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Scientology's Campaign Of Hate, By 'Cult Busters'

The American, March 6 1998, Page 5

By Rossitsa Nicolova

They are spying on us, say couple counselling former followers.

Bonnie Woods once shared a common thread with Hollywood celebrities like Tom Cruise, John Travolta and the late Sonny Bono. But unlike them and many other followers of the Church of Scientology, she has become an infidel of the so-called religion.

Established by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in the 1950s, the Church of Scientology claims it can help people find happiness and heal from emotional trauma. Woods, however, calls it a destructive cult.

"A cult is a group of people who share a common belief in something. A cult becomes destructive when the group uses manipulative techniques without your knowledge," the 45-year-old Clevelander explains.

Woods, who lives in West Sussex with her husband, Richard, also a former scientologist, has taken a critical stand on the church's philosophy and activities since she left the group in 1982, after being a dedicated member for eight years. The couple created a telephone help-line in 1992 to counsel former scientologists and families who have members involved with the church. Woods said over the past six years, they have talked to at least 200 people.

"It fills a need that people have," Woods said. "The number of phone calls we get indicate there's a lot of concern among families."

The Cult Information Centre in London refers people to the Woods' help-line. Woods said they share personal experiences or give callers information about scientology otherwise difficult to obtain. The couple also meets with anyone who wishes to talk to them in person.

Woods' first encounter with scientology happened in 1973 when the man she was dating persuaded her to follow his interst in the religion. She then decided to give up studying psychology at a St. Louis university and her teaching job to take scientology courses. Eventually, she started recruiting members and administering personality test as a member of scientology's extensive administrative staff.

Woods was living communally in Los Angeles with other scientologists and working 70 hours a week for the church when she was diagnosed with endometriosis. Her condition required major surgery. While recuperating, Woods reflected on her life and realized her working environment at the scientology headquarters and the church's strict diet of rice and beans might have brought on her illness.

"The physical conditions I worked under were less than optimum," Woods said.

It was 1982 when Woods decided to call it quits. At that time she had already met Richard, a native of Sussex, whom she married in 1985. They moved to Britain, but her scientologist past continued to haunt her despite her peaceful departure.

"I didn't have any involvement with the church, but I wasn't opposed to it either," Woods said.

The church, which had excommunicated Woods as a suppressive person, distributed leaflets in 1993 calling her a "hate campaigner." Woods sued for libel. The church countersued and then in 1995 and 1996 brought two more libel actions against her. A scientology spokesman described Woods as "a spreader of disinformation who has caused untold upset among families," as reported in a 1997 Sunday Times article.

Woods said she tells her two daughters to be cautious. "We do get some peculiar mail," she said. "We've had a demonstration outside our house. We've been put under surveillance. When you live at that level of harassment, I think you adjust your lifestyle to that."

The Woods, who both volunteer full-time in their local East Grinstead ministry, have found it difficult to handle the litigation expenses. The Liberty panel, a civil rights organisation based in London, helped them find a city law firm to take the cases pro bono, Woods said.

The Woods are still waiting for the High Court to decide on all cases.

Woods said the public perceives people who join cults or religions as emotionally-damaged or victims, but a study has pointed to individuals 18-30 years of age who are idealistic and frustrated. Woods, who resembled this profile, quickly took to heart the goals of the organisation.

Scientology entices members with a free personality test called the Oxford Capacity Analysis, Woods said, which supposedly can reveal people's weaknesses. It then promises to rectify those faults. The church takes people through a series of communication drills to diminish people's critical thinking abilities, she said. The church declares anyone who opposes scientology anti-social and suppressive, Woods said.

[Picture with caption: LIVING IN FEAR: The Woods have angered their former church by offering to help others who leave.]

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