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Madeleine Bunting Talks to Former Scientologists

The Guardian, 28 November 1996, Page 7

FORMER members of the Church of Scientology claim widespread VAT fraud and financial malpractice take place at one of its UK centres, as well as systematic targeting and manipulation of the emotionally vulnerable to extract money. Payments for Scientology courses and books were entered as donations in the accounts to avoid thousands of pounds of value added tax, former members claim.

They also maintain in The Big Story, to be broadcast this evening on ITV, that Scientology staff helped new members to obtain bank loans under false pretences, to sell assets, to cash in insurance policies and to hand over the proceeds, generating a turnover of about £20,000 a week at the Bournemouth Scientology Mission in Poole.

The allegations will be a serious setback to the Scientologists' recent attempts to win respectability. These include a pending application to the Charity Commission for registration as a charity and ITV's recent decision to allow them to advertise on television with a campaign on the theme of trust.

"We lied to banks, people obtained loans under false pretences. It was whatever we could do to raise money," said Andrea Catt, a Scientologist who became registrar at the Bournemouth mission for 1988-95, despite their knowledge of her history of financial malpractice.

Accounts had not been kept for years and the mission was on the verge of bankruptcy, claims Roger Tuffin, a 21-year-old bank clerk who joined the Scientologists in 1991. He was promoted to be the mission's treasury secretary in 1992, a position for which he was unqualified.

"Nobody knew where the money came from. So receipts were made up to account for that money, but of course the receipts were being made up about three years later with fictional names, fictional amounts and courses, completely bogus receipts."

Lists of new members who had money, or were emotionally vulnerable, were drawn up in weekly meetings, Ms Catt said. "There'd be some people - maybe their mother had just died and they were very depressed or their girlfriend had just left them - these would be prime, prime targets."

Alex Bowerman was such a target at the Bournemouth mission and was persuaded to cash in an insurance policy for £23,000; in one week he handed £25,000 over for courses and books: "They played me for a puppet."

Such large sums from members were routine at the Bournemouth mission, Ms Catt claims. "People were persuaded to re-mortgage their homes, sell their homes, cash in the policies supposed to pay off their mortgages, borrow against pensions, sell family jewels, borrow from their families, sell their cars. Anything you can possibly imagine that a person could do to raise money, people were persuaded to pay into Scientology.

"If a person filled a loan form in saying the money was for Scientology, they'd get a very negative response so people were encouraged to say that the money was for a management training course, a computer, a car, a boat ... Sometimes we'd fill them in for them. Then they'd sign it and it would be submitted to the bank on a completely false basis."

Mike Rinder, a director of the Church of Scientology International, denied these allegations but admitted there had been problems at the Bournemouth mission which he blamed on Ms Catt, and which he maintained had now been cleared up. He insisted: "If someone was doing something unethical then that isn't tolerated by anybody in the church. That's not acceptable to me, that's not acceptable to anybody. And we take responsibility for straightening those things out."

The bank threatened to bring in the police in 1993 in the case of a young man who had taken out two loans of £5,000 to pay for courses at Bournemouth mission. He then defaulted on the loans. Ms Catt was blamed by the Scientologist s and sacked. Six months later she was re-instated and went on to win a Scientology award for generating income, the Gross Income Cup.

The family and friends of one 24-year-old man, Richard, believe that pressure after he left the Scientologists was what drove him to suicide in July 1996. He received 12 letters from the Scientologists in the two months leading up to his death and up to four or five phone calls a day at work, which a colleague claims left him nervous and frightened.

The Big Story is to be shown on ITV at 7.30pm tonight.

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