The last several years have been exceedingly unkind to Scientology. In 2007 the Belgian State Prosecution Office announced that it thought the organization should be prosecuted for crime. In late October, 2009, a French court found Scientology, France guilty of severe fraud in “cheating” vulnerable members of their meager life savings. The Court fined Scientology 600,000 euros and placed Alan Rosenberg, the head of Scientology, France on a two-year suspended sentence. Scientology claims religious persecution in the case and pledged to appeal, if necessary to the European Court of Human Rights. Scientology, following its doctrine of “fair game” has been notoriously litigious over the years. “Fair game” got so defined, in the words of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology: “Those who seek to damage the church may be deprived of property or impaired by any means by any Scientologist without any discipline of the Scientologist. May be tricked, sued or lied to or destroyed.”
Recent allegations about Scientology rely less on the organization’s belief system, which represents a strange amalgam of pseudo-psychology; a Gnostic claim to reach a stage above the possibility of human sin or frailty; reliance on a pseudo-scientific machine that is supposed to detect human lies or negative blockages and, a long process of auditing to remove blockages toward achieving the desired stage of being “clear.” The process can cost anywhere from $25,000 to the neighborhood of $1 million. The recent attacks on Scientology focus mainly on its behaviors, many of which are distasteful but may be legal; some of which are, arguably, criminal.
The St. Petersberg Times published a series of articles in 2009, recounting some of the alleged internal practices of Scientology: a internal culture of systematic physical violence; its dis-connection policy (isolating Scientology recruits from family or outside influences); an “ecclesiastical justice” system that involves public confessions, isolation, forced imprisonments; claims that the organization coerces abortions among the women members of its elite Sea Org., a near monastic sub- set of volunteer workers. The Times articles, relying on testimony of defectors, recount horror stories of physical abuse, families being ripped apart, forced isolation. One famous case of forced isolation, Lisa McPherson, led to her death in mysterious circumstances, after 17 days of isolation.
What is not entirely clear, even to sociologists of religion who have studied the group, such as David Bromley from Virginia Commonwealth University, is how much of the behaviors of Scientology recruits are voluntary or coercive, therapeutic or punitive. A Times editorial printed Nov. 6, 2009 asked: “Why are government authorities looking the other way? The Internal Revenue Service has ample reason to reconsider the decision to grant Scientology exempt status as a religion. Law enforcement ought to investigate whether the church’s restraint on members’ free movement crossed a legal line.”
In the past, however, and allegedly more recently, evidence exists of actual criminal behavior by high-placed Scientology operatives. In 1979, Mary Sue Hubbard (wife of the founder) and ten other Scientologists were convicted in U.S. Federal Court for conspiring to steal government documents (related to Scientology) and obstructing justice. In December 2009, Rex Fowler, a Scientologist minister, murdered his business partner in Denver who had threatened to expose Fowler’s illegal donations to Scientology. On November 16, 2009, Senator Nick Xenophon, a member of the Australian upper house, entered a parliamentary motion asking for a criminal investigation of Scientology in Australia.
Xenophon’s intervention (which prompted the Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd to comment to the press that the charges were grave and that many Australians had serious questions about Scientology) introduced evidence from former Scientology members containing allegations of false imprisonment, coerced abortions, embezzlement of church funds, destroying evidence about suspicious deaths, cover-ups of child sexual abuse and murder. A young Australian, Edward Mc Bride, who had gone through a large amount of borrowed money to pay for his Scientology auditing, committed suicide. The day before his suicide (there are many suicides among Scientologists), he was harassed by Scientology members. The Scientology file on him was removed from Australia and the government unable to access it. Scientology, typically, responds to its critics by claiming religious persecution. Xenophon responded by calling Scientology a “criminal organization which hides behind its religious beliefs.” “Ultimately, this is not about religious freedom. In Australia, there are no limits on what you can believe. But there are limits on how you can behave. It is called the law and no one is above it.”
In Italy, in the late fall of 2009 the Daughters of Saint Paul published a book by fourteen ex-Scientologists, The Courage to Speak Out. They had earlier published a book by Maria Pia Gardin, an ex-Scientologist. Scientology tried to block the publication and is now suing Gardin for libel. Clearly, Scientology’s record on freedom of speech is quite spotty. When You Tube put on the web an embarrassing video of Tom Cruise making exaggerated claims about Scientology’s superiority, Scientology, claiming a copyright infringement, forced its removal. This attempt at censorship of free speech evoked a new response to the organization by computer nerds and an internet network called Anonymous. Throughout 2008 and 2009, Anonymous protested against Scientology’s scorn for free speech, its policy of dis-connection, its financial exploitation of the vulnerable. Anonymous may well, itself, have crossed a legal line in hacking into Scientology sites on the internet or taking them down. The group also organized many protests in front of Scientology offices all over the world. Scientology, which is notorious for using the confession material of its members to blackmail or disgrace them if they defect, set up a web site, Anonymous Facts, which put on the web names and personal information of several supposed Anonymous members. Eventually, You Tube suspended that Scientology account for its dubious behaviors of spreading such personal defamation.
What to make of all of these allegations? Scientology tends to defend against its detractors (especially defectors) by reminding the public of the sour grapes of disgruntled former employees and devotees. There is some truth to that rejoinder but simply too many allegations, from a multiple number of former Scientology members (many of whom held high posts in the organization), recounting similar stories of forced abortions for female Sea Org members, doctoring or destroying of internal documents etc. Clarity should be maintained between genuine religious freedom to believe what one wants and allegations of criminal or legally unacceptable behaviors. For me, religious liberty implies complete freedom of exit from religion. Scientology makes it difficult for disgruntled former members to leave, except on its own long-drawn out terms involving confessions that the member is harmful to the church and promises not to sue Scientology. Just leaving on one’s own is punished by being hounded by private investigators. I suspect with so much smoke, somewhere there must be a real fire. While the organization hates the term, it is a totalitarian “cult.” It just may also be criminal.
John Coleman, S.J.