Hounded by the Church of Stars and Hype

Source: Sunday Times
Date: January 19, 1997

Some of Hollywood's biggest names have accused Germany of persecuting the Church of Scientology. But in Britain, the church itself is accused of using dirty tricks to harass its critics.

Bonnie and Richard Woods are no angels, something they would readily admit. Their first marriages failed and Richard's business collapsed in 1991, leaving him bankrupt with unpaid debts running to tens of thousands of pounds.

Once upon a time they were also members of the Church of Scientology, and this now haunts them more than anything else in their history. For the past six years Bonnie, 47, has criticised the church, warned followers' families about its activities and counselled former scientologists in distress. The church, which claims 100,000 members in the United Kingdom, has been equally relentless in opposing the couple.

In 1993, leaflets denouncing Bonnie as a "hate campaigner" were handed out and she sued for libel. The church countersued and has since mounted two further actions against them.

Subsequently, the couple say, demonstrators paraded outside their home near the scientologists' British headquarters in East Grinstead, West Sussex. Their house was watched and details of their background published in a scientology newspaper distributed in the town.

A private investigator precipitated further proceedings. When Richard Woods's building firm had gone bust, one of the outstanding debts was Pounds 23,000 owed to Joan Michaelis, 78, who had a second charge on the Woods's home. She did nothing to pursue it for four years until visited by Eugene Ingram, a "very nice" American who said he would do anything he could to help.

Ingram, 50, is a private detective from Los Angeles, who leads a team of investigators probing the backgrounds of scientology's opponents. He is also a wanted man in Tampa, Florida, where a warrant for his arrest was issued after he was accused of impersonating a police officer.

Michaelis was initially reluctant to take up his offer of help to sue Bonnie Woods, who shared liability for the money owed to her, but the church persisted and she eventually allowed its solicitors, Hodkin & Co, to act for her free of charge.

"I have not got the money - I don't think I have a hope in hell of getting it. They were probably more interested in pursuing the Woodses than helping me," she said.

Bonnie Woods has been declared bankrupt. The church says it merely assisted "a fellow citizen in seeking some justice". Of Ingram and the warrant for his arrest, a spokesman said: "Jesus Christ was a wanted man. Just because he is wanted it does not mean anything. It is a common practice for lawyers to hire private detectives. I would not condone any offences that have been committed."

Bonnie Woods and the church are expected to clash in the High Court next year when the libel cases are due to be heard. Her case has been taken up pro bono by a leading City law firm. A church spokesman nevertheless described her last week as "a spreader of disinformation who has caused untold upset among families".

It was with a sense of irony, therefore, that Bonnie Woods viewed an open letter, published earlier this month, from some of the biggest names in Hollywood to Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany. The stars, including Goldie Hawn and Dustin Hoffman, neither of whom is a scientologist, claimed Germany had engaged in "organised persecution" of the church reminiscent of the country's treatment of Jews in the 1930s.

The Bonn government produced a pamphlet accusing the church of totalitarian tendencies last year, and some German politicians have proposed banning it and expelling followers from the civil ser vice. Bonnie Woods is among several critics who claim they have been victims of harassment as the church has striven for and achieved a degree of respectability that seemed unlikely in its turbulent early years.

Scientology was created by L Ron Hubbard, the late science fiction writer, in the early 1950s. Scientologists believe humans are animated by immortal spirits called Thetans.

Hubbard taught that everyone had been affected by trauma in this and earlier lives and that emotional upsets - Engrams - could be detected by a machine called an E-meter, so sensitive it could even pick up the distress of a tomato pricked by a nail. Emotional trauma is dealt with through therapy known as Dianetics.

The expense of taking the courses - which range from Pounds 30 for an introductory programme to Pounds 15,216 for a year-long "special briefing course" at Saint Hill Manor, the church's headquarters - and the high-pressure sales techniques of adherents have alarmed the families of many church members. So has the practice of "disconnecting" from critics deemed "suppressive persons", even if they are relatives or friends. In 1984, a judge in the High Court pronounced the church "sinister" and described Hubbard as a charlatan.

Critics were vigorously pursued during the 1980s. Russell Miller, a former Sunday Times journalist who wrote Bare-Faced Messiah, an unflattering biography of Hubbard, says he was subjected to a campaign of harassment before and after publication in 1987.

On a trip to Los Angeles Miller was followed every day. A church spokesman said he had no knowledge of any such harassment.

Private investigators, including Ingram, visited friends and family as far afield as San Francisco and Berlin. Miller was even accused of murdering Dean Reed, a pop singer found dead around the time they had been due to meet for an interview.

In more recent years, however, the church's public image has improved, partly as a result of the literacy and drug rehabilitation programmes it runs. It claims 8m members worldwide, 4.4m of them in the United States where it was recognised as a religion for tax purposes in 1993.

Last month it seemed Britain might follow suit. The Daily Telegraph claimed the Home Office was prepared to accept scientology as a bona fide religion for immigration purposes. Timothy Kirkhope, the Home Office minister responsible, denied it but the Charity Commission is considering the church's application for charitable status.

The church won the right to advertise on television last year when the Independent Television Commission (ITC) lifted a three-year ban after taking advice from two eminent academics. The result was an advertisement showing a series of smiling people saying the single word "trust".

The international profile of the church has received an enormous boost from the involvement of Hollywood stars such as Tom Cruise, his wife Nicole Kidman and John Travolta. They can use any of 77 apartments in splendidly turreted Celebrity International Center, off Hollywood Boulevard, and study in "purification rooms".

The critics, who say they see an altogether different side of the church, have not disappeared any more than Ingram has, but some say they have been effectively silenced. Jon Atack, a former member, wrote a history of scientology after leaving the church, which was published in 1990. In May 1995 he filed for bankruptcy after a defamation claim was brought against him by a scientologist. Two separate cases for copyright infringement have also been brought against Atack by the church. He no longer speaks about it publicly.

Ron Lawley, another former member and critic, was accused of taking documents in Denmark and was sued by the church in the British courts for their return. The church won and he was orderd to pay Pounds 60,000 in costs. Lawley, too, filed for bankruptcy.

So-called cult-monitoring organisations in Britain have also been targeted by the church's intelligence machine. An 11-page dossier drawn up on Ian Haworth, who runs the Cult Information Centre, was given to The Sunday Times by the church last week. It culls information about him from newspapers all over the world. Besides details of his home address and how much rent he pays, it links him with a "thrice-convicted felon".

Fair (Family Action Information and Rescue), a group in London, is also being sued by the church. The church's dossier alleges an association with a series of scandals and makes lurid claims about the sex life of a former official.

Hubbard's philosophy was to deal ruthlessly with "ene mies". His writings describe them as "fair game" who may be "tricked, sued or lied to or destroyed".

Other aspects of the Hubbard doctrine are still in evidence. The scientologists' policy of "hard sell" on courses is reflected in the experience of Gary Fry, from Dorset, who joined as a naive 24-year- old in 1992 and spent Pounds 21,000 in two months, although the money was returned after a lengthy legal wrangle.

Hostility towards unsympathetic relatives branded "suppressive" also continues to cause distress ..Richard Price, 33, a software designer from Tonbridge, Kent, said last week his brother and sister had become estranged from him since becoming scientologists. In reply, the church accused him of being an alcoholic, an accusation he vehemently denies.

THE church endured its biggest public scandal of recent years in France last November, when Jean-Jacques Mazier, a former leader, was convicted in Lyons of fraud and involuntary homicide following the suicide of a member who had been under pressure to pay for a Pounds 3,500 "purification" course. He was jailed for 18 months. Yesterday it was reported that 29 scientologists had received prison sentences in Italy for criminal association.

However, in other countries the church has won friends and influenced people. The fact that none of the signatories to the letter to Kohl are scientologists was seen as an indication of the clout it wields in Hollywood.

German intolerance of scientology has also drawn sympathy in Britain. Towards the end of last year Lord McNair, a prominent scientologist, organised an "ad-hoc committee" of peers and academics to investigate Germany's treatment of minority groups. The academics, including Antony Flew, emeritus professor of philosophy at Reading University, lent authority to the inquiry's conclusion. The group expressed astonishment at "the sheer scale of prejudice, discrimination and even persecution which our witnesses recounted".

Another academic whose opinion has enhanced the scientologists' credibility is James Beckford, a professor of sociology at Warwick University and leading member of Inform, a Home Office-approved organisation that provides information about the "new religions".

It was Beckford who advised the ITC to let the church advertise on television. He emphasised last week that the desirability of scientology had played no part in his recommendation, but added: "In the eyes of the public, scientology has been around so long that it is accepted as part of the religious scene."

Scientology is growing not only stronger but rich, too. In Britain it owns 10 churches and between 20 and 30 missions. British accounts for 1995 show an income of Pounds 5.6m and property assets worth Pounds 8.1m. According to the accounts, it has accumulated funds of Pounds 12m. Worldwide income is put at Pounds 200m with a further Pounds 270m in assets.

Graeme Wilson, one of the most senior scientologists in Britain, said this weekend that the church was attacked less often today than before. "We have stood the test of time," he said.

"It is like any new religion. The attacks are uniformly unfounded and sooner or later they fall by the wayside. We are not interested in being trodden on. If someone is attacking us or trying to harm the church, we will take action. We are not taking a stance for ourselves, we are taking a stance for religious freedom."

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