With the announcement of Katie Holmes’s divorce from Tom Cruise, the eyes of the world are once again trained on Scientology. To get to the bottom of this controversial religion, which some claim is a damaging cult, Joanna Kiernan met some former Scientologists to hear about their experiences.
It’s 10am on a wet Saturday in Dublin All is quiet, apart from the faint hum of a few eager shoppers and some people heading into work. As I make my way towards the Teacher’s Club on Parnell Square, I spot a small group of men, sporting masks and balaclavas, loitering outside the door. They greet me pleasantly, from behind their disguises, as I walk in by them unfazed. We are here for the same reason, after all, they are members of Anonymous, an anti- Scientology activist group. We are all here to attend the Dublin Offlines Conference, which aims to highlight `the danger of Scientology’: As I make my way into the function room, I notice two gardai sitting in the hallway with their bikes propped up against the wall. Later I’m told that the gardai are there because of a threat that advised the venue’s owners against hosting the event, suggesting it was “not in their best interests”.
As I settle in, I notice a variety of accents; people have travelled from far and wide. Organiser Pete Griffiths, a former Scientologist from the UK who now lives in Westport, sports an iridescent silver suit; he circulates, making housekeeping announcements and checking on the sound. There is a certain contingent in the room whom I imagine would fit in quite well at a Star Trek convention.
I wonder for a moment if this is a serious conference or simply an indulgence of collective paranoia and fear. As the audience takes their seats, there is an almost trippy atmosphere. I watch as one lady adjusts trendy black-veil-and-hat combination covering her face, which she has accessorised with dark sunglasses. Before the cameras go on, many others studiously follow suit and cover up, but a minority choose to go undisguised.
Just as things seem to be getting started, there is a sudden flurry of activity. A lady enters, announcing that there are two suspicious individuals sitting outside in a car, filming people as they arrive. She requests a camera so that she can run out and film them back. People look around nervously; there’s an intensity in the air.
Scientology has created controversy since its foundation but it has also created an equal amount of curiosity, with big-name celebrities such as John Travolta and Tom Cruise signing up to the faith. For some, it is a dangerous cult; for others, it is a lifeline. The organisation’s secretive nature has led to much negative publicity. Just weeks ago, following the initiation of divorce proceedings between Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise, a Scientology spokesperson was forced to deny claims that the organisation was keeping tabs on the soon-to-be ex-wife of one of its most notable members.
Despite its trendiness among modern celebrities, Scientology had quite humble beginnings. In 1950, the organisation’s founding father, L Ron Hubbard, invented a self-help system, which he called Dianetics His book, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, is the textbook or Bible equivalent for the Church of Scientology, written by Hubbard following a successful career as a science-fiction and fantasy writer. Critics believe that it was only when Hubbard turned his mind to writing about Scientology that he created his best works of fiction.
John McGhee, a Meath man who works as an embalmer, tells me that while Scientology was initially a source of curiosity, it cost him dearly in the end. “Because of my work, I’m always questioning the meaning of life,” he explains. “I’m naturally a seeker of different spiritual paths. I never leave anything alone. After trying many different spiritual paths throughout my life, this was my next port of call. They didn’t have to get me off the street like they usually do. I went in and said, `Give me everything you’ve got! I want Dianetics. I want the personality test. I want the stress test!”
After a few short courses, John began to feel like he belonged. “They completely `love-bomb’ you;’ he tells me “They make you feel really special and really important and the really worthy of the counselling and courses that they want to bestow on you. For a hefty price, by the way. It promises you the sun, the moon and the stars. So you figure, Well, if it does all that, what’s a few hundred quid?'”
But, €10,500 later, John began to smell a rat. “I was actually lucky that was money I had” he explains, wincing a little. “I saw friends in there remortgage their homes and spend money they didn’t have. But it’s 10 and a half grand I wish I had now, you know. It’s bit by bit as well. You’re sold a series of counselling — an intensive — and it’s €1,000 per 12 and a half hours. They told me I needed two intensives and I figured at the time, `Look, they know what they’re talking about, they’re professional!’ By the way, they’re not professional; they have no background in psychiatry, psychology or even counselling.”
While the promise of self-betterment held particular appeal for John, he soon began to question some of the beliefs. “Scientologists tell you that you’re a homo novus, a new man, and you’re better than the rest of the wog world,” he says, “Outsiders are called wogs. That’s a derogatory term Scientologists have for us. So I was looking at my friends and began thinking, `You’re not really good enough!’ I was a real arsehole.”
John was also uncomfortable with how he claims the religion views those with disabilities. “People with any disabilities, Scientologists’ attitude is that they deserve that, because they pulled it in from past-life mistakes and sins, if you will,” he explains. “So they will look at someone on the street and say, `He’s a degraded being’ It’s like a twisted form of karma. They are emotionally dead people. It’s stripped away from them.”
John officially left the Church of Scientology last year, but his heart had not been in it for some time before his departure. “I was really active for three years and then I spent the last two years spying on them. I don’t mind them knowing that now I have no problem going against them because I’ve seen the damage they did at a local level. I’ve seen three people remortgage their homes —one in particular who lost absolutely everything, couldn’t even afford his electricity bills at the end of it. They live in communal housing because they tell you the most important thing in your life is Scientology.
“They speak in their own cult-like language. They have abbreviations for everything, you know,” he explains. “‘Have you got a PTP?’ means ‘Have you got a present-time problem?’ Whereas we might say, ‘Is something up with you?’ They have a course for absolutely every complaint you can have in your lifetime. Having a problem in your marriage? They’ve a marriage course. If you don’t like your job, they’ll make you do the ‘problems at work’ course. It’s supposed to make you enjoy work and pull in extra money. They’re living in a dreamland because most of them are unemployed,” he adds. “I know them personally. I have loaned them money.”
Like others I meet at this conference, John believes that the Dublin Offlines event is being monitored closely by Scientologists. “They’ve sent in the big guns now because of this event,” he says, “We’ve been checking on the mission in Dublin the last number of days and they have members of the Sea Org over from England”
Sea Org is Scientology’s elite wing, initially created at sea in the late Sixties, when some Scientology members, including Hubbard, operated and lived on ships, travelling around the world. In 1975, the ships were sold off and Sea Org created land bases.
Sharone Stainforth was six years old when her parents became involved with Scientology. As a 10-year-old, Sharone signed up to a billion-year contract to join the Sea Organisation in 1967 on board their ship, the Royal Scotsman, later known as the Apollo. Sharone worked as a personal messenger for Hubbard on the ship and says she was, at times, tasked with bathing his feet and dressing him.
“I hate all Scientology, every aspect of it,” she tells the crowd, after a speech cataloguing various abuses of power she claims to have witnessed on board. “I spent my childhood in it,” she concludes in tears. “It’s not right and we can’t have it anymore.”
Gabrielle Wynne walked into the Dublin Scientology centre for help with a college project when she was 19. Within months, she was working on the staff. “I was doing a PLC course for a year and, as part of my course, I had to do a project on a World religion or religious movement;’ she tells me outside. “I was googling stuff and I came across Scientology. The only thing I knew was that Tom Cruise and John Travolta were part of it, so I thought, ‘This could be really fun!'”
The more Gabrielle learnt about Scientology, the more impressed she became. “It sounded so cool,” she admits, a bit sheepishly. “I’m mad into faith and spirituality and stuff like that. A few days later, I called back to get the free Personality Test. They sounded like they knew what they’re talking about.”
But, after two years the veneer began to wear off. “There were two reasons why I left,” Gabrielle explains, “one was money and the other was that they asked me to disconnect from my mam because she was a `suppressive person’.”
According to Hubbard’s teachings, a `suppressive person’, or SP, is defined as being anyone who seeks to damage Scientology or Scientologists. Family members who express criticism of the organisation are often deemed to be SPs.
“At the time they were moving buildings and they needed money for a loan and asked me to take out a three-grand loan” Gabrielle adds. “I work in Penneys, so I’m not loaded! I made it very clear that I wasn’t taking the money out, then they said, ‘Oh, it must be your mother. She’s a suppressive person and you have to disconnect from her because she’s stopping you from advancing in Scientology’ That’s when alarm bells went off.”
Anne Robinson has been speaking out against Scientology for more than a decade. Her brother, Tony Phelan, eventually disconnected from his family after joining Scientology in 1988.
“At the time he was working in California, and our mother became very seriously ill and died quite suddenly,” she explains. “He came home for the funeral, but we believe he was still in shock when he went back. Our understanding afterwards, is that around that time there were leaflets dropped into the apartments where he was staying about Dianetics — that’s what drew him into it. We started getting concerned after we noticed changes in his personality. He had become more defensive and had got less emotional, very objective in the way he was talking.”
In 1991, Anne came across an article in Time magazine on Scientology entitled The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power. “That’s what really opened our eyes,” Anne says. “When we started questioning him about it he became quite defensive and wouldn’t really engage in any kind of conversation with us. At that stage he had come back to Ireland. He had completed courses in Dianetics in Dublin. He had also gone to Saint Hill in the UK and had done more courses over there.”
From 1992 to 1994, Anne and her family went to great lengths to try to ‘exit’ Tony from Scientology. “Nothing we did privately could get through to him. He was just pulling more and more away from us,” she explains, “In 1994, we decided that maybe the only way for him to realise how concerned we were was to go public. So we did a protest outside the Scientology offices on Middle Abbey Street.”
“When we voiced our concerns with Tony” another sister, Marie Fahy, recalls, “he would always say, ‘Thank you for sharing that. Let me think about it. Then he might make a phone call or he’d come back the following day with a response. It was never free thinking.”
In 1995, Anne, Marie and their family went on The Late Late Show to voice their concerns. But after this TV appearance Tony disconnected from them even further.
When their father died in January 2002, the only way Tony could be contacted was through the personnel department of the company he was working for in Boston.
“We had no idea whether he was going to come home for the funeral,” Anne says. “I remember we walked into the church on the morning of the mass and, five minutes before the mass started, he arrived up to the top of the church. So there was no opportunity to talk to him at that stage — we were literally about to start. I remember introducing him to my kids.”
Tony was accompanied by what his sisters refer to as a ‘minder’ at the funeral; a person whom they believe was there to keep an eye on him.
“After the funeral, we went back to a local pub where we had a meal laid on;” Anne adds. “Tony spent a maximum of two minutes talking to every individual in the room. He literally worked the room — he smiled at all the old neighbours, he smiled at the aunts, the uncles, and he engaged for approximately two minutes with everybody.
“That was 2002, and we haven’t seen or heard from him since’ Anne tells me, her voice beginning to quiver slightly. “He has completely disconnected from us. So that’s why we’re continuing to campaign. We are hoping that Tony will come home — that’s our biggest hope — and we would hope that anybody who might be thinking of joining Scientology and who might hear the story will withdraw from it.”
The unspoken guest of honour at the Dublin Offlines Conference is Jamie DeWolf. It is hard not to notice him as he works the room in a blazer, purple check trousers and trilby hat. He has his great-grandfather’s signature red hair. DeWolf, a slam poet from California, is perhaps Scientology’s loudest critic, as well as being the great-grandson of its founder, L Ron Hubbard. He is also something of a shining light for those who have left the organisation, a beacon of hope from within the source’s own bloodline.
Jamie’s grandfather, L Ron Hubbard Junior, changed his surname to DeWolf in a bid to distance himself from his father, L Ron Hubbard Senior, and from the church.
“A psychiatrist once asked me if I had a history of mental illness in my family. I had to say, ‘Yes!'” Jamie rallies the crowd.
Jamie claims that Scientologist OSA (Office of Special Affairs) agents visited the homes of his mother and his former girlfriend to ask about him, when he first began to perform poetry, mentioning his family connection to their church.
Growing up, Jamie’s family never discussed the members of his family who remained within Scientology’s church. So what’s the one word he would use to describe his great-grandfather? “Hustler,” he answers, without even blinking, and lets the word hang in the air.
Jamie claims that when L Ron Hubbard Senior died, Jamie’s grandfather, L Ron DeWolf, was approached by the Church of Scientology with “shut-up money”, and a confidentiality agreement. Jamie believes that L Ron Junior eventually relented. He believes this is because L Ron Junior had suffered a life of alleged harassment from his father, L Ron Senior, for his dissent. L Ron Junior was also faced with mounting medical bills for his son, who had Down syndrome.
“My grandfather was a broken man at that point and needed the money for medical bills;’ Jamie says. “They had just destroyed him and hounded him his entire life. “Even now Scientologists parade that document and say he admitted every single thing [his criticism of Scientology] was a fabrication and lie,” Jamie laments. “It’s kind of a sad tragedy to me that that happened. That will not happen with me”
Later, Gerry Armstrong, the former personal secretary to L Ron Hubbard Senior, takes to the podium. Gerry was one of Hubbard’s most senior disciples for decades. However, his tipping point came when he was asked to research and assemble materials for Hubbard’s biography.
According to Armstrong, large discrepancies began to emerge between what he had been told about Hubbard’s life, and the man’s actual educational and military record. These revelations enabled Armstrong to “de-programme himself”.
“It is clear from these documents that Hubbard was a pathological liar,” he said.
For Ireland’s Scientologists, such campaigns against their beliefs, detractors and even defectors are the result of bigotry and religious persecution, which in their view is rife in Irish society.
“I have heard about the ‘conference’,” Gerard Ryan, Scientology’s spokesperson in Ireland, told me. “For whatever reason, sectarianism has been a bugbear on this island for centuries. One could speculate at length as to why this is so, but its history is pretty grim. This is not always recognised by those who are either not from Ireland or lack a historical perspective generally. In 19th-Century America, a burning issue was Catholicism — which was portrayed as akin to Satanism by Protestant apologists. Conferences were organised in which former Catholic nuns and priests were paraded with ‘their story’, which invariably involved `black masses’ and ‘sexual malpractice’ in the Vatican. Whether the claims are true or not is not really the point. It is that ‘conferences’ attacking particular religions tread a well-worn path”
Later, Ryan tells me: “Really, the conference tells more about the individuals organising it than anything else. What sort of person seeks to promote hatred against law-abiding minority religious communities?”