With All the recent celeb-centric talk on Scientology. you’d be forgiven that the much maligned religion is only open to the citizens of Tinseltown. In fact, there are circa. 600 active members in Ireland. GREG SPRING attending an international, anti Scientology conference that was held in Dublin last month and was granted a look inside the inner sanctum.
I am thankful to say I have never suffered from an obsession with celebrity culture. I consider it a horrendous affliction. I could think of nothing more banal than discussing the love life of two people I have never met, and am never likely to meet. But, in the case of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, the breakdown of their marriage has brought Scientology in to sharp focus, and that is the sideshow that has me intrigued.
After six years together, Katie Holmes has filed for divorce, with reports in the US media suggesting she did not want her daughter, Suri, being raised within the Church of Scientology, where Cruise is a prominent member. The divorce, which some presumed would be a typically long and drawn-out affair, was settled within H days. As a protracted court case would likely have dragged Scientology’s already fragile name through the mud, it is perhaps unsurprising this case was settled so swiftly.
Established in 1953 by L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology has long been shrouded in controversy. From the far-fetched claims of its founder to accusations of harassment and abuse, the organisation has often found itself defending its beliefs and practices.
The church, described by some as a “cult”, is reportedly worth billions, and has a reputation for being highly litigious. Scientology craves respect and validity, and they will protect their name at all costs.
The message from within is a very positive one. If you are willing to apply the self-help principles of Dianetics, Scientology’s “bible”, then you will rid your mind of personal traumas and unwanted emotions. With this foundation in place, you have the potential of reaching the state of ‘clear, which grants you total control of your emotions and the environment around you. Spiritual purification requires more than just self sacrifice, though. Each level achieved can cost hundreds, if not thousands, of euro.
“Celebrity” has long played an important role in the recruitment process for the church. Both Tom Cruise and Kirstie Alley have claimed the principles of Dianetics helped them overcome dyslexia and drug addiction respectively. Not only -this, but Cruise, from this position of clarity, has claimed to have helped others rid themselves of addiction. “We are the authorities on getting people off drugs; he claimed, “we are the authority of the mind; people need help, they come to me”. His ego has rocketed into deep space, it seems. How very fitting.
However, it has been the testimonies of high ranking ex-members and celebrities that have struck Scientology at its core. Mike Rinder was a former director of the church, who broke ranks in 2007. Since then, he has openly criticised the practices of the church. Practices that he himself had previously defended with ferocity.
In an interview with the BBC’s John Sweeney, Rinder admitted “people are not able to think for themselves, they really are being repressed, they are being abused”. He claims to have been “disassociated” from his own family, who are all still members of the church. In many ways, he has had to start life all over again. Interestingly, Mike still believes in the principles of Scientology, but refuses to align himself to the practices of the current administration.
The negative experiences of ex-members have been much publicised, but to find out more I went along to ‘Dublin Offines’, an international anti-scientology press conference that was held in Dublin last month. The conference was organised by ex-members, as well as outspoken critics of Scientology.
It was a surreal experience from the word go. I arrived at the conference just before 9am on a wet Saturday morning, and there I received a strange but nevertheless friendly welcome at the front door from two masked members of the group, Anonymous. Walking past them, and through the privately hired security, I entered the main room where the conference was being held.
I was confronted with more of the same, dozens of men and women, masked or veiled to protect their identity. It was all a little disorientating for
me. I couldn’t quite pin down how much of this was real. The church’s heavy handed approach to dealing with dissenters is well documented, but this sort of drama seemed very otherworldly.
Shortly after I arrived, a veiled woman in black ran into the main room, claiming there were men stationed across the road, staring at those entering the building. She pulled two masked men from the crowd and ran outside. This was all incredibly strange. There was a sense of excitement in the room among ex-members. They appeared to be enjoying the drama.
I must admit, there was almost a “cult”-like feel to this meeting. Not in a sinister sense it must be said – I didn’t feel uncomfortable – but in the togetherness, the dressing up, the clandestine nature of it all. Even the man responsible for bringing the conference together, Pete Griffiths, looked every part the charismatic leader in his metallic grey suit, red tie and dyed blond hair. The “cult” analogy ends there, but I still didn’t know how much of this was anchored in reality. Was their behaviour borne out of paranoia or necessity?
After a number of technical difficulties and a short delay, the conference began. A number of ex-members spoke, and for most, recounting this period in their lives appeared genuinely distressing. Some were reduced to tears. It was in moments like this where I saw a genuine tenderness among members of the group. They were not only here to warn others against the perils of Scientology, they were providing one another with much needed support. Everyone seemed to know each other, even though the conference was made up of people from all corners of the globe.
The first to speak was John Duigan, author of the book The ampler. John was a member of the Sea Organisation for 22 years, the area of Scientology that is said to boast the organisation’s most dedicated followers. In return for free accommodation and board, members are obliged to sign a one-billion-year contract with the church, devoting themselves in this life and the next.
John lasted just 22 years, and talked of his experiences when he realised he needed to break free from the church: “You’re monitored 24 hours a day, any letters you may receive are read, any calls you make are monitored.” He claims that “break you down to wear you out” is a frequently used tactic. John considered suicide at one point during his time there, but even at this point outside help wasn’t sought. Scientology retained total control over his existence.
Also invited to speak was Sharone Stainforth, an ex-member of the church who was indoctrinated at a very young age via the membership of her parents. She seemed uncomfortable with public speaking, reading directly from pre-prepared notes, and appeared nervous to begin with. It was, at times, quite difficult to listen to her story. She appeared to be the person most profoundly affected by it all, breaking down on more than one occasion. As a child, Sharone lived aboard the Apollo, L Ron Hubbard’s first colony. There she would witness many examples of what she would now understand to be breaches of basic human rights. She herself was abused by a senior member of the church, who was “moved on” rather than arrested and charged. It was all starting to sound very familiar: an organisation that put reputational risk above doing what was right.
I was surprised to discover that ‘slam poet’ Jamie De Woulfe was also present. His connection to Scientology was via his great grandfather – none other than L Ron Hubbard. Jamie describes the organisation as “probably one of the most dangerous cults of the last century, and is a criminal scam that brainwashes you along the way”. He said that their “parasitic” nature “has the ability to destroy people”. He clearly holds the organisation in contempt, and said he felt it was his “mandate” to destroy the myth of his great grandfather and the church.
Scientologists are often, perhaps understandably, mocked for believing. From claims of a trip to Venus by L. Ron Hubbard, to the existence of Xenu, who Hubbard claimed brought billions of his people to earth in a spacecraft 75 million years ago, it does require more than a stretch of the imagination. But it does present us with an opportunity to examine our own beliefs. We have to be honest and ask, are the claims made by Scientologists any more ludicrous than those made by members of other faiths?
So it is perhaps best we avoid mocking belief, no matter how at odds with common sense it may be, and no matter how tempting. Attacking belief presents the easiest opportunity for someone belonging to the Scientology community to avoid the very serious questions they must answer. When mocked, suddenly they become victims of bigotry. It is an easy avenue of escape that we shouldn’t open up. The charges brought against Scientology aren’t based on their belief system, but serious concerns surrounding their actions.
For a long time in Ireland, the Catholic Church was allowed to operate within its own moral framework, apparently above the laws laid down by the state. Indeed, many of those laws were, and still are, heavily influenced by the Vatican. One of the basic principles of religion has always been never to question. We are told that everything happens for a reason, but we are not encouraged to question what that reason maybe. Throughout history, one of faith’s greatest weapons is the removal of free thought and expression. Ireland’s very troubled relationship with the Catholic Church clearly tells us that refusing to contest and question leads to a corruption of power.
It is an acknowledgement of that very history that should force us to demand that the Church of Scientology operates with complete transparency, and that it is held to account for the actions of its members. This should apply to all faiths equally. No organisation, be it religious or otherwise, should be allowed to operate within our state in a clandestine manner.
With the evidence presented, it is difficult for me to identify the positives of Scientology. It may offer structure for some, but structure can be found in many different forms.
I am inherently suspicious of an organisation that needs to charge for each level of spiritual development, and their insufficient response to claims of human rights abuse and harassment can’t but leave me with a suspicious mind.
It was probably that suspicious mind that led me to question a call to my house a couple of weeks ago. Five days after attending the conference; while I was at work, a couple from California called to our door claiming their grandparents once lived in our house. Caught a little off guard, my housemate said they wandered in without invitation, and started taking pictures. Just as they were about to ascend the stairs, they were asked to wrap it up and leave.
I have no doubt that it was just a strange coincidence. After all, it would be wildly self indulgent to think it could have been anything else. That is how paranoia works, I suppose, but while mystery surrounds Scientology, can they really expect anything else?
• The Church of Scientology declined to comment on the conference on the basis that they didn’t think the people involved warranted a comment or response.
Scientology, by an anti-Scientologist
MIKE GARDE, Director of Dialogue Ireland, reveals the predatory tactics the Church of Scientology employ to undermine and quell any organisation that opposes them, including the very event that our reporter attended.
Generally when people want to organise a conference to discuss their experiences with a cult group they try to organise a secret meeting and hope the group does not find out. But Scientology is not your usual Church. They have a covert ‘preying’ department called OSA. The Church that ‘preys together stays together. They will send a dirty ticks team to try to neutralise an. event.
A few years ago I was invited to a conference in London, and just before it started it was moved at the last minute. Why? Because the Scientologists started a noisy investigation and told the venue hosts the conference organisers were a hate group and were a danger to free speech. And because the organisers had not told the hosts, it looked like they were covering something up.
The result is that no publicity is issued and Scientology controls the flow of information. The way to deal with this is to use these events to educate the public into the true nature of Scientology. Publicity and transparency are the means to this end.
In regard to the Teachers’ Club – which was not the first venue considered – it was necessary before signing on the bottom line to totally brief them on the kind of event it was. They had to explain the use of masks and the general background to Anonymous and the way Scientologists try to have events cancelled as a matter of course.
The first venue freaked at the idea of having people who wished to protect their identity. They would not have given it a second thought in another context, where anonymity didn’t need to be protected. However, people are afraid of Scientology and take the easy route: NO.
Once these points were made with management, the place was paid for and the event was made public to allow the Scientologists to fall into their usual trap of waiting until the last minute and then scupper the event.
Two days before the event, two key members of the Church of Scientology who cannot be identified arrived (see above). They claimed that the police had suggested that they report their concerns about the dissidents and the Anonymous hackers to the Teachers’ Club. The manager, who had been briefed and who had also formed his own views on the conference and is a great believer in free speech, politely told them to report any criminal activity to the police and to leave the premises.
Are we all cult members? asks Una Mullally
Most people agree that Scientology is bizarre and sinister but is there really all that much difference between what we think of cult behaviour and the habits of everyday lives?
Define ‘cult. It’s a word that’s been thrown around a lot since Katie Holmes’ Not Without My Daughter sprint to freedom. With the surrounding press (including details that Tom Cruise is basically one step from being the Pope of Scientology, and profiles of leader David Miscavige) confirming that there’s no doubt that Scientology is one weird organisation, it shows that cults are things that are secretive and odd. But there are plenty of everyday practices that are cultish. There’s a certain irony that Holmes busted Suri from the strange, controlling restrictions of Scientology and enrolled her in a Catholic school in New York. That should sort her out, right? Er, probs not.
The word cult naturally creates a shorthand for the sort of Eyes Wide Shut deep-in-a-basement goings on that simultaneously fascinate and repel most steady-minded people. Is a cult a mysterious club that outsiders don’t really know much about, yet insiders adore? Well, that could just be like working for a company that the employers love and others don’t really get. Is it about being very enthusiastic about something in which the participants say you absolutely have to get involved? That sounds like Bikram yoga. Is it about parting with loads of cash and refusing to use an alternative? Then that would mean devotees of everything from Apple products to shoes designed by Kanye West.
The thing is, we all want to be part of an exclusive club. It’s the reason people still want to get behind velvet ropes, or go to that new restaurant before the masses do, or get invited to preview screenings, or find the one last glowstick-free beach in Thailand. Human beings are made for cults. That’s why they’re so compelling. We like charismatic leaders. We like order and being ordered. We’re curious and bound to try new things. We like believing in things, even blindly, just to give ourselves some kind of greater meaning.
Don’t get me wrong, I think Scientology is a bizarre and sinister forum with a ridiculous belief system and very strange practices. But before we make fun of it, we should examine the cults we all belong to.
From loyal consumption to our dedicated fitness regimes, from religions – which are all cults, really-to our desire to be a part of something. Even when Groucho Marx said he’d never be part of something that would have him as a member, they still named a private club after him.
Scientology, in the eyes of an Irish Catholic
With the dear connection between Cruise’s beliefs and his divorce from Katie Holmes, MICHAEL KELLY examines the religious impact and relevance this might have for Catholics around the world.
It is to her childhood faith of Catholicism that Katie Holmes has turned after the swift collapse of her marriage. Her decision to become a parishioner at the Church of St Francis Xavier in New York will surely fuel speculation that her split from Tom Cruise has more to do with her former husband’s rigid adherence to the Church of Scientology and Holmes’s unease at Cruise’s zeal to bring up their daughter, Sufi, in what many people consider to be a cult.
Perhaps it’s merely coincidental, but I can’t fail to notice that all three of Tom Cruise’s wives left him when they were 33 years old, the age Christians traditionally believe Jesus Christ was when he was crucified, died and then rose from the dead.
There are few systems of belief that are as controversial as Scientology in the 21st Century. The split of two of the movement’s most high-profile members has thrust it back into the media spotlight in a way not seen since a 2005 episode of South Park ridiculed the organisation’s most esoteric beliefs.
As reports spread that Holmes feared she was being monitored by private investigators hired by scientologists, something the Church of Scientology has denied, even Rupert Murdoch weighed in. “Scientology back in news; he said on Twitter, “Very weird cult, but big, big money involved with Tom Cruise either number two or three in hierarchy.” He later added: ‘Watch Katie Holmes and Scientology story develop. Something creepy, maybe even evil, about these people’.
Scientology differs from Judaism, Christianity and Islam in that the great world religions emphasise the need for God to intervene to save humanity. Scientologists believe that with the right amount of tinkering – called auditing – human beings can save themselves. It’s easy to see why such a way of living life appeals to the rich and powerful, including many Hollywood stars.
When you’re at the top of your game with seemingly limitless possibilities, the idea of relying on a power outside yourself is not very appealing. Scientology relies heavily on convincing very wealthy people that – for a price – they can overcome all things and live the perfect life. In this sense it’s an elaborate mix of some highly questionable psychotherapy and quasi-religious beliefs. When it comes to Scientology, there’s usually as much a whiff of sulphur as there is money.
Critics accuse the organisation of ruthlessly milking its members of money, with the cost of becoming ‘clear’ limning to tens of thousands of euro. One can only imagine how much it cost Tom Cruise to become a ‘Class 4 OT7 Platinum Meritorious and LAS Freedom Medal of Valour Winner’.
Michael Kelly is Deputy Editor of The Irish Catholic newspaper. @MKellyhishCath