Ruined lives. Lost fortunes. Federal crimes. Scientology poses as a religion but really is a ruthless global scam — and aiming for the mainstream
By all appearances, Noah Lottick of Kingston, Pa., had been a normal, happy 24-year-old who was looking for his place in the world. On the day last June when his parents drove to New York City to claim his body, they were nearly catatonic with grief. The young Russian-studies scholar had jumped from a 10th-floor window of the Milford Plaza 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 Church of Scientology, the self-help “philosophy” group he had discovered just seven months earlier.
His death inspired his father Edward, a physician, to start his own investigation of the church.
“We thought Scientology was something like Dale Carnegie,” Lottick says. “I now believe it’s a school for psychopaths.”
Their so-called therapies are manipulations. They take the best and the brightest people and destroy them.” The Lotticks want to sue the church for contributing to their son’s death, but the prospect has them frightened. For nearly 40 years, the big business of Scientology has shielded itself exquisitely behind the First Amendment as well as a battery of high-priced criminal lawyers and shady private detectives.
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, prosecutions against Scientology seemed to be curbing its menace. Eleven top Scientologists, including Hubbard’s wife, were sent to prison in the early 1980s for infiltrating, burglarizing and wiretapping more than 100 private and government agencies in attempts to block their investigations.
In recent years hundreds of longtime Scientology adherents — many charging that they were mentally of physically abused — have quit the church and criticized it at their own risk. Some have sued the church and won; others have settled for amounts in excess of $500,000. In various cases judges have labeled the church “schizophrenic and paranoid” and “corrupt, sinister and dangerous.”
Yet the outrage and litigation have failed to squelch Scientology. The group, which boasts 700 centers in 65 countries, threatens to become more insidious and pervasive than ever. Scientology is trying to go mainstream, a strategy that has sparked a renewed law- enforcement campaign against the church.
Many of the group’s followers have been accused of committing financial scams, while the church is busy attracting the unwary through a wide array of front groups in such businesses as publishing, consulting, health care and even remedial education.
In Hollywood, Scientology has assembled a star-studded roster of followers by aggressively recruiting and regally pampering them at the church’s “Celebrity Centers,” a chain of clubhouses that offer expensive counseling and career guidance. Adherents include screen idols Tom Cruise and John Travolta, actresses Kirstie Alley, Mimi Rogers, and Anne Archer, Palm Springs mayor and performer Sonny Bono, jazzman Chick Corea and even Nancy Cartwright, the voice of cartoon star Bart Simpson.
Rank-and-file members, however, are dealt a less glamorous Scientology.
According to the Cult Awareness Network, whose 23 chapters monitor more than 200 “mind control” cults, no group prompts more telephone pleas for help than does Scientology. Says Cynthia Kisser, the network’s Chicago- based executive director: “Scientology is quite likely the most ruthless, the most classically terroristic, the most litigious and the most lucrative cult the country has ever seen. No cult extracts more money from its members.” Agrees Vicki Aznaran, who was one of Scientology’s six key leaders until she bolted from the church in 1987:
“This is a criminal organization, day in and day out. It makes Jim and Tammy [Bakker] look like kindergarten.”
To explore Scientology’s reach, TIME conducted more than 150 interviews and reviewed hundreds of court records and internal Scientology documents. Church officials refused to be interviewed. The investigation paints a picture of a depraved yet thriving enterprise. Most cults fail to outlast their founder, but Scientology has prospered since Hubbard’s death in 1986. In a court filing, one of the cult’s many entities — the Church of Spiritual Technology — listed $503 million in income just for 1987.
High-level defectors say the parent organization has squirreled away an estimated $400 million in bank accounts in Liechtenstein, Switzerland and Cyprus.
Scientology probably has about 50,000 active members, far fewer than the 8 million the group claims. But in one sense, that inflated figure rings true: millions of people have been affected in one way or another by Hubbard’s bizarre creation.
Scientology is now run by David Miscavige, 31, a high school dropout and second-generation church member.
Defectors describe him as cunning, ruthless and so paranoid about perceived enemies that he kept plastic wrap over his glass of water.
His obsession is to obtain credibility for Scientology in the 1990s. Among other tactics, the group:
- Retains public relation powerhouse Hill and Knowlton to help shed the church’s fringe-group image.
- Joined such household names as Sony and Pepsi as a main sponsor of Ted Turner’s Goodwill Games.
- Buys massive quantities of its own books from retail stores to propel the titles onto best-seller lists.
- Runs full-page ads in such publications as Newsweek and Business Week that call Scientology a “philosophy,” along with a plethora of TV ads touting the group’s books.
- Recruits wealthy and respectable professionals through a web of consulting groups that typically hide their ties to Scientology.
CONTINUE to Page Two