Science or fiction?
November 20, 2009
EVEN for a religion started by a science fiction writer, the allegations levelled against the Church of Scientology in federal parliament this week sound stranger than fiction.
Blackmail, cover-ups of child abuse, labour camps, embezzlement and coerced abortions are spelled out among the 53 pages of allegations by seven former Scientologists - some of whom had climbed high in the church hierarchy - tabled in the Senate.
In what the church has decried as "an outrageous abuse of parliamentary privilege", independent senator Nick Xenophon is demanding a Senate inquiry into what he described in parliament as a "criminal organisation that hides behind its religious beliefs".
"In my view, this is a two-faced organisation," he told the Senate on Tuesday night.
"There is the public face of the organisation founded in 1953 by the late science fiction writer L.Ron Hubbard, which claims to offer guidance and support to its followers, and there is the private face of the organisation, which abuses its followers, viciously targets its critics and seems largely driven by paranoia."
Xenophon - who is Greek Orthodox - appears to have the cautious support of both sides of parliament, given that no one objected to his tabling of such explosive and controversial documents.
Kevin Rudd is weighing up the call for a Senate inquiry, telling reporters this week that "many people in Australia have real concerns about Scientology" and that "I share some of those concerns".
NSW police are now looking into the shocking allegations, which include the use of labour camps known as the Rehabilitation Project Force, for church members who rated poorly on tests using a device known as the electropsychometer, or E-meter.
Ex-Scientologist Peta O'Brien told Xenophon, in a letter tabled in the Senate, that she was forced to spend five hours a day breaking rocks with crow bars to help build a road and carparking area at the church's Dundas base, in Sydney's west.
O'Brien alleged Scientologists in the RPF were not allowed to speak until spoken to, were banned from listening to music or driving, and were not given any medical or dental assistance.
In self-incriminating claims, fellow former Scientologist Aaron Saxton admits in his statement, also tabled in parliament, to torture and blackmail while working for the church in Australia and at its US headquarters between 1989 and 1996.
During his time as a security guard at the church in Sydney - a job he started at 16 - Saxton says he assisted in the "forced confinement and torture" of a female church member who was kept under "house arrest" on a farm in western NSW for a month, after she began screaming outside the front of the church headquarters.
He also details how church officials bullied pregnant staff members into aborting their babies.
"The staff that got pregnant were taken into offices and put under duress," he wrote.
"They were informed that their getting pregnant was not in line with the Sea Org [Sea Organisation, an elite division of Scientology] plans, and that their departure represented a failure for the greatest good and that they should abort."
Many women were demoted - or "assigned to lower conditions" - if they refused an abortion, he wrote.
"At the time I assigned the [lower] conditions it was always in the hope that the person would miscarry the child or abort at a later date," his letter says.
"We had one staff member who used a coathanger and self-aborted her child . . . all her files were destroyed."
Saxton also admits in his statement to helping track down 10 staff members who left the church "without authorisation", and misusing confidential information - including priestly confessions - held in their personal files.
"We used the information to call banks and cancel credit cards," his letter states.
"We used the information to falsely contact airlines and cancel their tickets [by pretending to be them]."
Blackmail allegations are repeated by other whistleblowers, whose statements were tabled in parliament, including Sydney information technology specialist Dean Detheridge, who spent 17 years on Scientology staff in Sydney, the ACT and Los Angeles.
"I have seen scenarios wherein parishioners who had become critical of the church . . . have had their folders culled for embarrassing revelations and confessions," he says in his letter to Xenophon.
"These people had at some time in the past divulged the information in their quest for spiritual relief and improvement; and with the implicit belief that such material would never be used against them.
"Friends, family and-or employers are somehow leaked [or given a closed-door briefing on] the apostate's secrets."
Detheridge describes an "inhuman, cold-hearted and money-fixated culture" within the church.
"I have witnessed, and participated in, concerted efforts to extract as much money as possible from parishioners with absolutely no regard for the financial security of the individual or [their] family," he wrote.
"Anything is acceptable: using all available equity in one's house or even selling the house; obtaining extra credit cards; submitting loan applications that are rife with falsehoods; cashing in one's superannuation; concocting a case for obtaining inheritance well ahead of its date of fruition."
His wife, Ana Detheridge, alleges that she witnessed fundraising events for the International Association of Scientology where parishioners were "locked into rooms" until targets of up to $1 million were raised.
She worked in a Scientology book shop where she claims to have seen "extreme pressure" put on staff to sell book and lecture packages for about $4000 a set.
A senior manager told a staff meeting that "she did not care if the church public have to eat rice and beans for a year, they are to buy a book package".
"I witnessed staff . . . saying, `Let's call Mr Got Bucks or Mrs Got Bucks', meaning parishioners who had money so as to get them to buy extra sets of the expensive basic book packages, telling them they would be donated to poor countries or for PR usage or for libraries," Mrs Detheridge wrote.
"Many of these packages were never delivered but thousands and thousands of dollars every day was being taken for the packages."
A 46-year-old grazier, Kevin Mackey, has begun a class action in the US to recover up to $900,000 he claims to have donated to the church he joined at the age of 20.
His statement, also tabled in parliament, alleges that the church sought cash donations for "crimes" such as failing to "audit" (attend counselling), drinking alcohol or watching pornography.
Divisions of Scientology - named the Super Power Project, Author Services, Planetary Dissemination, Translations Unit and Tech Preservation - raised millions of dollars in donations, Mackey wrote.
The IAS called him regularly, soliciting money, he claims. "We were told we had to donate to prevent such things as the mandatory drugging of schoolchildren by the evil psychiatrists, or defeat Nazi Psychs who were behind the German government's dislike of the church," he wrote.
Mackey said he donated $US80,000 after being told how Scientologists were being "beaten and persecuted like Jews in 1939".
Scientology, he explains, is "seen by a newbie as a godsend to a troubled soul".
"When one begins in Scientology there is nothing weird or space alien about it," he wrote. "One learns to resolve conflicts, work more efficiently, live without drugs or alcohol, communicate more clearly and study better.
"Once you have taken the bait and become hooked, the real Scientology is presented, very slowly, over years.
"The fact is a Scientologist believes the church holds their immortal soul in the palm of their hand: one slip-up and it's goodbye to your eternity as well as mankind's only hope."
Carmel Underwood - a former executive director of the Sydney branch of the church - alleges that officials covered up a case of child abuse at the hands of a trainee counsellor, "coaching" the 12-year-old victim to lie to the NSW Department of Community Services.
In even more startling allegations, Paul David Schofield claims in his letter tabled in parliament his toddler daughter Lauren died while being babysat in the Sydney church, when she was "allowed to wander the stairs by herself and fell".
Church officials not only discouraged him and his wife from seeking compensation, he alleges, but encouraged him to request that no inquest be held.
Schofield wrote that his second daughter, Kirsty, died after ingesting potassium chloride kept at his house. "I covered up that this substance was widely used in both the Sydney church's `purification' programs and a similar program at the church's drug rehab organisation," he wrote.
"I perjured myself . . . I did not tell the whole truth either to police or the court (to my shame) but omitted details which would have `embarrassed' the church.
"I knew if I didn't do this I would be heavily penalised by the church for getting it into trouble."
Schofield wrote that most Scientologists did not trust non-believers - referred to as wogs - and thought that "wog justice just made people worse".
The church was "merciless in hounding" its critics, he wrote.
"To leave the church not only meant that I as a Scientologist was doomed to eternal pain and suffering but I would also be chased relentlessly by the church and my slightest misdeeds found and exposed," his letter states.
"It was only when I left the church . . . that I began to see what I had been part of and what I had done to perpetuate these crimes, which should have been dealt with by . . . the real justice system."
Xenophon wants the Senate to scrutinise Scientology's status as a tax-free religion.
"I believe the activities of this organisation should be scrutinised by parliament because Australian taxpayers are, in effect, supporting Scientology through its tax-exempt status," he told the Senate.
The Church of Scientology, however, brands the whistleblowers as "about as reliable as former spouses are when talking about their ex-partner".
Spokesman Cyrus Brooks calls the claims by "disgruntled former members . . . unfounded and untruthful". He denies church officials ever pressured women into abortions, and says the NSW Coroner had fully investigated the death of Schofield's daughter, finding the church "not culpable of any wrongdoing".
Brooks says the church needs more time to respond comprehensively to the allegations.
"What is occurring here is vilification on a grand scale, falling into a pattern of denigration and dehumanisation of religion, and particularly of religious minorities, which is well known to the world because of its long, tragic history," he told The Australian yesterday.
"We believe that Scientology is a workable way to attain spiritual truth. We believe in good works, spiritual fulfilment and truth telling."
Brooks said Xenophon had ignored an invitation in July to meet a senior church official, the reverend Vicki Dunstan, to discuss his criticisms of the church. (A spokesman for Xenophon confirmed his office had received the letter, but said staff had not passed it on to the senator.)
Brooks accused Xenophon of "violating freedom of speech and the right to religious beliefs".
But the senator dismisses the religious-freedom argument as "twisted logic".
"Religious freedom did not mean the Catholic or Anglican churches were not held accountable for crimes and abuses committed by their priests, nuns and officials, albeit belatedly," he told the Senate. "In Australia there are not limits on what you can believe but there are limits on how you can behave. It's called the law, and no one is above it."
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