The controversial church is giving out teaching materials that hide its involvement
When the neat white package arrived at Rosmini Community School, in Drumcondra, three months ago, Chris Gueret was impressed. Inside it the religious-studies teacher found a complete curriculum on how to teach human rights to students, alongside posters, leaflets and a well-produced DVD entitled The Story of Human Rights.
In a job where resources can be hard to come by, teachers usually welcome a gift of good-quality study materials. “The resources were amazing. Really fantastic. It was all very well done,” Gueret says, before adding that he immediately threw it all in the bin.
The material came from an organisation called Youth for Human Rights, one of about 500 organisations operating internationally that are widely regarded as front groups for the Church of Scientology. The Dublin teacher was familiar with the group, having previously taught his class a module on Scientology. He had even used some of the organisation’s own material to illustrate how it operates.
“I was pretty savvy, just because I was aware of it in the past. But, as a teacher, the resource packs are really, really good. I would be afraid that a young, naive teacher would be taken in. “You’re grappling for resources, and when you’re teaching the topic of human rights, which falls into so many different subjects, you would think it’s fantastic.”
Although Youth for Human Rights is staffed and funded almost exclusively by Scientologists, the controversial organisation is mentioned nowhere in the literature Gueret received. The only overt clue to its connection is the mention of the science-fiction writer L Ron Hubbard, Scientology’s founder, who is listed as a “humanitarian” alongside Gandhi and Martin Luther King jnr.
“They embed the ideology into it in a very discreet way. You’d have to really look to see it. It’s kind of a covert way of getting into schools,” Gueret says.
An Irish Times investigation has found that over the past two years the Church of Scientology has made a huge effort to insert itself into Irish society. As well as sending thousands of brochures to schools around the country, the church has attempted, sometimes successfully, to convince government-funded charities – including those working with drug addicts, prisoners and sex offenders – to use its material promoting Hubbard’s world view.
Experts warn that these efforts are an attempt to normalise the church and to help it obtain charitable status in Ireland, meaning it wouldn’t have to pay tax. They say that despite its social programmes in Ireland it is still the same organisation that has been accused of indoctrinating members while forcing them to donate huge sums of money and to disown any family or friends who object; the same organisation that in the 1970s engaged in a criminal conspiracy to infiltrate the US government to destroy incriminating records on its founder.
Irish Scientology representatives say their organisation is merely trying to help the most vulnerable of Irish society, and deny any ulterior motive. And they claim to be enjoying a huge amount of success.
Only 87 members
Scientology is not new to Ireland. In fact Hubbard set up a facility on Merrion Square in 1956, just two years after founding the organisation. Yet it has never made significant inroads here. The last census showed only 87 Irish members, and up to a few years ago the organisation was deeply in debt and relying on funds from its US headquarters to stay afloat.
But recently Scientology, which has been officially labelled a cult in several countries, appears to have turned its fortunes around in Ireland, as evidenced by the opening of major centres on Merrion Square and in Firhouse, in southwest Dublin, at a cost of millions.
The opening of the centres generated a huge amount of public attention, but the organisation’s more subtle initiatives have gone largely under the radar. The Irish Times has gathered reports from 47 schools around the country that say they have been sent material from Scientology groups.
Two sources who have worked with Scientology in recent months say its Irish national affairs office claims to have distributed some 40,000 Youth for Human Rights leaflets to teachers around the country. Scientology itself claims to have distributed 500,000 Drug Free World booklets in Ireland.
Catherine Barry, a secondary-school English teacher in Fermoy, Co Cork, says she is aware of two teachers at other Irish schools who have used its anti-drug material in class.
She believes the lack of a concrete anti-drug and mental-health syllabus in schools forms “a fertile ground for the Scientologists to infiltrate with their own brand of misinformation. Unlike traditional subjects, where there is an established body of knowledge that has been built up over centuries, the area of wellbeing has no real content from which to form a syllabus,” she says.
Marie Griffin, chief executive of Ceist, an organisation that operates more than 100 Catholic secondary schools, says she is aware of a number of schools getting Scientology material. “It doesn’t appear to be linked to the organisation at first, but when you read into it becomes apparent.”
Most teachers who spoke to this newspaper say they did not use the material when they learned of its connection to Scientology. Others say they found it too US-focused for an Irish class. But there is some evidence of the material finding its way into classrooms; a Scientology spokeswoman says the church is “regularly” invited to speak at schools about its community programmes.
Two Scientology organisations, Applied Scholastics and the Foundation for a Drug-Free World, paid for stands at the Education and Training Board Ireland conference in Kilkenny in September, when they offered to come to schools to speak to the students.
That month Scientology groups also hired stands at the Transition Year Expoin Kildare, attended by 7,000 students. One of the groups was the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, which teaches that psychiatry is an “industry of death” and blames psychiatrists for the Holocaust and the September 11th attacks. The organisers of both conferences said they were unaware of the groups’ connections at the time.
Last May a parent wrote to his daughter’s school, in Howth, in north Co Dublin, to complain about the use of Foundation for a Drug-Free World material during a presentation to the school by the Dublin North East Drugs and Alcohol Task Force, a publicly funded body.
“Their material has been discredited by many healthcare professionals,” the parent wrote in a letter released under the Freedom of Information Act. “I find it quite unsettling that they did not vet the material, which to me, quite apart from the Scientology link, does not seem to be at all age appropriate.”
Like teachers, the taskforce was using the Scientology material because little else was available. A spokesman for the taskforce says it used it “no written Irish-produced drug-awareness materials” were available. The taskforce stopped its use following the parent’s complaint.
Educate Together schools appear to be particularly likely to receive Scientology-backed material. Until recently its online resource bank for teachers featured a link to the Youth for Human Rights website.
An Educate Together spokesman said it was unaware of the group’s connection to Scientology and teachers were under no obligation to use material in the resource bank. The link has since been removed.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Education says it is up to the boards of directors of individual schools to decide what external resources they use, although she adds there are regulations about visiting speakers.
The two main teaching unions, the TUI and ASTI, both urge teachers and parents to exercise common sense when dealing with external organisations that are looking for access to schools. “If the source of the material is unclear or in any way difficult to ascertain, schools should err on the side of caution and should not use it,” an ASTI spokesman says.
Schools are just one part of the church’s push in Ireland. Other initiatives include engaging in drug outreach work, putting on free concerts and lectures, and even setting up a free Christmas funfair at its Firhouse centre.
On the corporate side the church has hired a big advertising firm to publicise its events, as well as the public-relations company CCIPR. The well-known defamation lawyer Paul Tweed has also been retained to deal with negative Irish coverage of Scientology’s international leader, David Miscavige. Tweed has already helped to prevent publication of one negative story about the organisation that was due to run in a tabloid newspaper.
Miscavige opened the Firhouse centre in mid-October to much fanfare. Since then it has hosted a string of events, including a Halloween fair, a variety concert and an “Alice in Wonderland family fun day”. All events are free, and local families are welcome to attend.
During a tour of the facility this week a Scientology official tells The Irish Times that thousands have visited since the centre opened, including local politicians and community groups requesting to use the auditorium.
The church also crops up in more unexpected locations, such the Ideal Home Show, where it had a stall, and the Dublin Marathon, where it offered tired runners massages and literature about Hubbard.
Outside the Firhouse facility the attitude of the locals is wary but not entirely negative. One woman says she will never set foot in the place, “no matter if they’re giving away free cars”.
An older man says he doesn’t know much Scientology but has “no real problem” with their tactics. “They can’t be much worse than the Catholic Church, and we put up with them for long enough.”
The Dublin South-West TD Seán Crowe calls Scientology a cult and is worried the group is attempting to become part of the fabric of the community in Tallaght before starting to recruit people.
He is particularly worried about Scientology’s drug outreach work. Its groups have been distributing anti-drug leaflets widely around Dublin. Last year the mayors of Limerick, Galway and Waterford were photographed with Scientologists from the Drug-Free World campaign who toured the country with a swing band. The politicians later said they were unaware the events were connected to Scientology.
One of Scientology’s most controversial anti-drug organisations, Narconon, has yet to be established in Ireland. In Ballivor, Co Meath, there are rumours it has bought the old national-school site to turn into a treatment facility. The site has been bought by a trust, and Scientology and Narconon officials refuse to say if they are behind the deal. A meeting of concerned locals is planned for tomorrow night.
There are also reports of Narconon-style treatments being offered to people here. The main treatment involves subjects spending hours in a sauna while taking huge doses of vitamins. In 2012 Oklahoma authorities investigated several deaths at the state’s Narconon facility before revoking its medical permit.
Fiona O’Leary says a Scientology official offered her a Narconon treatment for her autistic 13-year-old son. Scientology says the official was misunderstood and he never claimed the procedure had a medical benefit.
“We’ve a huge problem in parts of the country in relation to drugs, and I suppose people are desperately looking for solutions or treatments,” says Crowe. “But I wouldn’t be encouraging anyone to go to them. Experts have said their treatments are questionable, to say the least.”
Then there is Criminon, a Scientology group similar to Narconon, which claims it can reform criminals and stop recidivism. Criminon has been examining lists of crime-prevention groups in Ireland before writing to them to offer their services, according to documentation seen by The Irish Times.
“They called in with boxes of materials . . . When you actually look at the materials in any detail you can tell it’s Scientology,” says Lisa Cuthbert of Pace, a State-funded organisation that specialises in sex-offender treatment. “I remember being very alarmed reading it. After that we didn’t let them darken our door again.”
Criminon sent another letter to Pace, offering its services to offenders. She says she wrote back “to tell them to take a running jump”. She also told the Probation Service and asked it to alert other agencies about Criminon’s connections. “I just have issues with a cult trying to access vulnerable people,” she says.
Criminon had slightly more success with other offender groups. It was briefly involved with the Prisoner Support Network, a group that co-ordinates offender-support groups, but was not allowed to join after other members learned of its connections.
“It’s called safe-pointing,” says Tony Ortega, an American journalist and author who specialises in covering Scientology and has been monitoring its Irish activities. (A Scientology spokeswoman said Ortega is “a blogger” with a history of “falsifying stories”.) “I’ve seen it so many times, exactly like it’s happening in Ireland,” Ortega says. He explains that, in Hubbard jargon, “safe-pointing” is the creation of a positive public image of Scientology in a community that allows it to grow and thrive.
“This process will likely lead to a push for charitable status in Ireland,” predicts Prof Steve Kent, a Scientology expert from the University of Alberta. “It hopes to use its alleged social-betterment programmes as a PR tool to help in these efforts.”
Diana Stahl, Scientology’s media-relations official in Ireland, says charitable status is not a priority for the church in Ireland. She also insists Scientology is “non-conversionalist”. “As such anyone is free to come in and visit . . . under no pressure that they would be asked to join Scientology.”
She says the church’s social-outreach efforts hide no motive and it is concerned only with the wellbeing of the community, particularly in Firhouse.
“We believe that together we can all accomplish the common dream we all have of a peaceful and co-operative society, free from crime and war, and where people have the freedom and ability to flourish and prosper.”
Scientology’s image has been relentlessly battered over the past two decades. Documentaries showing its members working in slave-like conditions, and comedy shows like South Park skewering its belief in alien overlords and a galactic confederacy, mean it is viewed with a mixture of unease and amusement by many.
It refuses to say how many members it has, but observers estimate it could now be as low as 50,000 worldwide. (Stahl says they don’t keep track of
The church says it has had thousands through its doors in Firhouse since its centre there opened. When The Irish Times visited last Sunday it was almost empty. A morose-looking Santa Claus sat in a corner while the Winter Wonderland fairground rides lay idle, although staff said it had been much busier earlier in the weekend.
Part of the church’s problem, according to Ortega, is that it still uses the original strategies Hubbard laid out decades ago. “David Miscavige keeps telling his followers that if they just open these buildings the public will come rushing in. This is a strategy that utterly fails every time, but they just keep doing the same thing over and over again. The one opened in Dublin will become just as empty as everywhere else.”