The 'extended sting operation' of Scientology
The Listener, 30 April 1987, volume 117, number 3009, pages 14,16. The Listener was a weekly news magazine published by BBC Enterprises Ltd.
John Penycate Watching a cult at work
Panorama's investigation into the Scientologists revealed an organisation which uses its founder's 'mixture of half-practical, half-gobbledegook psychological techniques' to draw large sums of money from its adherents, with threatening consequences if they opt out.
Religious cults are a problem. They enslave the minds and empty the pockets of gullible young people, causing heartfelt grief to their families. The Moonies, the Children of God and the other cults have a poor public image, but they almost always operate within the law. The Church of Scientology is probably the largest and richest of the 'new religious movements'.
The turgid prose of its American founder and guru, the late L. Ron Hubbard, makes much of what he wrote impenetrable, but his instructions on relations with the media are unusually explicit: 'Scientologists should never let themselves be interviewed by the press. If attacked on some vulnerable point by anyone or anything or any organisation, always find or manufacture enough threat against them to cause them to sue for peace ... Don't ever defend. Always attack.'
Panorama's experience in reporting on Scientology after Hubbard was not, therefore, surprising. At first the Church was polite but stand-offish. Once we demonstrated our seriousness by filming former members and church buildings in the USA, the barrage began. 'Reverend' Heber Jentzsch, the ex-actor who is Scientology's International President, accused us of 'journalistic terrorism', or working for the CIA, MI5, MI6 (both?) and international psychiatry. Many of the senior executives of the BBC, from the Chairman down, received a long missive accusing the Coproration of 'obvious bias'. Threatening letters from lawyers followed.
Harassment of Panorama personnel has not occurred. Last year, though, Stewart Lamont, a freelance broadcaster in Scotland, wrote a book on Scientology called Religion Inc. Legal action forestalled both a paperback and an American edition, and people purporting to represent the Midland Bank visited his neighbours in Glasgow, inquiring about his private life. A hired private detective contacted his ex-wife seeking damaging information about him.
In the United States, things are much worse. Only a handful of the bravest and richest newspapers or TV networks dare mention Scientology, fearing the inevitable legal hassle. In the Seventies, Scientologists 'set up' a critical author, Paulette Cooper, so successfully that she actually spent time wrongly imprisoned. Some ex-members of the cult have suffered vicious harassment and even violence. Last year, for example, official-looking 'Wanted' posters appearaed all over Los Angeles, giving not only the names but both the home and business addresses of some ex-members whom the Church was hounding. One of them, Jeff Durbon, says that he, his wife and child suffered 'a long period of extreme fear'.
Scientologists have always been aggressive, but since Hubbard's death last year they have had to draw in some of their claws. At each court hearing, more and more damaging evidence has emerged of fraud, deceit, illegalities and the massive diversion of Church money to secret bank accounts in Europe. Lately the Church has preferred to settle with suing ex-members on condition that thenceforth they remain silent. In this way it has muzzled many of the senior officials who were purged in the early Eighties. Seeing all those pay-outs, over 500 disgruntled ex-Scientologists have combined to sue the Church for a billion dollars' restitution in a 'class action' that was filed in America earlier this year. With its founder dead, sued for millions, and in some countries suffering continuing government pressure, Scientology ought to be in deep trouble.
The evidence, however, suggests otherwise. The Church of Scientology may not quite be raking in the $2 million a week about which its expelled former chairman, William Franks, testified two years ago. But Scientology's property worldwide-such as Saint Hill Manor, East Grinstead-is worth many millions.
Scientology still idolises the founder and his works. The 'Sea Org', the Church's administrative élite, still sports the naval ranks and uniforms that gratified Hubbard's fantasy (he promoted himself from Commodore to Admiral shortly before he died). No one can replace his charismatic hold over his followers, or the half-practical, half-gobbledegook psychological techniques that he formulated. His heirs can only operate the incredible money-making machine that Hubbard created.
Scientology has perfected its methods over decades. It easily identifies target members: young people, often students, who are lonely and idealistic, and have access to money. Those who have used drugs are particularly susceptible; the aim, wrote Hubbard, is to 'find their ruin'. Recruitment often starts in misleadingly-named front organisations. There are 20 Scientology (or 'Dianetics') centres in Britain, and dozens more around the world. The friendly introductory courses lead inexorably on to the exercises in mind-control that produce the Scientologists' fanatical adherence to the cult, 'disconnection' from family and former friends, and what Hubbard approvingly called the 'fixed, dedicated glare'.
A primitive skin galvanometer, known as an E-meter, is the key to this process. The subject holds two wired-up tin cans, while a dial registers his or her emotional state as indicated by the changed in the minute electrical charge in the palms of the hands. This enables the operation to identify the subject's areas of vulnerablility, to home in on them, and to make him or her talk about them-leaving the subject feeling relieved, grateful and euphoric. Session follows session, and dependency is built up. If, as ex-official of the Church Scott Mayer says, Scientology is an 'extended sting operation', it is because the initial courses can seem beneficial.
But their purpose is not just psychotherapy. Another aim is to make the subject take a succession of courses which take years to complete and can cost tens of thousands of pounds. Those inside the Church say they do this willingly, gaining self-improvement all the way; ex-members say that they were brainwashed, waking up to the fraud only after the cult had been paid all their money.
The mid-point of the courses is known as 'clear', when the E-meter dial indicates that the
[Image: caption "An E-meter session, using a primitive skin galvanometer to measure a subject's emotional state"]
subject is free from the effects of formerly suppressed feelings and unhappy past events-including those in previous lives. In the Fifties, Scientology was charged in the United States with practising psychiatry without a licence. It proclaimed itself a 'religion', and its functionaries 'ministers' who wear Christian-style costumes and adopt the title 'Reverend'. The 'Church' thus placed itself beyond the reach of many laws regulating psychiatry or commerce, and in some places is even tax-exempt, but it functions strictly as a business.
Its morality, too, is entirely its own: one of Scientology's least attractive features is the use it has made of the notes from members' E-meter sessions. Intimate confessions are assumed by the subject at the time to be confidential. In practice, for years the Church has used private admissions of sexual misconduct, deviance or past dishonesty to blackmail members threatening to leave, and intimidate those who do. Scott Mayer frankly admits that he successfully threatened a Manchester Scientology franchise-holder with exposing secrets about his unorthodox sexual practices with his wife, revealed in the pseudo-confessional setting of an E-metering session. 'The record,' said an American judge, Paul Breckenridge, 'is replete with examples of such abuse.'
The most advanced E-meter courses that Hubbard devised can cost up to £600 an hour for a miniumum of 25 hours. The most extraordinary course is entitled 'Operating Thetan III', 'the Wall of Fire'. Scientologists believe its contents to be so powerful that one is in danger of death from pneumonia if exposed to them before taking the obligatory preparatory courses. In OT III, the subject is exposed to L. Ron Hubbard's science-fiction cosmology, the gist of which is this: 75 million years ago, a tyrant from outer space called Xemu solved an overpopulation problem in the galaxy by dropping H-bombs down volcanoes here on Earth. The spirits of those killed clustered together, were frozen and put into boxes. Ever since, such clusters have attached themselves to people's bodies and have been the cause of all their problems. Only by taking OT III (for around £5,000) can you get rid of these clusters, after which the subject should acquire psychic powers and have out-of-body experiences. If you don't, you're clearly not trying and must take the course again-for another £5,000. And Xemu? He suffered a revolt among his loyal officers, who locked him in an electronic trap on a mountaintop, where he remains to this day.
'It's a tough universe,' wrote Hubbard. 'Only the tigers survive, and even they have a hard time.' His Church of Scientology follows that precept: it is led by people who seem only to respond to threats and ultimata. They alone have the key to saving the planet-the rest of us are 'wogs'. Obsessed by plots and conspiracies against them, they lash out at their supposed enemies in any way that is legal, and sometimes not even that. 'The organisation is clearly schizophrenic and paranoid,' said Judge Breckenridge, 'and this bizarre combination seems to be a reflection of its founder'.
Such common sense about cults like Scientology should be heeded by the youngsters who jettison their degrees, their career prospects or their savings, and cause their families such cruel distress.
John Penycate was the reporter, and Mike Malloy the producer of this 'Panorama' investigation.