Local councillors have opposed controversial plans by the Church of Scientology to build a playground at its new centre in southwest Dublin.
The Firhouse village community council said that the church had only applied for planning permission to use the space as a place of worship.
The 1,200-seat venue opened in October in the former Victory Centre on the Firhouse Road in Tallaght. The church bought the site for €6 million.
Critics say that the religion is targeting families with children with the planned playground, as well as by hosting child-friendly events over the Christmas period, including a funfair. In its objection the community council said that the building was “never intended to be an event centre for conference and music events”.
Tom Fennelly, the community council’s chairman, said: “Any children’s playground should be for all children. The proposed playground will not be because parents who do not subscribe to Scientology will not allow their children to go there.”
The community council also objected to a sign saying “community centre” at the entrance to the church, which it said was unauthorised.
Mr Fennelly said that the Scientologists had argued that the proposed playground, which would be surrounded by hedges 1.3 metres high, was required because of the lack of play facilities for children in the area.
South Dublin county council said there was an agreement in principle for the local authority to provide a large play space in the Dodder Valley Park. The location and detail would be subject to further studies, it said, adding that the section of the Dodder Valley adjacent to the Scientology centre would probably be unsuitable for ecological reasons. Councillors on the local authority’s Rathfarnham/Templeogue-Terenure area committee also voiced their objection to the planned playground earlier this month.
The local branch of the Social Democrats said the location of the planned playground, close to a primary and post-primary school, was a child-protection issue, as was the Scientologists’ request for two 4.5m-high CCTV poles near the playground. “It is unclear why this group are looking to provide activities and services geared towards people with young families,” Carly Bailey, the party’s local area representative, said.
The Church of Scientology claimed the playground would “serve as a focal point for the community as it provides children with activities to partake in the area. It will serve a wide variety of housing estates given its central location.” It added: “The development will provide for better interaction of the existing facility with the adjacent community.”
South Dublin county council will decide on the application by March 12.
• Locals in Ballivor, Co Meath, have questioned Meath county council about plans for a drug rehabilitation centre linked to Scientology. More than 600 residents signed a petition against an application by Narconon, the religion’s addiction programme, to take over a former school building and Ballivor community council has now submitted a Section 5 application to the local authority to determine if the plans require a change of permitted use. Narconon offered the Ballivor councillors a tour, which they rejected as inappropriate while they were waiting for a ruling.
Health officials raised concerns about a Church of Scientology-sponsored group that circulated glossy anti-drugs brochures to primary schools in Dublin’s north inner city, records reveal.
Internal emails disclose unease across the Department of Health and the Health Service Executive (HSE) about approaches made to schools and local drugs tasks forces by Foundation for a Drug Free World and Truth about Drugs, both of which are sponsored by Scientology. However, their links to the controversial “religion” were not disclosed in educational packs that were sent to schools.
In an email last February, the co-ordinator of a drugs task force in Dublin wrote: “I have just received some very glossy looking training and workshop materials from the ‘Church of Scientology’ who apparently are conducting drug talks in schools in the north inner city of Dublin and are interested in spreading the word this direction. I am concerned about this.”
The coordinator proposed linking in with the Department of Health on the issue, “because if they haven’t already, schools here will need to be approached. The materials are very enticing and I worry about the potential reach.”
In response to questions from the Sunday Independent, the Church of Scientology yesterday declared plans to step up its anti-drugs activities in Ireland while taking aim at “vested interests” and “agendas”.
The statement said the Church also intends to “significantly increase” its efforts to “educate” Irish people. It also claimed that 600,000 Truth about Drugs booklets have been distributed in Ireland in the past two years.
The Church of Scientology has invested heavily in Ireland in the past two years, generating much controversy but issuing little comment on its plans for the country.
It opened a €6m community centre in Firhouse, south Dublin, a national affairs office on Merrion Square in Dublin, along with a number of other properties, including a former nursing home in Ballivor, Co Meath, that it plans to turn into a drug rehab centre.
The Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin has called the Church of Scientology “a cult” that could damage young people. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has acknowledged there are “genuine concerns” that it could be a cult.
Emails released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that unease about Scientology has also reached official circles.
Asked about the booklets by a Department of Health official, a HSE official replied that: “The content doesn’t look ridiculous at first glance. Endorsement by official Ireland of their approach, though, would bring a very negative press once the backer was reported. In this post-truth, fake fact world, it’s really hard to know what is really going on.”
Another official emailed colleagues to say that guidelines for Outside Visitors were being “updated” to “ensure that schools are discouraged from using speakers/resources such as this”.
The Department of Education said it has had no contact with the Department of Health or the HSE on this matter but will issue “revised circulars” to schools in March to provide strengthened guidance on external programmes.
The Church of Scientology’s statement to the Sunday Independent said drug abuse is a “huge problem” for Ireland. It is “educating” people on the “truth about drugs”, providing free “secular” educational materials that “we are continually told” are not otherwise available.
“The Church’s efforts to discourage drug abuse through education have come across vested interests and agendas in the past and are likely to continue to do so,” it said.
The Church of Scientology has been accused of “targeting” families with children as it has applied for planning permission to build a playground at its centre in south Dublin.
A notice was erected outside the group’s church and community centre in Firhouse over the weekend and outlines plans for a 17 sq m internal playground.
Carly Bailey, a Social Democrats councillor for the area, said that she was concerned by the development because the centre has already held a number of events aimed at children.
“They are absolutely without question targeting young people and families with young children. They had a six-week Christmas show with a full on carnival, real reindeer and free hot chocolate. There’s also been an Alice in Wonderland event and a Frozen event. They do anything you can think of for families with children,” Ms Bailey said. “We hear from people who are concerned but also from people who think that it’s here and it’s free so it’s fine. The point is we don’t know what it is they’re interested in. It’s clearly a long-term project given the amount of money invested in it.”
A spokesman for the Church of Scientology in Ireland denied it was targeting anyone and said that the decision to build the playground was taken after consulting with local councillors about what was needed in the area. He said that a rugby and GAA pitch would also open on the site in March.
Martina Genockey, a Labour councillor for the area, said that she had not met with the group as she had concerns about their presence in the area.
“I think Scientology is extremely cult-like, and I would not like to see local people caught up in it unwittingly by using facilities they have provided,” Ms Genockey said.
“The council has a significant play-space programme, and any playgrounds that were needed were considered as part of that plan. I know there is a playground just down the road.”
Diana Stahl, the director of public affairs at the Firhouse branch of the Church of Scientology, said that over 4,500 people have visited the centre since it opened. It is understood that only 100 people attend services in the church every Sunday.
“We have held a number of very successful events for the community and will continue to do so, as we believe that helping people and bringing joy into the community is a natural part of life. We welcome anyone to come in and visit, to have a tea or coffee, use the facilities or if they wish they can find out what Scientology is,” Ms Stahl said. “Children or anyone under 18 who wishes to do any course, or undergo any testing, are strictly forbidden to do so unless they have written permission from both of their parents or guardians. The church also supports effective social betterment programmes for the benefit of all.”
The Sunday Times reported last September that the Church of Scientology hired stands at a state-run education conference and asked school administrators for permission to make presentations to students. It has also hired stands at the TY transition-year exhibition attended by 7,000 secondary school students in Leopardstown.
The organisation bought the former Christian church in Firhouse for about €6 million. It was converted and opened as a centre for Scientology’s Irish operations last year. It has also purchased a school building in Co Meath which will be used for its controversial drugs treatment programme.