spokesman Tommy Davis went further (and louder) in his denunciation of
the defectors (listen to his
audio interview), telling the Times
that it was Rathbun who bore responsibility for all the violence and at one
point shouting, “And that’s what pisses me off! Because this guy is a
fucking lunatic! And I don’t have to explain how or why he became one.”
that, the Scientology story took off. On June 22, the AP went with
“Scientology Smackdown: Report Claims Abuse”, which was picked up in over
180 television and newspaper websites. The 500 comments on the Times
website in the first 48 hours (3-1 anti-Miscavige) were followed by blog
posts on Huffington Post, Gawker, and L.A. Weekly. The Big Question came
from Village Voice blogger Tony Ortega: “How huge is this blow to
responded in the July issue of Freedom Magazine, placing Miscavige on
the cover and featuring a special section entitled, “The Story the S. P.
Times Refused to Tell.” It was a story consisting largely of ad hominem
attacks on the defectors: “con man…repeat adulteress…lunatic
fringe…merchants of chaos.”
August 1, the Times ran Part 2: “Strength in their numbers: More
Church of Scientology defectors come forward with accounts of abuse.” Fear
and accounts of more abuses poured in from various former members,
emboldened, the article surmised, “by the raw revelations of four defectors
from the church’s executive ranks who broke years of silence.”
one interview, 15-year staffer Jeff Hawkins described being punched in the
stomach by Miscavige, who then asked, “Do you know why I punched you?”
say, ‘No, sir.’”
says, ‘To show you who’s in charge.’”
fall brought more trouble. On October 22 and 23, Martin Bashir—the reporter
who got Michael Jackson to admit to sharing his bed with
preteens—interviewed Scientology spokesman Davis on ABC’s Nightline. While
game for defending Miscavige, David lost his cool when Bashir started asking
about the more esoteric doctrines of the faith, which are supposed to be
restricted to advanced members.
Before Bashir could finish his question, “Is it true that understanding the
origins of the human race according to Xenu and the Intergalactic Emperor…,”
Davis ripped off his microphone and stalked off the set.
public relations repair job it wasn’t.
days later, the French court convicted CoS of fraud, fining the six church
leaders 400,000 Euros but stopping short of sending them to prison or
banning the organization. “We think that this is really a modern Inquisition
and that this is really dangerous for the freedom of religion in our
country,” French CoS spokesman Eric Roux told CNN.
the home front, the Times exposé gained greater credibility in
October when two former Sea Org members, Marc Headly and Nancy Many,
published exposés of their own: Blown For Good: Behind The Iron
Curtain Of Scientology and My Billion Year Contract.
Even more damaging,
well-known Hollywood director Paul Haggis, who won Academy Awards for Best
Director (Crash) and Best Screenplay (Million Dollar Baby),
resigned from CoS in a letter addressed to Davis on Marty Rathbun’s blog and
widely reprinted on October 25. In it, Haggis spoke of his disappointment at
the San Diego org support of Proposition 8, which overturned same-sex
marriage in California:
“The church’s refusal to denounce the actions of these bigots, hypocrites
and homophobes is cowardly…Silence is consent, Tommy. I refuse to consent.”
Haggis also mentioned
that the Times’ series had left him “dumbstruck and horrified.”
On November 14, the
Times published “Caught between Scientology and her husband, Annie
Tidman chose the church,” which focused on the CoS policy of putting
pressure on people to “disconnect,” as they put it, from their families.
On December 31, the
series wrapped up with “Three of Scientology’s elite parishioners keep
faith, but leave the church.” The article described how Geir Isene, Mary Jo
Leavitt, and Sherry Katz had blown after reaching the church’s most exalted
level, that of “Operating Thetan VIII.” All three were quoted as saying that
they were interested in new leadership and reform, and it was clear from
many posts on www.freezone.org
that many rank-and-file CoS members found themselves in the same
position—alienated from the church but true to its teachings. Not that there
weren’t a significant number—924 listed on
as of February 16—who just wanted out.
Whether CoS could really
survive as a membership organization was, in fact, a real question. The 2008
Trinity American Religious Identification Survey showed a drop in the number
of Americans identifying as Scientologists from 45,000 in 2001 to 25,000.
For its part, CoS put on
a brave face, issuing “Church of Scientology: 2009 the best year ever,” a
December 29 press release predicting that 2010 would see “further
unprecedented growth, with greater expansion and success in ministering to
its parishioners and their communities than ever in its history.”
But after 2009, it has
become impossible for insiders as well as outsiders to pay no attention to
the dysfunction behind the curtain.