Tom Cruise is their most famous recruit, Wikipedia has banned them from editing its pages, and they’ve even inspired their own episode of Law and Order. So who exactly are the Scientologists and why have they suddenly come up in the news? Crikey waded into the morass…

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What is Scientology? According to the ABC: “It’s a system of beliefs, teachings and rituals originally established as a secular philosophy by L. Ron Hubbard. His 1950 book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, provided the core principles of what would later become Scientology.”

What do Scientologists believe? According to Time magazine: “Hubbard argued that unhappiness sprang from mental aberrations (or “engrams”) caused by early traumas. Counseling sessions with the E-meter, he claimed, could knock out the engrams, cure blindness and even improve a person’s intelligence and appearance. Hubbard kept adding steps, each more costly, for his followers to climb. In the 1960s the guru decreed that humans are made of clusters of spirits (or “thetans”) who were banished to earth some 75 million years ago by a cruel galactic ruler named Xenu. Naturally, those thetans had to be audited”.

How do they operate? Time magazine reports that the Church of Scientology runs consulting, education, healthcare, drug treatment and book publishing operations to generate income and build influence. In addition, Scientologists also subscribe to a number of controversial operational tactics:

Fair game: According to L. Ron Hubbard: “Those who seek to damage the church may be deprived of property or injured by any means by any Scientologist without any discipline of the Scientologist. May be tricked, sued or lied to or destroyed.”

Aggressive litigation: According to L. Ron Hubbard: “beware of attorneys who tell you not to sue . . . the purpose of the suit is to harass and discourage rather than to win.

Why are we suddenly talking about it? This week South Australia Independent Senator Nick Xenophon tabled a speech in Federal Parliament calling for Scientology to be stripped of its tax exempt status. According to Xenophon:

Scientology is not a religious organisation. It is a criminal organisation that hides behind its so-called religious beliefs.

I also believe the activities of this organization should be scrutinised by parliament because Australian taxpayers are, in effect, supporting Scientology through its tax-exempt status.

How wealthy is the Church of Scientology? As The Australian notes: “Its net worth is almost impossible to measure due partly to its tax exempt status in the US and elsewhere and the labyrinthine structure it operates under but Scientology is worth billions and turns over hundreds of millions every year”.

In addition, a Time magazine investigation found that: “In a court filing, one of the cult’s many entities — the Church of Spiritual Technology — listed $503 million in income just for 1987. High-level defectors say the parent organization has squirreled away an estimated $400 million in bank accounts in Liechtenstein, Switzerland and Cyprus.”

Why is the Church of Scientology exempt from tax? In Church of the New Faith v Commissioner of Payroll Tax (Vic) 1983, the High Court of Australia ruled that:

Regardless of whether the members of the applicant are gullible or misled or whether the practices of Scientology are harmful or objectionable, the evidence, in our view, establishes that Scientology must, for relevant purposes, be accepted as ‘a religion’ in Victoria. That does not, of course, mean either that the practices of the applicant or its rules are beyond the control of the law of the State or that the applicant or its members are beyond its taxing powers.

What makes it a religion, not a cult? That’s a good question. The Australian argues that:

Scientology is a cult because it practices what it calls “disconnection”. Scientology members are directed to stop all contact with family members who are critical of its methods. This type of enforced alienation provides a textbook definition of a cult.

But then again, why pick on Scientology? After all, haven’t Hillsong, the Anglican church, and the Catholic church all done terrible things with their tax breaks too?

What have ex members said? Under protection of parliamentary privilege, Senator Xenophon has told the stories of several former Scientology members:

I have also received correspondence from Carmel Underwood, another former member and another victim of Scientology. She says that while she was working for the organisation in Sydney she fell pregnant and was put under extreme pressure to have an abortion. When she refused, she was put on a disappearing program…

I have received statements from Anna and Dean Detheridge who claim to have been subjected to physical and mental abuse during their time with the organisation. Anna says she was instructed by the organisation to disconnect from her sister because her sister was gay and therefore, according to Scientology, dangerous, perverted and evil. Anna and Dean also provided evidence where information they and others have revealed to the church have been used to blackmail and control…

Another victim of Scientology, Peta O’Brien, wrote of being discouraged by the organisation from seeking treatment for cancer. She has also provided evidence of being assaulted and cut off from her son while they were both part of the organization.

In addition, the St Petersburg Times recently published several interviews with high level defectors who allege that they were physically assaulted by Scientology leader David Miscavige.

How have the Church of Scientology responded to this? The Church of Scientology have criticised Xenophon’s statements for being:

“…an outrageous abuse of Parliamentary privilege from a Senator who would not even meet with Church representatives several months ago to discuss his concerns.” Scientology spokesperson Cyrus Brooks has also defended these claims to 2UE.

The Church of Scientology has also denied many of the claims made in the St Petersburg investigation.

Are Scientologists litigious? Well, as The Australian very succinctly puts it:

“So what is Scientology all about? Well, I can’t quote from its texts as these are all under copyright and trademark protected. The organisation has been known to sue anybody who quotes from its texts or uses its emblems without permission.”

In fact, the Church of Scientology has been spending plenty of time in the courts of late: SBS reported that: “A French court convicted the Church of Scientology and one of its leaders of defrauding vulnerable members on Tuesday, but stopped short of banning the group’s activities in France.”

The Christian Science Monitor reports that the French case is the latest in a series of legal cases that Scientology has become entangled in, including “Lisa McPherson, an American member of the Church of Scientology, died while in the care of the church, which led to felony charges filed in 1998 and a civil suit filed against the church by Ms. McPherson’s parents in 1997. The felony charges of abuse and unlicensed practice of medicine were dropped in 2000 after a government medical examiner updated her initial finding that the death was “unexplained” to “accidental.” The church settled out of court with McPherson’s parents for an undisclosed sum in 2004. The medical examiner later resigned in the face of a public outcry.

The church has also been on the offensive side of court action. In 1991, about 50 Scientologists from around the United States filed a series of lawsuits against the Cult Awareness Network, a leading critic of the church at the time. The Scientologists had all applied to join the network and after being rebuked, argued in their separate legal actions that this constituted unfair discrimination on the basis of their religious beliefs. The church described the network as a “hate group” and the organization eventually filed for bankruptcy under the weight of its legal fees and problems associated with its practice of kidnapping alleged “cult” members for a process it called “deprogramming.”

Further reading:

1991 Time magazine investigation into the Church of Scientology.

2009 St Petersburg Times interviews with high level Scientology defectors.

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