A recent campaign in Dublin advertised courses run by the Scientology movement. Members past and present tell Cian Traynor about their experiences of the organisation. Does it bring the promised prosperity, intelligence and freedom, or simply exploit the vulnerable?
‘When job security turns into insecurity,” ran a recent ad on the Dart, in Dublin, “attend a course in Scientology.” The accompanying photographs feature men and women looking stressed or dejected. The course advertised was in “personal efficiency”, cost €45 and promised to “increase ability, competence and lasting security at work”.
When the posters appeared, complaints and defamatory graffiti materialised swiftly. The back-and-forth arguments about Scientology are constant: one side claims they are exposing the truth; the other dismisses the detractors as liars engaging in discriminatory behaviour.
Since forming, in 1953, Scientology has presented itself as an applied religious philosophy that can bring prosperity, enhanced intelligence and spiritual freedom. The church’s founder, the late science-fiction writer L Ron Hubbard, taught that people are immortal beings who have forgotten their true nature.
Through a method of regressive therapy known as auditing, practitioners aim to “clear” themselves of traumatic memories known as “engrams”, which are carried over from past lives and cause insecurities, irrational fears and psychosomatic illnesses.
Scientology’s critics, however, see it as a money-making enterprise that exploits the vulnerable with cult-like practices.
This weekend Scientology’s UK headquarters celebrates the centenary of Hubbard’s birth with a gala event where celebrity members such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta are expected – a measure of the religion’s progress as the world’s fastest-growing religion. Its opponents, meanwhile, will gather at Scientology missions around the world, buoyed by their belief the religion is struggling to survive in the face of mounting criticism from former members.
Yet despite the fissure between celebrity endorsements and controversial allegations, Scientology still holds an appeal for people. We spoke to past and present practitioners to discover why they joined and why, in most cases, they left.
Commanding officer, Scientology Missions International UK
John Duignan’s 22 years as a Scientologist were bookended by mental breakdown. After emigrating from Cork he was stopped in Stuttgart one day in 1985 and persuaded to take a free personality test. The results indicated he desperately needed help, which he says was true. He had felt vulnerable since his parents killed themselves, when he was 10. Scientology seemed to offer a solution.
“I’ve realised I had quite a messed-up childhood, which set me up for needing something like that,” Duignan says. “They were promising me fantastic things: to make you permanently happy and healthy. For a depressed person that can be quite appealing.”
Duignan says he was encouraged to take out bank loans to pay for Scientology courses and disconnect from anyone critical of the religion. Then something in him snapped.
“I was suicidal. I haven’t been able to document this, but I feel it was induced in some way. I came out of this breakdown as a fanatical Scientologist, and that’s a fact. A mental filter had been broken. My ethos and culture was based around my Irish Catholic upbringing, but that was completely undermined. I now believed Scientology was the only way to save the world.”
He began working at the Stuttgart mission in exchange for course work and was later recruited to the Sea Organisation, Scientology’s fraternal religious order. Its 6,000 members, some of whom are children, sign billion-year commitment forms.
“It’s a difficult organisation to leave,” says Duignan. “Everybody watches everybody. All the bases have a perimeter of some form, and they are locked, wired and under surveillance. If you wake up one night and think, My God, what am I doing? you cannot walk out of the building.”
Working 16-hour days, 365 days a year, on Scientology operations in the US, the UK, Africa, Canada and Australia, Duignan ascended the ranks. “I had become a real honorary bastard.” The greater Duignan’s responsibilities, the more trust he earned in his free time. He’d sneak away whenever possible, doing independent voluntary work in deprived areas to see how Scientology translated to the outside world. It didn’t stand up, he believed.
Duignan began to develop doubts, believing the Scientology community was insular and rife with double standards.
The church discourages independent inquiry on the grounds that it hampers progress along the Bridge to Total Freedom, the religion’s ladder to enlightenment. Revelations are made progressively through courses, the cost of which can add up to more than €300,000.
Many former Scientologists cite their first delinquent internet search as a jarring experience. Duignan began reading “earth-shattering” accounts of former members who had reached the top only to grow disillusioned, finding troubling discrepancies between Hubbard’s church biography and his medical and military records.
At 42, Duignan felt he should have been married with children and a career. Instead he was “a ghost” with no money, no qualifications or transferrable skills, no state entitlements and no way of relating to “wogs” – non-Scientologists. He says he couldn’t simply walk away, or “blow”, in Scientology terminology. He had been on security operations to forcibly bring back defectors and knew what to expect. “I was on the run,” he says gently. “I realised that psychologically I was not going to be able to keep this up.”
Although Scientologists were staked outside his family home, in Cork, Duignan managed to trick them into thinking he was in Birmingham and made it clear that any attempts to bring him back would be futile. Four years on he says intensive counselling and the ability to attend college as a mature student have helped him rebuild his life.
“That was so crucial,” he says. “I was quite ignorant after 22 years; the whole world outside of Scientology was scary. Even if I don’t get a job after this I’ve still got a good education and a sense of hope.”
Former chief spokesman for Scientology and head of its office of special affairs
Not long ago, when former members of Scientology spoke out it was Mike Rinder’s job to deny, discredit and neutralise their claims, a process known as “dead agenting”.
In 2007 that role involved following the BBC reporter John Sweeney, who was then filming an edition of Panorama about the religion. Sweeney had been inquiring about allegations that Scientology’s ecclesiastical leader, David Miscavige, had physically assaulted people within the church. Although Rinder ensured the allegations were omitted from the programme, Miscavige believed he should have stopped the edition from airing. As punishment Rinder was told to report for ditch- digging duty at Scientology’s UK base, in Sussex.
Instead he disappeared. “I literally walked out the door with my briefcase, which was all I had,” he says. “I got a deluge of messages on my BlackBerry. ‘Where are you? We need to talk. We need to talk.’ I just ignored them all. They didn’t know where to find me.”
Rinder believed Scientology had strayed from the church he had known since the age of six, that it was being abused to make money and further the power of Miscavige, who succeeded Hubbard after the writer’s death, in 1986. Though Rinder still had faith in Scientology, he knew leaving would mean excommunication from his family, who remain in the church, and being automatically declared a “suppressive person”, an arcane Scientology term indicating an enemy of Scientology or someone who “opposes betterment activity”.
Asked how he would compare his life before and after Scientology, Rinder goes silent. There’s a forced hiccup-like sound that slowly, unnervingly breaks into laughter. “That’s a leading question,” he says firmly.
Rinder has spoken out only a handful of times since defecting from Scientology, where he specialised in handling journalists (who are not only “suppressive persons” but also “merchants of chaos”). After another pause he answers. “Night and day,” he says. “I went from incredible restrictions on what I could do, say and think to no outside restrictions.”
He acknowledges that not everyone finds the adjustment easy. “I think probably the biggest difficulty people have is getting out of their minds the ingrained pattern of thinking about how to look at things,” he says. “They become infiltrated with this idea that you can’t criticise or do anything about what’s happening internally.”
Now an independent Scientologist, Rinder says he was required to issue categorical denials in order to protect the name of Scientology. “The problem is that there is no other way you can seek to disprove something that’s true.” As a result, he says, deception and violence became the accepted ways of doing things within the church. “There are things I look back on that I am not proud of, and those sorts of things are some of them.”
He does not regret being a Scientologist, however, and still swears by its teachings. But there is something he wouldn’t hesitate to say to other Scientologists, including his own family, given the opportunity: “Wake up and smell the coffee.”
Former staff member at the Scientology mission in Dublin
It started with a social-studies assignment for college. Gabrielle Wynne visited the Dublin Scientology mission, asked some questions and was intrigued enough to do some introductory courses at home. “I got a lot from them. I thought, It can only get better from here.”
Within months Wynne was asked to join the staff. But there was a problem: her habit of contracting colds and flu was interpreted by her colleagues as a symptom of being “suppressed”. When asked if she was close to anyone who might disagree with Scientology, she admitted her mother had misgivings. Wynne was urged to disconnect from her mother, but she refused. Instead she was told to write her mother a letter, which was edited by the ethics officer, committing herself to the religion. “She just thought it was weird,” says Wynne. “Me and my mam can talk about anything. She knew that wouldn’t be me.”
Learning and making friends at the mission were enough to make Wynne overlook what she now believes were warning signs, such as the day a colleague suggested she exploit a friend’s insecurities to bring her in for auditing. When she asked why they weren’t reaching out to homeless people, she says, the reply was, “Because they can’t afford it.”
Sitting in a cafe, the bubbly 22-year-old says that she was promised a salary but that, in all her time of cleaning, cold-calling, auditing others and pushing flyers through letter boxes, there wasn’t one. “I was handed a little envelope with a €2 coin in it. I got my bus home that night and never got paid anything else.”
Having already spent €3,000 on Scientology, Wynne needed to work full time elsewhere, but leaving the staff meant being billed for €1,000 in “freeloader debt”.
After mounting pressure to join Sea Organisation, take out bank loans and disconnect from her mother, Wynne left last summer.
She felt lied to. Initially they had assured her that people were never urged to disconnect from friends or family, that it was “black PR”. They had also repeatedly denied the existence of what Wynne refers to as “the Xenu thing”, part of a confidential scripture revealed at Operating Thetan III level that Hubbard described as a space opera. (Scientology postulates that it can be fatal if discovered prematurely.) Yet she had seen a YouTube video of the church’s current spokesperson confirming it.
“There were so many witnesses and ex-members sharing things. I thought, They can’t all be lying. I was told they were all just suppressive people . . . It was never Scientology. It was always everyone else’s problem.”
Before she began to have doubts Wynne would engage protestors in “friendly arguments”, trying to convince them they had it wrong. One of them was Pete Griffiths, a burly 57-year-old who offers support to former Scientologists. Sitting by Wynne’s side, he recalls his journey through Scientology with self-deprecating panache.
Griffiths ran a mission in Cumbria, in northern England, until his weekly figures petered out. By the time he moved to Westport, in 1998, he planned to return to Scientology once his children were grown and he could better afford it. It wasn’t until he heard of a protest in 2008 that he looked into Scientology online and had a “penny-dropping moment”.
“From 1987 to 2008 the thought control was all in place,” he says. “Then a lengthy unravelling process began. I got so angry that I burned any Scientology stuff I had lying around in a bonfire. I couldn’t look at it any more. The sense of betrayal is just incredible. The clues are all there, but you don’t see them.”
Griffiths maintains, like everyone interviewed for this article, that Scientologists are generally good, well-intentioned people who can’t detect flaws with how Scientology is run. People can believe whatever they want, he says, but they should also feel free to criticise, research or articulate doubt. But nobody can be talked out of Scientology, he adds. “It has to come from them.”
And so it was with Wynne, who now joins Griffiths and other former Scientologists on the other side of Abbey Street during monthly protests organised by the online activist group Anonymous, whose members the church regards as cyberterrorists.
“The point of me protesting is to say, ‘Remember me?’ ” she says. “I’m not a bad person. I’m just asking, Why would you have to remortgage your house for a religion? Religion should be free.”
Three years in Scientology
John McGhee says the stigma surrounding Scientology piqued his interest. If it delivered the self-betterment it promised, he reasoned, it seemed like a sound investment. “I walked in off the street and said, ‘Give me all you have.’ ”
Hunched over a table in a quiet pub, his eyebrows framing an intense gaze, the 33-year-old embalmer spends 90 minutes detailing every course, price and promise of his time in Scientology. He barely contains his frustration at what he sees as pay-as-you-go revelations that lead nowhere. “They say if it’s not working it’s something you’re doing, and they put you in auditing for that at your expense.”
McGhee admits there was an addictive quality to working up the “Bridge to Total Freedom”, the movement’s series of steps to enlightenment (see panel), so much so that he was prepared to ignore things he didn’t agree with. “At events or course completions they’d stand up and applaud Hubbard’s picture. I could never do it. Even as I went deeper into Scientology I never thought that was okay.”
Part of the processing, McGhee says, included confessing “overts and withholds” – sins and secrets – which are kept on file, while using an electropsychometer. “The e-meter works like a crude lie detector. They can tell if you’re holding anything in, and they can get it out of you.”
He recalls TRs, or training regimes, where he had to stare into someone’s eyes for four hours. “I went out of my head,” he says.
Then there was an auditing session at which, he claims, a supervisor chastised McGhee’s friend for analysing traumatic childhood events in the presence of children. “Firstly, there shouldn’t have been kids there. But the disruption drove him into catatonia. From that night on he changed. We went into a session the next day and the next day, but he wasn’t coming out of it. They predicted he’d need four or five grand’s worth [of life repair]. That was an eye-opener. They wouldn’t fix that man. They left him in such a state because they wanted money first. He couldn’t afford it. He’s still in that state to this day.”
McGhee lost interest at that point. By mid 2009 he had spent €10,500 and was researching Scientology every night in dismay. Recently he visited a friend who allegedly paid €50,000 for his bridge after just a day as a Scientologist, but there was nobody home. The neighbour said he’d packed up. McGhee looked up to the box room and saw the same Hubbard lectures that he had bought for €1,800 sitting on the shelf, and drew his own conclusion.
Although he spent four nights and a day at the mission every week, he couldn’t relate to the dedication required to spend money he didn’t have. McGhee claims he regularly lent cash to senior members for food and was once accompanied to an ATM to prove he didn’t have more. He says the people around him were running up debts, losing their temper and falling ill – the opposite of what he was promised. But he couldn’t get anyone to see it that way, he says, and eventually stopped questioning it.
“They honestly believe they’re on to a good thing and it’s more important than their children or mothers and fathers. They think they can clear the planet of ‘reactive minds’, but they can’t even do it in the mission. There are lads there 20 years without a penny to their name who glorify Scientology. And I think, What did it actually do for you?”
The Irish Scientology movement
Gerard Ryan, spokesman for the Church of Scientology in Dublin, says the only way to measure Scientology’s effectiveness is through a fundamental tenet of L Ron Hubbard, its founder: what’s true for you is what you observe to be true.
If you’re not seeing a return on something you’re putting time and effort into, he says, of course you’re not going to continue with it. His wife, for example, tried a few courses and decided it wasn’t for her.
“The vast majority of people who would leave the church never really joined the church in the first place, ie they come in, try it, it’s not for them and they go. That would be, overwhelmingly, most people.”
Scientology was introduced to Ireland when Hubbard established a Dublin mission, at 69 Merrion Square, in 1958. It was there that Hubbard, who would have turned 100 last weekend, first delivered the personal-efficiency course that Scientology recently began advertising on the Dart line.
The school closed in the early 1960s, but Scientology continued to be practised in Ireland.
In 1986 a Limerick man named John Keane began a mission from his home, and by the early 1990s Scientology had established itself at a base on Middle Abbey Street in Dublin. Since then the faith has seen modest growth in Ireland, says Ryan, with “only a few hundred Scientologists of varying degrees of commitment”.
Ryan, who is now 52, found a second-hand copy of Dianetics in London in the late 1980s. Its lessons aided his architecture studies, he says, and later in his career helped him maintain his integrity when unethical opportunities arose in the construction industry.
But he has never attained “clear” status – the fundamental goal in Scientology. “I’ve been a bit of a laggard in that respect,” he says with a laugh. “I spend most of my time studying it. I’m more of a philosophical bent.”
Scientology’s utopian aim is to “clear the planet”, a point at which everyone has cleared themselves of “engrams”, the scars of painful events normally inaccessible to the conscious mind.
The complexity and duration of the training involved mean Irish Scientologists aiming to reach clear status or above are required to travel to the UK or the US. Twenty or 30 members have done this, Ryan says, though it would cost “many thousands of euro” to reach the top level, Operating Thetan VIII, which must be studied at sea.
One member to have achieved this status is 90-year-old Bernard Duffy, who was an original pupil of Hubbard in Dublin.
Although Ryan says he understands “the broad thrust” of what the higher levels involve, he can neither attest to the heightened abilities they are said to induce, such as telepathy and out-of-body experiences, nor dispel people’s misgivings with those teachings.
“What can I say? I don’t know,” he says. “I’ve personally never witnessed any of these alleged abilities. I can only go on my personal experience, and my personal experience of Scientology is pretty good.”
He says Scientologists who have reached the higher levels but struggle with health, finances and temperament are not indictments of the religion’s tangible benefits.
“If I see some OT” – that is, Operating Thetan, indicating a Scientologist who has gone beyond the clear level – “some guy who’s gone up high on the levels and they’re not doing well in life, from my experience that tells me something is wrong. Something has gone awry there. I would actually seek to help the guy.
“I don’t make decisions about my life based on another person’s experience, because that’s a second-hand decision. If I try something in Scientology and it doesn’t work, if it’s bad or crap and everything else, I will make my decision based upon that experience.”
The Dublin mission participates in a yearly competition to increase square footage, called the birthday game, which it won last year after moving to a bigger premises on Middle Abbey Street.
The mission is also effectively in competition with missions in the UK, India and Pakistan to submit “up stats” – rising figures – every week, though Ryan admits they struggle to reach their targets. About 10 per cent of the Dublin mission’s income goes to the Church of Scientology, which has been unsuccessful in its attempts to obtain tax-free, charitable status in Ireland.
Ryan gives little credence to criticism of Scientology, explaining that it tends to be either “unbelievable garbage” or personnel issues. “If every single thing they say about us is true, which is a laugh, that would not be one fraction of the things that, say, China is doing to human rights or the Catholic Church did in Ireland.”
For Ryan the fact that Scientology has grown “from zero to millions” in the face of opposition over the past 60 years shows that it clearly holds value in some people’s lives.
“There’s no doubt about it,” he says. “Some people have tried it and it doesn’t work for them. That’s a fact. It’s quite clearly worked for an awful lot more.”
More than 50,000 people have taken Scientology's personality test in Dublin.
Scientology has more than 9,000 churches, missions and affiliated groups in 165 countries.
92 million books by L Ron Hubbard and lectures on Dianetics and Scientology have been distributed in the past decade. Three million of those have been placed in more than 150,000 libraries in 192 countries since July 2007.
Scientology's properties increased from about 520,000 sq m in 2004 to more than 1.1 million sq m in 2010.
The Scientology Volunteer Ministers programme has aided more than than 175 disaster-relief efforts worldwide.
Scientology supports drug-rehabilitation programmes in more than 45 countries.
Hubbard's works have been translated into 71 languages, a Guinness World Record.