Scientology - A Dangerous Cult Goes Mainstream

Source: Reader's Digest
Date: October 1, 1991

by Richard Behar

By all appearances, Noah Lottick of Kingston, PA., was just a normal 24-year-old looking for his place in the world. Then he discovered the Church of Scientology. In less than a year, he paid more than $5000 to the group. His behavior became strange. He remarked to his parents that his Scientology mentors could actually read minds. When his father suffered a major heart attack, Noah insisted it was purely psychosomatic. One day, he burst into his parents' home and demanded to know why they were spreading "false rumors" about him - a delusion that finally prompted his father to call a psychiatrist.

It was too late. After his outburst, Noah disappeared. Then, a few days later, the young Russian studies scholar jumped from a tenth-floor window of a New York City hotel and bounced off the hood of a stretch limousine. When the police arrived, his fingers were still clutching $171 in cash, virtually the only money he hadn't yet turned over to the Scientologists.

His parents, nearly catatonic with grief, tried to reconstruct Noah's last days. Earlier, a Scientology leader had told Mrs. Lottick that he had heard Noah was at the church just hours before he disappeared. But after the body was identified, Scientologists claimed they had no record of his visit. They even haggled with the Lotticks over $3000 their son had paid for services he never used, insisting that Noah had intended it as a "donation."

The Church of Scientology, started by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard to "clear" people of unhappiness, portrays itself as a religion. In reality, the church is a hugely profitable global racket that survives by intimidating members and critics in a Mafia-like manner.

At times during the past decade, revelations in the media and prosecutions against Scientology seemed to be curbing its menace. But now the group, which is trying to go mainstream, threatens to become insidious and pervasive than ever. It attracts the unwary through an array of front groups. In Hollywood, Scientology has assembled a roster of stars, including John Travolta, Kirstie Ally, and Sonny Bono.

According to the Cult Awareness Network, which monitors more than 200 "mind control" cults, no group prompts more telephone please for help than does Scientology. Says Cynthia Kisser, the network's executive director, "Scientology is quite likely the most ruthless, the most terroristic and the most lucrative cult the country has ever seen."

"This is a criminal organization, day in and day out," says Vicki Aznaran, who was one of Scientology's six leaders until she bolted in 1987.

"Engrams" And "Thetans"

The founder of this enterprise, who died in 1986, was part storyteller, part flim-flam man. Born in Nebraska in 1911, Hubbard falsely described himself later in church brochures as an "extensively decorated" World War II hero who was crippled and blinded in action, twice pronounced dead and miraculously cured through Scientology. His "doctorate" from "Sequoia University" was a fake mail-order degree.

Until 1950, Hubbard was a moderately successful writer of pulp science fiction. Then he produced one of Scientology's sacred texts, DIANETICS: THE MODERN SCIENCE OF MENTAL HEALTH. In it he introduced a crude psychotherapeutic technique he called "auditing." Hubbard argued that unhappiness springs from mental aberrations (or "engrams") caused by early traumas. He created a simplified lie detector (called an "E-meter") to measure electrical changes in the skin while subjects discussed intimate details of their past. Counseling sessions with the E-meter, he claimed, could knock out the engrams, cure blindness, and even improve a person's intelligence and appearance.

Hubbard kept adding steps, each more costly, for his followers to climb. In the 1960's the guru decreed that humans are made of clusters of spirits (or "thetans") who were banished to earth 75 million years ago by a cruel galactic ruler named Xenu. Naturally, those thetans had to be audited.

"Make sure that lots of bodies move through the shop," implored Hubbard in one of his bulletins to officials. In another, he wrote: "Make money. Make more money. Make others produce so as to make money. However you get them in or why, do it."

When a federal court ruled in 1971 that Hubbard's medical claims were bogus, Hubbard sought First Amendment protection for Scientology's strange rites. His counselors sported clerical collars. Chapels were built, franchises became "missions," and Hubbard's comic book cosmology became "sacred scriptures."

During the early 1970's, the IRS proved that Hubbard was skimming millions of dollars from the church, laundering the money through dummy corporations in Panama and stashing it in Swiss bank accounts. Eleven top Scientologists, including Hubbard's third wife, Mary Sue, were sent to prison in the early 1980's for infiltrating, burglarizing and wire tapping more than 100 private and government agencies in attempts to block their investigations. By late 1985, the IRS was seeking an indictment of Hubbard for tax fraud. Hubbard, who had been in hiding for five years, died in 1986, before the criminal case could be prosecuted.

Most cults fail to outlast their founder, but Scientology has prospered since Hubbard's death. High-level defectors say the parent organization has squirreled away an estimated $400 million in foreign bank accounts. The cult is now run by David Miscavige, 31, a high-school dropout and second-generation Scientologist. His goal is to attain credibility for Scientology in the 1990's.

Shams and Scams

Shortly after Hubbard's death, the church retained Trout & Reis, a respected Connecticut-based firm of marketing consultants, to help shed its fringe-group image. "We were brutally honest," says Jack Trout. "We advised them to clean up their act, stop with the controversy and even stop being a church. They didn't want to hear that."

Instead, Scientology resorted to a wide array of front groups and scams. Among them:

  1. PUBLISHING. Since 1985, at least a dozen Hubbard books have made best-seller lists. Scientology now claims that sales of these books now top 90 million worldwide. In reality, Scientology buys massive quantities of its own books from major retail chains to propel the titles onto best-seller lists. A former B. Dalton manager says that some books arrived in his store with the chain's price stickers already on them, suggesting that copies are being recycled.
  2. CONSULTING. To recruit wealthy and respectable professionals, Scientology works through a web of consulting groups that hide their ties to the cult. Sterling Management Systems, formed in 1983, is typical. It has been ranked in recent years by INC. magazine as one of America's fastest-growing private companies (estimated 1988 revenues: $20 million).
  3. Sterling regularly mails a free newsletter to more than 300,000 health-care professionals - promising to increase their incomes dramatically. The firm offers seminars and courses that cost $10,000 on average. But Sterling's true aim is to hook customers for Scientology. "The church has a rotten product, so they package it as something else," says Peter Georgiades, a Pittsburgh attorney who represents Sterling victims. "It's a kind of bait and switch."

    Dentist Robert Geary, 45, of Medina, Ohio, who entered a Sterling seminar in 1988, says he endured "the most extreme high-pressure sales tactic I have ever faced." The firm told Geary that it was not linked to Scientology. But Geary claims they eventually convinced him that he and his wife, Dorothy, had personal problems that required auditing. Over five months, the Gearys spent $130,000 for services. Geary contends that Scientology not only called his bank to increase his credit-card limit, but also forged his signature on a $20,000 loan application.

  4. HEALTH CARE. Health Med, a chain of clinics run by Scientologists, promotes a system of saunas, exercise and vitamins designed by Hubbard to purify the body. It solicits unions and public agencies for contracts. The chain is plugged heavily in the book DIET FOR A POISONED PLANET, by David Steinman, who concludes that scores of common foods are dangerous. "HeathMed is a gateway to Scientology, and Steinman's book is a sorting mechanism," says Prof. William Jarvis, head of the National Council Against Health Fraud. Steinman, however, denies any connection.
  5. DRUG TREATMENT. Hubbard's purification treatments are the mainstay of Narconon, a Scientology-run chain of over 30 alcohol and drug rehabilitation centers - some in prisons under the name of "Criminon" - in 12 countries. Narconon, a classic vehicle for drawing addicts into the cult, now plans to open what it calls the world's largest treatment center on an Indian reservation near Newkirk, Okla. (pop. 2300).
  6. At a 1989 ceremony near Newkirk, the Association for Better Living and Education presented Narconon with a check for $200,000 and a study praising its work. The association turned out to be part of Scientology itself. Today the town is battling to keep out the cult.

  7. HIGH FINANCE. In the stock market, the practice of "shorting" involves borrowing shares of publicly traded companies in the hope that the price will go down before the stocks must be bought on the market and returned to the lender. The Feshbach brothers of Palo Alto Calif. - Kurt, Joseph, and Matthew - have become the leading short sellers in the United States, with more than $500 million under management. Enthusiastic Scientologists, the brothers are the terrors of the stock exchanges.
  8. In Congressional hearings in 1989, the heads of two companies claimed that the Feshbachs and another trader, now their partner, spread false information and posed in various guises - such as a Securities and Exchange Commission official - in an effort to discredit their companies and drive the stocks down. Sometimes the Feshbachs send private detectives to dig up dirt on firms, which is then shared with business reporters and fund managers. The Feshbachs claim to run a clean shop. But Robert Flaherty, editor of EQUITIES magazine, says they "have damaged scores of good start-ups."

Burying Enemies

Scientology also devotes vast resources to squelching its critics. One of Hubbard's policies was that all perceived enemies are "fair game" and subject to being "tricked, sued or lied to or destroyed."

Those who oppose the church - former members, journalists, lawyers and even judges - often find themselves engulfed in litigation, stalked by private eyes, accused of or framed by fictional crimes, beaten up or threatened with death. Psychologist Margaret Singer, 70, retired adjunct professor at the University of California at Berkeley and an outspoken Scientology critic, now travels regularly under an assumed name to avoid harassment.

The church's most fearsome advocates are its lawyers. Hubbard warned his followers to "beware of attorneys who tell you not to sue… The purpose of the suit is to harass and discourage rather than to win."

Scientology's goal is to bankrupt the opposition or bury it under paper. Boston attorney Michael Flynn, who helped Scientology victims from 1979 to 1987, personally endured 14 frivolous lawsuits, all of them dismissed before trial.

Scientology's critics contend that the U.S. government needs to crack down on the church in a major, organized way. "It shouldn't be left to private litigators," says Tolby Plevin, a Los Angeles attorney who handles victims. "Most of us are afraid to get involved." But law enforcement agents are also wary. "Every investigator is very cautious when it comes to the church," says a Florida police detective who has tracked the cult since 1988. "It will take a federal effort with lots of money and manpower."

So far the agency giving Scientology the most grief is the IRS, whose officials have implied that Hubbard's successors may be looting the church's coffers. Since 1988, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the denial of the tax-exempt status of the cult's California Church for 1970 to 1972, a massive IRS probe of church centers across the country has been under way.

The IRS and FBI have been debriefing Scientology defectors for the past three years, in part to gain evidence for a major conspiracy case that appears to have stalled. Meanwhile, Scientology keeps raking in millions of dollars. For in the end, money is what the cult is all about.

"Their so-called therapies are manipulations," says Dr. Edward Lottick, Noah's father. "We thought Scientology was something like Dale Carnegie. I now believe it's a school for psychopaths."