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Tom's aliens target City's 'planetary rulers'

Evening Standard (London), 23 October 2006


DEREK perches on his seat among the VIPs, eyes blazing rapturously. "Do you have any idea how huge this is for Scientology?" he says, reading the sign over the garlanded new £ 40million headquarters of the "church of Scientology London" in the heart of the Square Mile. "For how long have we dreamed of this! It's like the tipping point. With this base, we'll be recruiting the people who control the planet!"

Behind him, beaming ecstatically despite the driving rain, an actress from Venezuela, Ruddy Rodriguez, explains how she was attracted to Scientology by my friend Tom Cruise", adding that Tom and Katie are in England this weekend" attending church events.

But suddenly, Rodriguez and the rest of the 2,000 devotees begin whooping as, a few seats to our left, the blue-eyed American leader of the Scientologists, David Miscavige, ascends the red-carpeted dais to cut the ribbon and mark, amid an explosion of confetti, the opening of their flagship centre.

From today, bankers on Queen Victoria Street have a controversial new neighbour, one intent on luring them into what might appear to be nothing more than selfassertiveness courses. But join this group at your peril, say ex-Scientologists. For what begins as a harmless personality test invariably diagnoses you as "depressed" or "stressed", leading to hundreds of thousands of pounds in "auditing" (private counselling) fees and indoctrinating the vulnerable into a set of beliefs that become increasingly esoteric.

What - these financiers might pause to wonder - is the truth behind Scientology?

On the one hand, it is criticised as an unscrupulous money- grabbing cult, driven by the bizarre notion that humans originally came from out-of-space 75 million years ago and that we are held back by our failings in past lives. Yet on the other, it is supported by Hollywood celebrities such as John Travolta, Tom Cruise and Cheers actress Kirstie Alley, and claims to be the fastest growing religion with 10 million followers worldwide.

Janet Laveau, UK spokesperson for the Scientologists, says: "We have 118,000 members in the UK, almost half of whom live in London." She predicts that "opening this new base signals a new era for Scientology in London" and that "we will double our membership in five years".

But a less grandiose picture is revealed when, posing as a potential recruit, I approach Tracey Coleman, their London communications outreach officer, who tells me: "We have 8,000 members in the UK, 2,000 in London." Is Laveau inflating the figures to make the Scientologists look more popular than they really are?

And what about their finances? At first, Laveau says the new centre is "fully funded by English parishioners' donations", but then backtracks and says "the money came from our worldwide membership".

The organisation's tax position is complicated, too, because unlike America and Australia, Scientology is not recognised as a bona fide religion in the UK and had its application for "registered charity" status rejected in 1999.

Despite this setback, the Scientologists appear to have reduced their UK tax to a minimum by chanelling activities through a company registered in Australia. In the year to December 2004, according to accounts filed at Companies House, the company - Church of Scientology Religious Education College Incorporated - paid UK corporation tax of just £ 3,114 on income of £ 9.8 million. The company showed net assets of £ 18.9 million and cash in the bank of some £ 5.6 million. But when I ask why the UK Scientologists here do not record their income in the accounts of their UK-registered company, the Church of Scientology (England and Wales), Laveau promises to "get back to me" with an answer but never does.

To learn more about this mysterious organisation, I decide to join the devotees flocking on Friday evening to the 22nd anniversary of the International Association of Scientologists in the West Sussex countryside.

Here at Saint Hill, a Jacobean castle set on verdant lawns and formerly home to the group's founder, L. Ron Hubbard, who died in 1986, staff members dress in sailor suits and apparently work in total silence. I catch their free coach laid on from their old London base, on Tottenham Court Road, and 90 minutes later find myself being corralled into a giant white marquee the size of a football stadium.

Tom Cruise is there, or so I'm repeatedly told, among the sea of approximately 6,000 faces of all ages and nationalities. I expect the evening to have something a spiritual dimension - after all, Scientology calls itself a religion - but what happens next is truly eye-opening.

Up front, David Miscavige is dramatically - and somewhat bizarrely - attacking psychiatrists, his words backed by clips from a Scientology-produced DVD are broadcast on four giant high- definition TV screens and sensationally called: Psychiatry - an industry of death."

"A woman is safer in a park at midnight than on a psychiatrist's couch," booms Miscavige, backed by savage graphics of psychiatrists - or "psychs" as he calls them - being machine-gunned out of existence. Tom Cruise once publicly criticised a postnatally-depressed Brooke Shields for taking antidepressants, for which he later apologised, but I am now witnessing the raw dogma that lies behind his outburst. As Miscavige begins to crescendo "our next step is eradicating psychiatry from this planet, we will triumph!" the audience rise as one, wildly clapping and cheering.

I look around, half expecting people to be rolling their eyes at this ridiculous, over-the-top message, but instead they're staring at the screens with a rapturous gaze, almost as if they are hypnotised. A few minutes later, Miscavige crescendos again, and, on cue, the audience rise to hail the chief.

Occasionally, they shout: "To LRH", toasting the American science-fiction author who 54 years ago published a self-help philosophy called "dianetics" and kick-started a religion.

I feel as if I have been parachuted into a tent inhabited by 6,000 aliens. God help anyone in the audience who happens to be a psychiatrist! For three hours, a succession of speakers - all with the same automaton-like delivery - assail the audience with the "unprecedented worldwide achievements" of Scientology's anti-drugs and anti-recidivist outreach programmes, Narconon and Criminon, portraying themselves as a vigilante force spreading peace to mankind.

I suddenly grasp why Germany has taken such a hard line against Scientologists, virtually hounding them out of the country. Such gatherings must feel too close to home, uncomfortably reminding them of Nazis rallies at Nuremberg. Later, over refreshments in another giant marquee, I try to understand the appeal of Scientology to its adherents.

"For me," says outreach officer, Tracey Coleman, "I joined seven years ago when I was having a tough time in my life. I'd had problems with my relationships and my work and what I learned helped me enormously. But it was only with the profound realisation that I'm a spiritual being that everything changed."

Coleman is typical in that she was recruited at a time of acute personal vulnerability then sought fulltime work inside the organisation, further cutting herself off from the outside world.

Alex, 32, a maths PhD student who lives in Edgware, tells me: "I got recruited at a very vulnerable time in my life. I happened to be walking past their shop in Tottenham Court Road and I was very flattered by the attentions of one of the pretty girls handing out leaflets. I was very unhappy at the time and she agreed to see me during my lunch breaks. I handed over about £500 for some books and courses and agreed to be tested for stress by holding an E- meter, which is a couple of tin cans connected by current to a machine that measures your stress.

"A few weeks later she said: 'Oh, do you fancy coming away with me for the weekend?' I found myself at this castle in Sussex, but instead of being with me, she left me to be indoctrinated by a group of other people, all bizarrely dressed in sailor suits and with a military-type command structure. By now, my parents were very anxious at the things I was saying, and they talked me down.

But when I demanded my £500 back, saying I no longer wanted to the training, the Scientologists refused. It was only when I threatened them with the small claims court that they coughed up."

Today, Alex thinks he got off lightly.

Four years ago, in 2002, the Church of Scientology suffered a humiliating court defeat when it was ordered to pay exmember Lawrence Wollersheim 8.67 million, after long court battle in California. The court found that Wollersheim developed manic-depressive "bipolar" disorder as a result of the counselling tactics used on him by the Scientologists.

Wollersheim testified that his auditing "process was one of coercive thought reform" that this was the cause of him suffering panic attacks, amnesia, and manic-depression that drove him to the brink of suicide. Bonnie Woods, 56, another former Scientologist who won £55,000 in libel damages in 1999 from the Church of Scientology in England, says that the tactics that they use are "akin to brainwashing".

"They put you in an environment where if you question any aspect of their programme, it's because you 'don't understand'. They attempt to shut down your critical thinking and create in people a craven desire to please and to pass the drills. One of them is called bull-baiting, where you insult someone, trying to get them to respond.

"Twelve sessions, each one an hour, can cost thousands of pounds, and so you are desperate to 'pass', but people can stay at the same levels for years."

Back on Queen Victoria Street, what is striking is how different David Miscavige sounds from the way he'd spoken on Friday night. Here, in the presence of guests from the outside world, including City of London Police Chief Superintendent Kevin Hurley, he makes no mention about "eliminating psychs".

Inside the building, replete with marble walls and cherry-wood tables, cheery men and women in dark jackets and white shirts show us around the spanking new 55,000 square-foot facility spread over six floors. There's a "purification centre" with a sauna and massage beds in some of the "interview rooms" seductively state-of-the-art - amid more military-sounding rooms with labels marked "ethics officer".

"Would you like to sign up for our dianetics and scientology courses?" an auditor asks me. How much? I ask. "Oh, that varies from person to person," she replies. Ballpark cost for a year, I persist.

"Twenty-thousand pounds," she says, without blinking. Now she's looking over my shoulder, like a captain standing on the bridge scanning the middle distance.

Presently she adds: "But that's just the beginning. I've been here for years. Most people need far more auditing than that."

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