The Bridge to Freedom?
Sam Washington and Phil Kemp spent months trying to find out more about the mysterious Church of Scientology. Their research won them a BBC File on 4 Investigative Journalism award. Here they reveal their troubling findings
Scientology, as any paid up member of the 1950's founded Church will tell you, is the "study of knowing how to know". He or she might even try a bit of Greek on you, explaining the word's etymology and flashing you the fixed dedicated stare, said by the Church's founder, science fiction writer, L Ron Hubbard, to be the mark of the effective scientologist. But despite a claimed eight million followers and the boast of worldwide and high-profile celebrity endorsements from Hollywood names like Tom Cruise and John Travolta, most of us remain ignorant of it. For the uninitiated, Scientology's adherents believe in a world without war, crime and insanity and they believe it can be achieved through the power of the mind. They pay for courses and receive counselling or 'auditing', progressing on what they call the 'Bridge to Freedom', at the end of which they're promised salvation not just for this lifetime but for all their future incarnations. During the course of our investigation, we were to come across numerous examples of ex-scientologists who no longer approved of what they'd come to know of the alternative religion, and some who blame it for destroying their current incarnation, never mind the afterlife. We wanted to know more about the church where devotees pay rather than pray their way to spiritual enlightenment.
Scientology's A-list followers keep it in the headlines but a growing number of law suits against it means it's not always good news. In one of the most recent cases, Dublin sports shop owner Mary Johnston reputedly settled out of court for an estimated two million euros. She sought compensation for alleged psychological and psychiatric injuries she claimed were inflicted on her while she was a member of the Church. The settlement silenced her, but not before a three-month trial during which the court heard allegations of mind control and physical intimidation.
All of this is a far cry from most people's first contact with the Church. After all, the people we met when we went into a Scientology office expressing interest and wanting information could not have been more accommodating. So, for those who speak out or bring legal cases against the Church, where does it all go wrong?
We met Luke through the website of Operation Clambake (www.xenu.net), an organisation critical of the Church of Scientology and its practices. He told us about his own experience of his time as a 'PC' or 'Pre-Clear' and gave us a human face to put to all the stories and allegations we had heard. It was a matter of weeks since Luke had left the Church and he had never before spoken publicly about his experiences. He was anxious about meeting us, saying "I was worried that you were OSA [Office of Special Affairs], Scientology spies coming to get me off to somewhere quiet and either kill me, beat me up or take me back." To allay his fears we agreed to meet him in a public place and to guarantee him anonymity.
The scars were still visible. His hands were ravaged with the most aggressive eczema Luke said his specialist had ever seen. But the effect on him of fifteen years with the Church went beyond the external signs of his still strikingly emaciated frame, the eczema and the conjunctivitis that had him dabbing at his eyes with a tissue as we spoke. He said the worst of it was psychological. Even to the untrained observer of the mental state, it was clear that all was not well with Luke. "It's stolen fifteen years of my life," he said, drawing deeply from his cigarette.
For Luke it began as it often does. Like many students upon graduation, he was not sure of his next step and looked for some guidance. Luke was stopped on the street in Manchester by a Scientology 'recruiter' who offered him a free personality test. The test was then analysed by a Scientology staff member who told him that he could help himself to reach his true potential by simply signing up for a few courses. And so began his fifteen years with the Church. The initial instructions led to more advanced ones and 'auditing' sessions, followed by even more courses. All of these, he was told, were moving him along the Bridge to Freedom.
What he hadn't anticipated was the cost of the courses, which rises steeply as you move up the Bridge. Graham Baldwin is an expert on alternative religions and offers counselling to those who have parted ways with their erstwhile faith. He shared his concerns with us about not just the cost of the religion, but the methods used to part members from their cash.
"Scientology is obviously the most 'expensive' religion that one can be involved in. One of the saddest cases reported was that of a young man with severe learning disabilities. He met somebody from a Scientology office and they actually marched him to a cash dispenser and extracted money from him. He had no real understanding of what was going on."
Baldwin also told us the story of a businessman who was recruited off the street, advised to take courses to improve his business confidence and accordingly handed over £26,000 in a mere six weeks. Unsurprisingly, the man didn't have this order of money and so, according to Baldwin, he was persuaded to cash in an endowment policy set aside for his disabled son. These were just two of countless instances related to us by Baldwin of members getting out of their depth with the sheer cost of Scientology.
For Luke, funding the courses was a matter of 'going on staff', living on Scientology premises and working in exchange for his absolution. But unlike the glossy image that continued to attract Luke, the work he undertook over the years was sometimes far from glamorous. He told us of working twelve-hour shifts digging ditches and of keeping watch over an abandoned building at the height of winter with a burnt out car as his office. During this time, the Church impressed on Luke that any friends or relatives who were not supportive of his faith were 'suppressives'. He was instructed to write a 'disconnection' missive to his stepfather, who had questioned Luke's involvement with Scientology. This, combined with Hubbard's lessons encouraging a different way of thinking and a new scientifically-influenced vocabulary, gradually diminished Luke's involvement with the outside world. This, he thought, was all a necessary part of progressing on the Bridge to Freedom.
His physical condition suffered. Triggered by the Church's 'Purification Rundown' where he was required to sit in a sauna for up to eight hours a day, Luke's eczema over the years became worse. He recalls being told that the Church did not allow medical treatment as the blood seeped through his shirt. His physical appearance caught the attention of senior Scientology staff who no longer wanted Luke to work in a public role. So, Luke was sent to the Celebrity Centre in Hollywood, where they needed someone to work night shifts to polish the floors and windows. His physical condition became so bad that he tried to leave the US and return home for some medical treatment. "I realised I had to get out. I was almost physically dead."
His request was denied and money sent to him by his mother for a plane ticket, he claims, never made it past the censoring procedures. Eventually, he got the money sent to the local post office and escaped, fleeing on foot and out of the clutches of a Scientology security guard to the airport.
Luke's exit may sound dramatic, but many we spoke to were not surprised by his tale. It is part of the creed, we were told time and again, that those critical of the Church, whether inside or out may be 'sued, lied to or destroyed'. Baldwin told us that Scientology has a potent bargaining counter to play here. He says that even in the recruitment stage, the Church is building up information, or 'intelligence' on the individual, often consisting of personal details and confessions. Members are obliged to sign a contract, which gives Scientology, and Scientology alone, ownership of all information imparted to them. According to Baldwin, this is used as a powerful psychological deterrent against those who wish to leave. We were shown a written statement from one ex-member who remains terrified by the information the Church holds on him.
The Church's PR machine told us repeatedly about the millions of followers in over one hundred countries around the world. We asked Scientology's UK PR official, Graham Wilson why, given the seemingly good intentions of the religion, did so many want to speak out against it? He pointed to human nature, saying: "Hundreds of thousands of people have been saved from drugs and from difficulties in their lives. Their lives are now radically changed and improved and we've given them a life that they can be proud of and happy with. It is in proportion to the amount of good an organisation does that they will have that proportion of people opposing it."
When we put Luke's story to him, we were warned that anyone who turns against a religion is an 'apostate'. To justify to themselves their decision to leave, ex-members, he told us, will naturally turn against them, sometimes violently. He was unwilling to discuss the specifics of someone whose anonymity we insisted on protecting. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a man who spends a great deal of his time defending the Church against allegations from ex-members and journalists, our meeting was a hostile one, which jarred with the artificially idyllic calm of the surroundings at Scientology's baronial castle-style headquarters in East Grinstead. His response was inevitably well rehearsed. He had an academic article on apostates immediately to hand to support his argument that we were strenuously advised to read.
Throughout, the Church tried desperately to make it all make sense for us. But like the very name Scientology - a jarring hybrid of religion and reason - the arguments put to us were convoluted and contradictory, only adding to the impression that, in spite of all the past transgressions its members claim to have exorcised with the help of L Ron Hubbard and his books, there are skeletons in need of attention in the Church's own closet.
Sam Washington is a freelance broadcast journalist. Phil Kemp is a journalist for commercial radio.
Following the publication of this article, we received the below response from Scientology's Graeme Wilson
------------Response from Scientology-----------------
The article in the January edition of New Humanist, "The Bridge to Freedom," was frankly one of the more disingenuous pieces of journalism I have had the misfortune to encounter. The reason for the two student journalists' refusal to disclose the real identity of their main subject -"Luke" - becomes very clear upon reading the article. "Luke," who can now be identified by various statements in the article, far from having "recently come out of the Church" after 15 years in it, was a volunteer in our Church for a total of 18 months, ending in early 1993. While with us as a volunteer, he proved incapable of maintaining an adequate level of personal moral behaviour, engaging in stealing and physically attacking other volunteers. Despite attempts to help him reform, he continued in this pattern, before leaving in 1993. Far from wanting to "take him back," we expelled him from our Church after he refused to maintain an acceptable standard of personal conduct.
Had the journalists the honesty to tell me the contents of their article, I could have dealt with these points and the many other outright falsehoods in the article. While they tried to give the impression of some long drawn out investigation, the truth is they came to the Church after their piece was already concocted from others' lies and distortions, for a few sound bites. Attempts made to contact the two journalists to have the opportunity to challenge them about the falsehoods, lies and distortions with which the article is replete, have met with stony silence. They really were not interested to know the true story of Scientology, or to know why so many people around the world give testimony to its providing practical answers to life's many problems.
They didn't come to find out why Scientology has achieved unprecedented expansion since being launched 50 years ago, despite extremely well organised disinformation campaigns instigated by heavyweight vested interests and almost unprecedented in their bald-faced hypocrisy. They mention "celebrity endorsement" and admit they are amongst those who are ignorant of Scientology, but do nothing to find out what it actually is, or why so many celebrities do become Scientologists. Or why there are now over 4,000 Scientology churches and groups around the world, in 154 countries, and over 70 million of Mr Hubbard's books on the humanities sold. A keynote in Mr Hubbard's philosophy is that nothing in Scientology and Dianetics is true unless it is true for you. What attracts millions to his work is not that it sounds plausible, but that it works. It gets results. See www.scientology.org for more information.