Locals are suspicious of plans by ‘cult’ church for a drug rehab centre in a remote village in Meath, writes Maeve Sheehan
The usually secretive Church of Scientology claims to have opened its doors to Irish communities as it makes its presence felt in Ireland. It hosted a free Winter Wonderlands for kids at its €6m “Community Centre” at Firhouse and directs its “campaigns” to “share its ideals with the Irish people” from its “national affairs office” in a €2m Georgian building on Merrion Square, where visitors are welcome.
The silence around the Scientologists’ latest suspected project – a drugs rehab centre in a rural Meath village – is deafening. Although Ballivor is only 42 kilometres from Dublin, it is in a remote part of the county. Fewer than 2,000 people live there. The only public transport is a bus which comes once in the morning and once in evening. The new national school is on the main street. There are plans for a playground beside it. The community centre is across the street, next to what was supposed to be a nursing home in the original parish school building. Locals believe it is soon to be the new home for Narconon, officially an international not-for-profit drug rehab organisation, but widely accepted as being funded and operated by Scientologists.
The programme is based on a regime of vitamins, intensive sauna and exercise and has been dismissed by HSE experts as being without medical basis.
Ballivor’s isolation is probably part of the attraction, according to Noel French, a local Fine Gael councillor and one of the few politicians to voice concerns about the facility that is linked to a religion that Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin describes as a “cult”.
“We are lucky in Ireland that we have freedom of belief and everyone is free to believe what they want. Ballivor is a small community but it does have its vulnerable groups like every other small community and I would be concerned at the introduction of a group like Narconon into the community,” he said.
The partially finished nursing home with 56 beds was put on the market through CBRE for €1m in 2016 and was sold last year to a mysterious entity that has yet to declare itself.
Last month, the residents obtained land registry records that named a Ryan Alabaster, with an address care of the legal firm, Noel Smyth & Co, as the registered. owner of the property. The firm also helped incorporate its national affairs office and Firhouse Community Centre as companies here.
When the Sunday Independent rang the Church of Scientology’s national affairs office in Dublin requesting to speak to Ryan Alabaster, we were told: “I mean he comes through here from time to time. I will forward the message to him.” We then rang the Church of Scientology in California and asked for Ryan Alabaster. We were put through to the “estates office”.
The woman who picked up said: “I think you are through to the wrong place.” The receptionist said: “Oh, then he must have moved. That was his office.”
We rang Narconon in California using the name Mary, and asked the woman who answered the phone when the Narconon centre was opening in Ireland? She didn’t know and went off to inquire, then said: “The estimation would be in six months.”
The Church of Scientology’s national affairs office in Dublin, which directs its “campaigns” on “drug addiction, educational opportunities, crime and prison recidivism” has not responded to media queries.
This is not the first time the Scientologists have attempted to establish Narconon in Ireland. Narconon Ireland was first registered with the Companies Office here in 1997, while Criminon – a criminal rehabilitation programme that is regarded as a front group for Scientologists was registered as a business owned by Narconon Ireland. Neither appears to have got off the ground and both businesses were dissolved in 2002.
The Scientologists’ latest incursion into Ireland is more ambitious.
Last week, the Sunday Independent met Schkelzen “Leni” Bundo at a coffee shop in Tallaght. The Albanian man, who has been in Ireland for 10 years, worked at the Scientologists’ Firhouse Community Centre from September to November. He claims dozens of senior Scientologists came to work at the centre, staying in rented properties in Wicklow, Dublin 4, a large period property in Kildare and in Meath.
Bundo said he became involved in Scientologist “through a girlfriend”. He then joined the “staff” at the centre in Firhouse. He said he was told that first he’d first have to do a purification programme – a cleansing programme similar to Narconon’s – that involves clearing the body toxins with a multitude of Vitamin pills and saunas. The course cost him €1,800, he says. Bun do says he worked in the Firhouse Centre cafe, for cash, and claims he was paid less than €3 an hour.
Bundo left in November. He claims he is owed money and is getting legal advice. As regards the interview, he says: “I am not doing it just to get my money back. I just doing to tell all the staff who is there, if you protect your rights, you know. Some of them afraid to speak out.”
A statement said the centre’s staff were “religious volunteers” who made a “religious pledge” to “actively forward. the work of the Church”.
The Church of Scientology is sensitive to criticism. Last week, it threatened to sue Fiona O’Leary, an autism campaigner and vociferous anti-Scientologist on Facebook and Twitter. A letter from Noel Smyth Co solicitors accused her of among other things, recording conversations with staff and putting them online and spreading disinformation.
But in the absence of any comment from the Church of Scientology or Narconon, residents of Ballivor are turning to O’Leary and other anti-Scientology campaigners for help in finding out the fate of their former parish school.
They intend to object to any planning applications for the site – that is if planning permission is required. A Narconon Centre in the UK operates on the basis that it provides spiritual, not medical treatment and calls its and diet clients “students”. Peadar Toibin, the local Sinn Fein TD, is still waiting to hear from the Department of Health as to whether Narconon would need a licence here.
A number of former members of the Church of Scientology will address a protest meeting at 2.30pm on Wednesday in Ballivor, which was organised by local residents including Clare O’Mara and Sinead McGrath. “We do not have enough information but people are concerned,” said Sinead.