Scientology's dark secrets
November 21, 2009
SCIENTOLOGISTS lured Dean Detheridge off the street using their tried and tested technique of offering a personality test. He wasn't much interested, but they were extremely skilled and persistent persuaders, and he found he couldn't say no. Seven days later he was on staff in what turned out to be a very full-time job.
Although he rose to executive director of the Canberra branch, Detheridge was always below the poverty line. He worked 15-hour days for the Church of Scientology, plus another three hours in the early morning as a cleaner to feed his family. Days off were rare.
He told The Age how he learnt to lie, bully, intimidate and humiliate people and particularly to extort money in service of the church and its ostensible aim, the greatest good of the greatest number. Now he calls it "a crock of shit".
Detheridge lost 17 years to the church, under constant financial and emotional pressure. He did much of which he is now ashamed, and suffered much more. This week his story hit the headlines when Senator Nick Xenophon called for an inquiry into the church and tabled several letters from former members.
For decades the celebrity-recruiting group, granted legal status as a religion in Australia in 1983, has fought to preserve its secrets. These include a bizarre cosmology involving the galactic dictator Xenu dumping millions of corpses in volcanoes on Earth 75 million years ago and blowing them up with 17 hydrogen bombs (the last word in high-tech when L. Ron Hubbard founded the group in the 1950s).
In this schema, the souls, or "thetans", of the dead were contaminated and in turn contaminated humans, who can be cleansed only by Scientology. The process involves vitamins, E-meters and large sums of money.
As commentator Phillip Adams acidly observed, Hubbard launched his new "science" of dianetics in that scholarly journal Astounding Science Fiction.
The Church of Scientology around the world has just endured a very bad few months. A French court convicted it of defrauding vulnerable members and fined it $1 million; a former top executive went public with damning accounts including claims of violence by world leader David Miscavige; Oscar-winning film director Paul Haggis resigned with some withering criticisms; a Queensland inquest found that a soldier had killed himself after spending $25,000 on a month of Scientology courses; and online encyclopedia Wikipedia banned the church and people associated with it from editing entries.
Then on Tuesday, Senator Xenophon tabled in the Senate a collection of highly damaging letters from former members and called for a Senate inquiry into the church and its activities. He asked the Senate to investigate its tax-exempt status, occupational health and safety practices, and the adequacy of consumer protection laws in relation to its fund-raising and charges. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd felt it necessary to distance himself, saying he had concerns about the organisation.
The shocking allegations included those of coerced abortions, forced labour, obstructing justice and covering up child abuse. Life for Scientology staff, former members wrote, featured unbearable hours, constant punishments, lack of access to medical care, and sometimes physical abuse and imprisonment. They were at the mercy of the elite, called the Sea Org, and at constant risk of being separated from friends and family.
In her letter, Carmel Underwood told of being pressured to have an abortion, which she rejected, though others had succumbed. Women who refused, it was said, might be put on hard labour in the hope of causing a miscarriage. (Detheridge explains the reasoning: "The 'right' decision is the greatest good of the greatest number, and the only hope humanity has is Scientology. So anything that enables a member to stay on staff and keep working is good, whereas a baby would pull you off staff.")
Underwood said children whose parents worked for the church and who went to the Scientology school were forced to work for the church after school and saw their parents for only a couple of hours a week. She described punishments designed to instil subservience, such as manual labour, or scrubbing an already clean bathroom with a toothbrush.
Peta O'Brien had herself assigned to the Rehabilitation Project Force (the penal group) so she could see her son, 17, who had been sent there. She did hard labour, breaking rocks with a crowbar and carting them in a wheelbarrow to make a car park at the church's Dundas, NSW, base. When she had cervical cancer, it was alleged, she had to pay for an operation by painting an architectural rendering of the doctor's home, because the church, having already taken all her money, would not help.
Aaron Saxton, who rose to a senior level in the Sea Org and was sent to the US, wrote that staff were not allowed any drugs or medical attention, so he and others even pulled out their own teeth without tools or painkillers.
He wrote of kidnapping several dissident members, including forcibly confining and torturing a member who went insane and was kept on a farm in western NSW. Saxton was involved in several violent incidents with outsiders but was not allowed to report these to police because it would breach secrecy. He said many women were pressured to have abortions.
Church staff also used intimate information about members to silence them, or to impersonate them to cancel credit cards or plane tickets, he wrote.
Paul Schofield wrote about a Sydney scientologist who had committed suicide because of debt he had incurred making donations to the church. He alleged that another member had systematically abused three daughters, who complained to the church, but police were not told. Another man who molested his daughter was turned over to police only after he had fallen out with Scientology.
Ana Detheridge, Dean's wife, wrote of physical attacks on staff, and fund-raising sessions where members were locked into rooms until targets were reached. People had to sit for hours, being pressured to increase donations.
Why did members stay so long if life was so difficult?
According to Dean Detheridge, the church applies intense pressure to those who want to leave, including using personal information against them. Under a process called "murder routine" members are locked up and harassed for hours without food or rest until they give in. "They do intense interrogations . . . They ask, 'what have you done to small boys?' and try to get you into submission. I was kept in a room till 4am, but after 17 years on staff I was hardened and stuck it out."
He says people have an emotional investment after spending huge sums ("auditing" costs up to $5000 for 12-hour blocks), and have usually lost all their non-Scientology friends and family.
The church did not answer a set of questions from The Age yesterday, but released a statement saying Senator Xenophon had abused parliamentary privilege to slander the church.
The statement said the church had suffered two years of attacks in the media, in Australia and overseas, with scuttlebutt rather than truth. "What is occurring here is vilification on a grand scale . . . Scientology is a practical religious philosophy that answers questions about life and about living. Its tenets can be used to improve one's own life and to help others."
A statement earlier in the day by Australian president Vicki Dunstan dismissed the allegations as "disgruntled former members with their own agendas" who were being used by the senator "to forward his own political aspirations".
Dunstan's line did not impress Melbourne-based cult counsellor Raphael Aron, who said it was futile to dismiss those who complain as disgruntled. "They are disgruntled for a reason," he said.
According to Aron, director of Cult-Counselling Australia and author of Cults, Terror and Mind Control, Scientology has been dealt "a mortal blow the most serious since their beginning in Australia. I don't think they can come back from this, at least not all the way."
Aron is wary of calling Scientology a cult, citing the group's well-known litigiousness, but says there are many cult-like aspects. He gets more inquiries about Scientology than any other group several dozen a year.
He has many problems with Scientology. Especially this: for a group claiming to have the answers to humanity's problems, why does it not make them freely available, as other religions do? Why does it charge massive sums?
Dean Detheridge yesterday found a wry sympathy for Australia's Scientology leaders. "They've probably been hit with a Sea Org mission, [senior leaders] who fly in from international levels. They would be chopping heads off because the locals have f----d up big time. They'll be getting no sleep, working around the clock."
That is something he remembers well.
But he does not want to be seen as a victim. "All I want is for some third party to take a look at this. Please put this in capital letters: WE NEED AN INQUIRY."
Barney Zwartz is religion editor.
SCIENTOLOGY IN AUSTRALIA
- The church claims it has about 4000 Australian members, and up to 250,000 people on its email list.
- In the 2006 Census, 2507 people identified as Scientologists (1522 male, 985 female), up from 1489 in 1996.
- Founded in Los Angeles in 1954, the church arrived in Australia in 1957 and has 12 churches and missions.
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