Last year, the BBC reported that a building owned by the Church of Scientology in northeast England was drawing the ire of local residents. The property in Gateshead—purchased in 2007 for £1.5 million—is depicted on a U.K. Scientology website as an immaculately tended estate with a wide, sloping lawn. In the center of the image, an Arthurian sword, lodged in a stone, catches the rays of the sun. “Northumbria is the area where an entire revival of the United Kingdom's spiritual and cultural fabric emanated from in the 7th Century,” reads the accompanying text, “and now, from where it will shine once again.”
The Scientology site fails to mention that the building has never been occupied since it was purchased, or that it was damaged by a 2011 fire and never repaired. But the BBC article—the first Google search result for the words “Scientology” and “Gateshead”—describes it as a derelict building filled with squatters, its empty parking lot littered with “old sofas, rubbish, and used needles.” Nearby business owners and council members describe it as an eyesore.
Scientology, the movement established by L. Ron Hubbard in the ’50s, has long been known for its efforts to manipulate information about it in the public sphere. The group carefully crafts its image through widespread publicity campaigns (including a native advertisement published on this site in 2013) while suing and attacking those who portray it unfavorably. Over the past 25 years, the Church has filed lawsuits against high-profile publications such as Time and The Washington Post, as well as ex-employees who criticize the Church publicly. Hubbard himself encouraged aggressive legal action toward people who revealed secret information about the Church. According to a 1997 New York Times article, Hubbard once told his followers, “The purpose of the suit is to harass and discourage rather than win … If possible, of course, ruin [the opponent] utterly.”
But the Church is losing control of its public image—in large part because the flow of information in the digital age is irrepressible. “It’s the Internet that has changed everything,” says Tony Ortega, the former editor of The Village Voice and founder of a website, The Underground Bunker, that’s dedicated to criticizing Scientology.
For example, in 2013, a Scientology spokesperson told the BBC that 27,000 people had attended its services in northeast England during the past decade. But those curious about the true number of members in the region can easily find the results of a 2011 census, which found only 2,418 self-identified Scientologists in England and Wales. (In contrast, 176,632 respondents identified as Jedi Knights.) The same census also found that in Northumbria, the number of Scientologists was 62.
Worldwide, too, the group’s membership claims appear to be dramatically inflated. The Church’s official media center states that Scientology has “more than 11,000 Churches, Missions, and affiliated groups across 167 nations." Karin Pouw, the group's spokesperson, says there are millions of Scientologists worldwide and that the Church has grown more in the past 10 years than in the previous 50 years combined.
But according to the new documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, directed by Alex Gibney and based on the Pulitzer-winning journalist Lawrence Wright’s book of the same name, the Church has fewer than 50,000 members. The movie, which airs on HBO March 29 and 30, is a portrait of an institution in flux, bewildered by the ubiquity of information.
“The genie’s out of the bottle,” Gibney says. “They can’t keep information bottled up, and their attempts to do so show them in the worst possible light. It’s like that moment in The Wizard of Oz where Toto pulls back the curtain and you see the wizened old man say, ‘Pay no attention!’ It’s too late. The curtain’s been pulled back."
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Journalists have been reporting on the Church's practices for decades, from The St. Petersburg Times' Pulitzer-winning report in 1980 to Janet Reitman's 2006 feature for Rolling Stone, “Inside Scientology.” Historically, Scientology's default crisis-management mode has involved a combination of aggressive legal action and powerful counter-narrative. In 1991, when Time published a cover story titled “Scientology: The Cult of Greed,” the Church critiqued the story in a 48-page advertising supplement in USA Today. At the same time, it sued the magazine for $416 million. By the time the suit was dismissed in 1996, Time Warner had spent an estimated $3.7 million on legal fees.
In the early days of the Internet, the organization made efforts to restrict online information about its activities and core tenets. During the mid-1990s, it went after users for posting unauthorized information on newsgroups, tracking them down through their Internet service providers and even sending police to seize their hard drives. “They had a guy prosecuted for simply joking on the Internet about sending a ‘Tom Cruise missile’ to the secret headquarters compound,” Ortega says.
But censoring content online is a different proposition now that media can reach millions of people within seconds. The 2011 census reported that 71.7 percent of American households access the Internet at home, compared with 18 percent in 1997, while the Internet services company Netcraft estimated that there were 644 million active websites online in 2012, compared with 1.1 million in 1997. Policing information on the web is increasingly difficult, to the point of being nearly impossible: By the time content is taken down, screenshots of it have frequently been shared all over the Internet.
While the Church doesn’t sue news organizations with the same enthusiasm it once did, it still tries to counter criticism as loudly as possible. In 2011, after The New Yorker published “The Apostate”—a story by Wright detailing the director Paul Haggis’ disillusionment with Scientology—the organization printed a 51-page publication titled “The New Yorker: What a Load of Balderdash,” and distributed it outside the Conde Nast headquarters. In January, the Church placed an ad in The New York Times attacking the sources in Gibney's film. But these efforts reached just a tiny fraction of the people who read Wright’s story online, or saw any of the numerous articles discussing Going Clear.
Despite its shrinking size, Scientology is undeniably powerful, with holdings estimated at several billion dollars. Wright’s book was never published in the U.K. due to strict libel laws, and HBO reportedly hired 160 lawyers during the making of the documentary.
But some of the group's most outspoken online critics are former leaders, including Mike Rinder, who was the group’s international spokesperson before he left in 2007. Rinder still maintains that Scientology “can help guide one to fundamental truths about existence, happiness and one’s true nature and identity.” But he criticizes what he calls a “culture of violence and abuse” encouraged by the organization’s current leader, David Miscavige. Rinder recently posted a threatening email he’d received through his personal blog:
what DOES LRH think? Would he side with you if he was here? Reinstate you? No, Rinder. He’d cut your fuckin balls off and hang them from a tree. Something I would LOVE to do. And I mean, actually do. Unfortunately, its illegal in this country. Shut the fuck up Rinder. Shut up you fucking SP. Just shut your fucking mouth. You are being watched, 24-7. TWENTY FOUR SEVEN RINDER. TWENTY FOUR SEVEN.
When asked to respond to Rinder's accusation, Pouw, the Church's spokesperson, wrote in an email, "Mike Rinder has been making false, over-the-top claims about the Church since he left in disgrace eight years ago. We are confident he made this claim up from whole cloth, as he has countless others. And to be clear, the Church had nothing to do with any threatening message."
Pouw was equally dismissive of the claims of another high-profile former leader, Marty Rathbun—a lieutenant of Miscavige’s who has been credited with getting the group its tax-exempt IRS status in 1993. Like Rinder, Rathbun runs a website devoted to criticizing Scientology. Last year, his wife, Monique Rathbun, sued Miscavige and other Church leaders for harassment. The suit cited “numerous aggressive attempts to intimidate” Monique and stated that she had been “harassed, insulted, surveilled, photographed, videotaped, defamed, and humiliated.”
Tactics like these are heavily featured in Going Clear, which alleges that the Church exploits and abuses its members. Among other things, the film claims that one member was punished by being forced to clean a bathroom floor with his tongue, and that another, the actress Nazanin Boniadi, was made to clean toilets with a toothbrush after she displeased her former boyfriend Tom Cruise.
The organization denies the movie's allegations. During recent weeks, Scientology representatives have emailed critics who’ve written positive reviews of the film to state that it’s filled with “bald-faced lies,” and to chastise them for not reaching out to the Church for comment. The Church has also paid for sponsored tweets alleging that Gibney is “HBO’s resident propagandist,” that Rathbun "beat 'best buddy' Rinder to pulp," and that Rinder (who, like Rathbun, appears onscreen) “‘vice-gripped’ his wife of 36 years during assault” and “tore chunks of flesh” from her arm. The tweets link to the website for Freedom magazine, a Scientology publication—specifically, a special report about Going Clear that alleges the film glorifies “bitter, vengeful apostates expelled as long as thirty years ago from the Church.”
These claims—that two of its formerly high-ranking members are severely flawed individuals, and even psychopathic spousal abusers—might seem to reflect poorly on the organization itself. When Pouw was asked to comment on this, she gave an intriguing answer. "Unlike other churches, ours cleans ranks," she wrote in an email. "These individuals are a small few like the pedophile priests and we got rid of them. Our ecclesiastical justice system located their crimes and they were removed from their positions with authority." Pouw also appeared to acknowledge that Scientology expresses its displeasure with members by forcing them to do menial labor, adding, "Rathbun’s position for his final year in the Church was as a janitor in a woodworking mill."
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For all its efforts to manage the media, Scientology’s leaders are strikingly reticent about speaking to the press. Leader David Miscavige, whose official title is Chairman of the Board of the Religious Technology Center (known informally as COB), almost never speaks to the non-Scientology press, and Going Clear alleges that he’s deliberately curtailed Church higher-ups whose public profiles threatened to eclipse his. The organization’s longtime spokesman and public face, Tommy Davis (the son of the actress Anne Archer), has left that role to work for a private equity firm in Austin, Texas.
Instead, the group has overwhelmingly entrusted its public-relations work to celebrities. Wright’s book focuses in large part on the close relationship between Miscavige and Cruise, the Church’s last remaining superstar congregant. Wright quotes Marty Rathbun as saying, “Miscavige convinced Cruise that he and Tom were two of only a handful of truly ‘big beings’ on the planet. He instructed Cruise that [L. Ron Hubbard] was relying upon them to unite with the few others of their ilk on Earth to make it onto ‘Target Two’—some unspecified galactic locale where they would meet up with Hubbard in the afterlife.” Rathbun also alleges in Going Clear that he carried out orders to wiretap Cruise's then-wife Nicole Kidman’s phone in an effort to drive the couple apart. (Pouw calls this accusation "false and defamatory.")
But Cruise’s association with the Church hasn’t always been advantageous to either the actor or Scientology. In 2004, Cruise spurred widespread rebuke when he stated that he thought psychiatry should be made illegal. (Scientology is vehemently opposed to psychiatry and teaches that mental illnesses do not exist). In 2008, a widely mocked video surfaced showing Cruise praising Scientologists as “the authorities on getting people off drugs, the authorities on the mind,” with the ability to "bring peace and unite cultures.” Then, in 2013, Cruise admitted in a deposition that his wife Katie Holmes had divorced him to prevent their child from being raised as a Scientologist.
Cruise’s career has arguably survived these controversies (his most recent film, Edge of Tomorrow, grossed over $350 million worldwide), but it’s hard to imagine that he’ll be able to avoid addressing Going Clear’s allegations. The film accuses the actor of benefiting personally from the labor of Sea Org employees—the Church’s most committed members, who live in communal housing on Scientology bases and work full-time for the organization. Gibney alleges that Sea Org Scientologists, who are paid less than $50 a week and punished for infractions by being confined to a set of bug-infested, double-wide trailers (sometimes for years at a time), have worked on Cruise’s cars and motorcycles and outfitted his aircraft hangar, because of his significance to the Church and his friendship with Miscavige. Wright’s book calls Cruise the second highest-ranking person in Scientology and states that Miscavige has entrusted him with special tasks—for instance, lobbying President Bill Clinton to ask former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to reconsider the Church’s tax status in the U.K.
Fellow actor and Scientologist John Travolta has already been damaged by his association with the Church, particularly following the box-office catastrophe Battlefield Earth, which was based on a 1982 novel by Hubbard. And Gibney’s movie makes the case that Travolta has known about abuses in the organization for many years. Travolta’s former Scientology liaison, Yvonne “Spanky” Taylor, describes on-camera how, after she fell out of favor with the Church, she was forced to do physical labor while pregnant, and her child was taken from her before she managed to escape with the baby. The movie alleges that Travolta knew about the way his friend was being treated. “He had the opportunity to affect the behavior of the Church, and he decided not to,” says Wright in the film. (When asked about Taylor's claims, Pouw responded, "The child was well taken care of. In addition, it should be noted ... that Taylor remained an active Scientologist for six years after her alleged 'escape.'")
In recent years, Cruise and Travolta have been less outspoken about their affiliation with Scientology. “You haven’t heard a lot from Tom Cruise or John Travolta extolling the virtues of the Church,” says Gibney. But he believes the actors should be publicly addressing the allegations against the group. “People are entitled to believe what they want to believe,” he says, “but when they’re the poster children for an organization that has a documented history of abuse, people should be asking them questions.”
Beyond Cruise and Travolta, Scientology’s celebrity advocates are mostly limited to Kirstie Alley, who had a high-profile feud with the actress Leah Remini after Remini left the Church in 2013; the Fox News host Greta van Susteren; the actress Laura Prepon (Orange is the New Black); and the musician Beck, who, like the Mad Men actress Elisabeth Moss, was raised as a Scientologist from childhood. According to Wright, Miscavige has pushed Cruise to “recruit famous people,” including David and Victoria Beckham, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, and Steven Spielberg, but these attempts failed, and other efforts to enlist new celebrity advocates for the Church have largely been unsuccessful.
Without credible high-profile spokespeople, Scientology has mostly been limited to doing damage control. Its efforts to wrestle back control of the narrative remain strong, but its ability to fight on a million different fronts—responding to accusations of everything from extortion to human trafficking—is clearly limited, while the voices making the accusations are growing louder. Whether or not the Church’s members demand institutional reform will depend largely on how much longer the Church can prevent them from being influenced by negative publicity, and to what extent Cruise and Travolta can continue to decline to answer questions about the more egregious allegations leveled at the organization.
Many of Scientology’s critics believe the Church is inevitably doomed on both counts. “They can’t stop the flow of information, and it’s destroying them,” says Ortega. “Scientology only worked when it could use secrecy to keep people controlled. That doesn’t work anymore.”
Pouw denies that Scientology is struggling to maintain control in the information age. "Like everyone else, Scientologists use the Internet," said Pouw. "We don’t advise Scientologists on what to read and what not to read online because we believe in free speech and expression. That said, we believe it is more than obvious to anyone reviewing the stale rants and lies churned out by Marty Rathbun, Mike Rinder and their tiny failed Texas cult that they are all obsessed zealots with no credibility."
The group's takedowns of people involved with the film don’t seem likely to sway curious moviegoers. But that might not be the point. “Those attacks really aren’t meant for people in the outside world,” says Gibney. “They’re meant for the current adherents of the Church.” As Gibney sees it, “Scientology is trying to put a kind of mask over its membership so they don’t ever see the real stuff. But what they’re finding, and one of the reasons for the declining membership of the church, is the Internet. The Internet has made information so available, and while it’s the vehicle for a lot of hate speech and viciousness, it’s also the vehicle for a tremendous amount of information that’s so easy to get. If you want to find critical stories about Scientology, it’s one click away.”
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