Independent: The Prisoners of Saint Hill

Source: Independent
Date: January 31, 1994

by Tim Kelsey and Mike Ricks

The Scientologists call it "baby-watching", but it has nothing to do with looking after infants. TIM KELSEY and MIKE RICKS investigate the potentially dangerous, and possibly illegal, secret treatment that the world's largest cult uses to deal with difficult members.

The middle-aged German student started screaming. He seemed to have lost control. He was a Scientologist, a member of the world's largest cult, on a course of study that, he had been promised, would bring him closer to the secrets of the universe and, eventually, give him the key to eternal life.

According to eyewitnesses, the man, whose name is known to the "Independent", was taken to an isolated room in a communal building not far from Saint Hill, a 17th-century manor house in East Grinstead, West Sussex, and the UK headquarters of the cult.

For two weeks, the room was locked. The German had been placed on an "isolation watch" - or what Scientologists more informally refer to as a "baby watch". It is a treatment that was prescribed by the founder of the cult, L. Ron Hubbard, a science fiction writer, for members showing signs of psychosis or mental ill- health -- people who are, literally, plagued by evil spirits. It is the last resort for dealing with difficult Scientologists. It is a treatment that the organisation has so far kept secret.

The subject of the watch is observed at all times, and not allowed to talk to anybody. He or she is, in the language of the cult, "muzzled". Our witnesses, who have asked to remain anonymous, remember that the German was sometimes incontinent and that they had to wash him down at the sink in the otherwise bare room. The five people who guarded him were only allowed to communicate with him in writing. Eventually he was allowed to return to Germany.

Scientology stand accused of many things: of warping people's minds, of financial corruption, of preying on the vulnerable. Thirty years ago, a group of Members of Parliament tried to have it banned in the United Kingdom after a girl with a history of mental illness was found wandering around East Grinstead, having a nervous breakdown. Finally, the Government banned all foreign nationals coming to the UK to work or study in Scientology, until 1980.

Since then, the Scientologists have worked hard to improve their image. But they remain a secretive, frightening group. Despite the proliferation of their "literature", little is known of the inner workings of their organisation.

Most people have walked past high street shops outside which smiling youngsters offer free "personality tests". Russell Miller, in his biography of Hubbard, showed that Scientology is a monumental con and that its founder was a charlatan. Almost everything Hubbard said was palpably untrue - he claimed to have been awarded a Purple Heart for being wounded in action, which was false; he claimed he was crippled and blinded at the end of the Second World War, also false. Despite these fabrications, dedicated loyalists believe Hubbard was a genius, the designer of a new path that could lead people to a secular Eden. In the main, they are educated, white and middle class.

For the past few months, the "Independent" has been investigating claims that the cult employs quasi-psychological techniques that are possibly illegal and potentially dangerous to the long-term health of its more vulnerable members. Disturbing new evidence, provided, at some risk to themselves, by existing and former members of the cult may renew calls for Scientology to again be banned from the UK. In the United States, the cult was recently granted the tax exemption enjoyed by genuine churches, but this may soon be overturned. In November, in a landmark ruling, the Californian Court of Appeal agreed that the the techniques of Scientology constitute "brain-washing" and "thought- reform" similar to that practised by the Chinese and North Koreans against American prisisoners of war.

Hubbard regarded the law as a tool to be used to the advantage of the cult (he once said: "The law can be used very easily to harass"), and the cult has become notorious for issuing injunctions and taking out libel actions - none of which it has so far won. But the tide seems to be turning: there are a series of legal actions pending from former members seeking damages for a variety of reasons, including false imprisontnent.

The "baby-watching" incident with the German student occurred in 1991. But the technique has been used more recently, according to confidential church documents dating from September 1993, which have been leaked to the "lndependent". These show that the Scientologists mounted an internal investigation after a baby watch conducted on another German, again at Saint Hill, last year. The investigation was instigated because the woman put in isolation was already suffering from an acute mental disorder - in the terminology used by the investigating officer, she was Type III, which translates as "insane". She went insane, according to the document, while she was working for the organisation in Europe. In early 1993, she arrived in Saint Hill and was put on a baby watch because she was thought to be a "security risk". Her boyfriend was put in charge of the watch. But something went badly wrong, and the watch was "very extended" because of incompetence by local officials, reports the document. It is not clear whether she was locked in a room throughout or allowed, as is sometimes the case, to walk around during the watch. There seems to be some dispute about whether the local staff were adequately trained to deal with such a case, and permission for her "treatment" finally had to come directly from the American leadership of the cult.

Several of the most senior officers of the British arm of the cult were blamed for allowing this woman to remain a member of the cult -- according to the internal memo, she apparently had a history of drug abuse. These senior members were ordered to attend an internal tribunal. If found guilty of failing to ensure the "security" of the member, they will be demoted and sentenced to a period of "rehabilitation" through hard labour. According to the report, it seems that the woman escaped from Saint Hill, was arrested by police and then returned to Germany.

One former senior cult official who worked in the Californian section of the organisation was involved in several baby watches. On one occasion, a woman staff member was put in isolation after she started throwing furniture out of the window of her flat, which overlooked Hollywood Boulevard. She was then locked in her room. "We had to take all the furniture out of the room, strip it completely and leave her in there on her own for more than a week," the official said. "She was just crazy, talking to herself and screaming." This woman had been engaged in one of the most demanding of the Scientology courses, during which students are taught that 75 million years ago the earth was part of a galactic confederation ruled by an evil prince called Xenu. He shipped the inhabitants of 76 planets to earth. The spirits (or thetans) of these extra-terrestrials inhabit the souls of contemporary human beings and have to be exorcised.

Dr Betty Tylden, a retired consultant psychiatrist who is regularly called as an expert court witness on cults, has treated Scientologists recovering from the effects of baby watches -- both the victims and the guards. She has seen several in the past six months alone. "People are terribly frightened of it," she said. "They come out of it suffering from something very similar to Post- traumatic Stress Disorder, the "prisoner" syndrome. There is hyper- arousal, flashbacks, fear and obsessions. It is very nasty, and even if it doesn't break a law, it is a gross curtailment of an individual's liberty."

It is not just baby-watching that is causing concern. One Zimbabwean man, Noel Matarandirotya, who has now left the organisation and has been advised by his legal counsel that he may have grounds to seek compensation from the Scientologists for, among other things, false imprisonment, claims that he collapsed as a result of intensive interrogation. He came to Saint Hill in 1991, on a ticket paid for by the cult, but the following year he was suspected of subverting the interests of the organisation. He alleges that he was interrtogated for two or three hours every day often with a lie detector connected by electrodes to his hands.

His concerns about the cult started before this, while he participated in a Scientology course called a "purification rundown" -- during which members spend long periods in a sauna and take large quantities of vitamin pills. According to Dr Tylden, the massive quantity of pills, combined with the physical stress of spending long periods at high temperatures, could be fatal. "I found it very difficult," said Mr Matarandirotya. "There were some children doing the course when I did it. I saw at least two, the youngest around 10, and they were taking the vitamins, too."

He is prepared to speak out. Most are not. Scientology has a reputation for hunting down its critics. One man has taken to wearing an armoured vest because of alleged threats against his life. One American former cult member claims that he was ordered to kill two opponents of the organisation.

Those claims will shortly be tested in court. If they prove true, they could mark the beginning of the end for one of this century's most bizarre, powerful and secretive social phenomena.