Sunday, June 21, 2009

Former high-ranking Scientologists speak out in SP Times

It turns out former head of Scientology's Office of Special Affairs Mike Rinder, who left the Church of Scientology in 2007, has decided to speak out after all. And so has Marty Rathbun, who was Inspector General of the Religious Technology Center, the organization that acts as agent for all of Scientology's intellectual property and was prominent in legal action against online critics.

The St. Petersburg Times is running a multi-part story on their allegations of corruption and abuse inside the Church of Scientology, confirming and expanding upon stories that have long been staples of online criticisms of the church:

• Physical violence permeated Scientology's international management team. Miscavige set the tone, routinely attacking his lieutenants. Rinder says the leader attacked him some 50 times.

Rathbun, Rinder and De Vocht admit that they, too, attacked their colleagues, to demonstrate loyalty to Miscavige and prove their mettle.

• Staffers are disciplined and controlled by a multi­layered system of "ecclesiastical justice.'' It includes publicly confessing sins and crimes to a group of peers, being ordered to jump into a pool fully clothed, facing embarrassing "security checks'' or, worse, being isolated as a "suppressive person.''

At the pinnacle of the hierarchy, Miscavige commands such power that managers follow his orders, however bizarre, with lemming-like obedience.

• Church staffers covered up how they botched the care of Lisa McPherson, a Scientologist who died after they held her 17 days in isolation at Clearwater's Fort Harrison Hotel.

Rathbun, who Miscavige put in charge of dealing with the fallout from the case, admits that he ordered the destruction of incriminating evidence. He and others also reveal that Miscavige made an embarrassing miscalculation on McPherson's Scientology counseling.

• With Miscavige calling the shots and Rathbun among those at his side, the church muscled the IRS into granting Scientology tax-exempt status. Offering fresh perspective on one of the church's crowning moments, Rathbun details an extraordinary campaign of public pressure backed by thousands of lawsuits.

• To prop up revenues, Miscavige has turned to long-time parishioners, urging them to buy material that the church markets as must-have, improved sacred scripture.

Church officials deny the accusations. Miscavige never hit a single church staffer, not once, they said.

This is likely to create a huge uproar within the Church of Scientology, and provoke more significant departures over the next few years.

The first of three parts is up at the St. Petersburg Times, which gives some highlights of the allegations, Scientology's response, and a brief history of Scientology's "Operation Snow White," David Miscavige's rise to power as head of the church, and the church's battles with the IRS, which culminated in a secret agreement that gave Scientologists tax deductions no other religions get. (They get to write off the full value of their payments for "services," not just the portion above the value received in return--though perhaps that's just an implicit acknowledgment that they have no value.)

Scientology has responded by attacking the sources in its usual manner, arguing that they had ethical problems while they were in Scientology (they agree--Rinder admits he lied to the media when he was working for Scientology) and releasing their confessions to wrong-doing from auditing sessions. They also have produced current Scientologists who deny the accounts of abuse by Miscavige, and included "a story of Miscavige spotting an injured sparrow, talking to it and checking back later to see if it lived. 'It was immensely tender.'" And they assert that this is part of an extortion campaign by the former members.

Part two will focus on the Lisa McPherson case, which was brought to the world's attention when critic Jeff Jacobsen, my co-author on "Scientology v. the Internet" for Skeptic magazine, discovered it and recognized its significance. (Also see Jeff's more recent article on "Anonymous" and Scientology.)

Part three will have more information from recent high-ranking defectors--in addition to Rinder and Rathbun, Amy Scobee of the Church's Celebrity Center network and Tom DeVocht, who oversaw the church's "spiritual headquarters" in Clearwater, Florida (where Lisa McPherson died), have spoken to the Times.

(The photo is of the Scientology "Super Power" building in Clearwater, Florida, taken on June 25, 2005.)

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