When Infinite Complacency launched three years ago, mainstream news coverage of Scientology consisted mainly of celebrity gossip and jokes about their sci-fi cosmology. Today, the real issues are finally getting aired.
Something quite remarkable happened in the British press last month: Britain's two top-selling dailies ran stories about the violence and abuse that is rife at the top of Scientology.
The Sun and The Daily Mail both reported the court testimony of Debbie Cook, a former senior executive in Scientology's elite cadre, the Sea Org. Cook was denouncing the movement's leader David Miscavige.i
Cook told a Texas court that when in 2007 she fell from grace with Miscavige she was locked up with more than a hundred other executives in a trailer at Int Base, the movement's high-security compound in Hemet, California. She described how:
- they had to spend night after night in sleeping bags on ant-infested floors;
- Miscavige had the electricity cut as daytime temperatures soared past 100 degrees;
- they were forced to scream at each other in confessional sessions that often turned violent;
- the windows were barred and access in and out was covered by security guards;
- she witnessed Miscavige verbally abuse and physically attack imprisoned executives – and saw him order others to carry out similar assaults.
This was not, it should be said, an investigative coup by either paper. They were simply following up coverage a few days earlier by Florida's Tampa Bay Times.
The Daily Mail even ran the video of Cook's court testimony with the Tampa Bay Times logo still attached.ii
This nevertheless represents a significant development: for the very fact that British papers are finally running these stories is an indication of just how much trouble Scientology is in.
Britain's libel laws are notoriously oppressive and for years the print and broadcast media there have been extremely nervous of Scientology's litigious reputation.iii
Panorama for example – BBC television's flagship investigative programme – had all the necessary elements two years ago, but said nothing about Miscavige's assaults on his staff.
When in September 2010 Panorama ran the second of its most recent investigations into the movement, reporter John Sweeney interviewed at least three victims of Miscavige's violence: Marc Headley, Marty Rathbun and Mike Rinder.
He also spoke to another Int Base veteran, Amy Scobee, who had witnessed Miscavige punching and kicking fellow staffers.
Headley, his wife Claire and another Sea Org member, Laura DeCrescenzo, had all filed lawsuits detailing the abuse at Int. Base the previous year.
But while there was a lot of damning material in the Panorama documentary there was not a word about the beatings Miscavige is routinely handing out to his subordinates. Presumably Sweeney could not get it past the lawyers.iv
Launching the site
Three years ago today, I launched Infinite Complacency to chart the violence and abuse at the heart of Scientology. It was, I confess, something of a last resort.
I had failed to find a publisher for my book project and spent 2008 fruitlessly trying to break the Int Base abuse story to newspapers, magazines and TV production companies in several countries.
But editors were still wary of Scientology's reputation for attack-dog litigation tactics – and I had no profile as an investigative journalist.
So on March 16, 2009 I launched the site, determined to get something out before the story went mainstream – not a moment too soon, as it turned out.v
On June 21, 2009 – three months after Infinite Complacency launched – the St Petersburg Times launched its own far more extensive exposé of how Miscavige had transformed Int Base into something resembling a Chinese thought reform programme.
“The Truth Rundown”, initially a three-part investigation by Thomas C. Tobin and Joe Childs, snowballed into a Pulitzer-nominated series – and suddenly it was open season on Scientology in the U.S. media.vi
Coverage quickly moved beyond the usual celebrity gossip and cheap cracks about Xenu, the evil Galactic overlord at the heart of Scientology's “secret” space opera cosmology. Now newspapers and broadcasters were interviewing former Sea Org members.
They described the verbal and physical abuse they been subjected to while inside Scientology; they explained how hard it was to break free of the movement; and they spoke of the price they had had to pay as loved ones still inside Scientology broke off contact.
Since I could not compete with this level of coverage stateside, I turned my attention to another aspect of the story: a major fraud trial due to start in Paris that autumn.
Two aspects of the case made it particularly interesting.
First, Scientology as an organisation had been charged, not just individual executives.
Secondly, there was speculation that the movement might actually be banned if convicted, though as things turned out, that proved impossible – a story in itself.vii
Infinite Complacency provided detailed reports on the case, from the original trial all the way through to last month's appeal court convictions, covering developments inside and outside the courtroom.
Given that some observers believe the French investigation and prosecution could inform other cases pending against the movement – notably in Belgium and Germany – it was time well spent.viii
Then, just weeks after the original Paris trial convictions in October 2009, a new front opened in the battle against Scientology.
In Australia, Senator Nick Xenophon launched a fierce attack on the movement in a November 2009 speech to the Senate.
Citing harrowing details from several former members, he denounced the abuse to which they had been subjected – and which in some cases they had themselves inflicted on Scientologists while inside.
“There are allegations of false imprisonment, coerced abortions, embezzlement of church funds, physical violence, intimidation, blackmail and the widespread and deliberate abuse of information obtained by the organisation,” Xenophon told his fellow senators.
“It is alleged that information about suspicious deaths and child abuse has been destroyed, and one follower has admitted he was coerced by the organisation into perjuring himself during investigations into the deaths of his two daughters.
“These victims of Scientology claim it is an abusive, manipulative, violent and criminal organisation, and that criminality is condoned at the highest levels.”
Since Xenophon had filed redacted copies of the letter to the Senate, I was able to get hold of copies, post them online and provide a detailed account of their contents.
In my summary of the letters, I tried at all times to show how the allegations by these former members in Australia matched those being made by their U.S. counterparts.
Equally striking was the degree to which these stories echoed accounts of the abuses documented during the first three decades of the movement, when founder L. Ron Hubbard was still in charge.
Affidavits from former associates of Hubbard and a number of court cases have put Hubbard's responsibility for the abusive nature of Scientology beyond any doubt: it cannot all be laid at Miscavige's door.
In March 2010, I reported on a speech in Hamburg by Hana Eltringham, who had worked alongside Hubbard during the first years of the Sea Org. Her testimony was a particularly damning indictment of the founder.
Xenophon's campaign has generated an explosion of media coverage in Australia and looks likely to deprive Scientology of the tax breaks it has for years enjoyed there.
It led Australia's Fair Work Ombudsman to investigate the movement's employment practices: its September 2011 report put Scientology on notice that it could not go on treating staffers as wage slaves.
Xenophon's campaign also prompted a March 2010 documentary by ABC's Four Corners team, which among other things highlighted the abusive employment practices inside the movement.ix
That is what persuaded a major Australian law firm, Slater & Gordon, to start work on a class action lawsuit against the movement.
Finally, the allegations in one letter sent to Xenophon have led to Jan Eastgate, a senior figure in Scientology, being charged with perverting the course of justice for allegedly having tried to cover the sexual abuse of an 11-year-old girl by a Scientologist. That case is still unresolved.x
Three years on from the first in the latest wave of lawsuits targetting Scientology, Miscavige is under fire on all sides.xi
Some of them have paid a heavy price in the loss of friends and family still inside the movement, forced to shun them because of Scientology's destructive disconnection policy.
In the same piece I predicted that other defectors would follow their example – a fairly safe bet given what I already knew was in the pipeline.
But I did not anticipate how quickly these stories would be picked up by the mainstream news media in the United States.
I did not realize that the French courts would deal such a body blow to the movement, with a conviction that could have ramifications beyond the Republic's borders.
And I certainly didn't see the Battle of Xenophon coming, in which a single Australian politician set off an avalanche that is threatening to engulf the movement Down Under.
I named this website Infinite Complacency after a passage from the beginning of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds:
With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter.
I'll leave it for you to work out how that applies in the context of Scientology, but here's one thing to consider. (Attention: spoiler!)
The seemingly all-conquering Martians in Wells' great adventure are, in the end, vanquished by something small, insignificant and invisible: simple Earth-bound bacteria – a virus.
Here's to the next three years.
i“Top Scientologist tells how she was 'beaten and tortured while locked up for 45 days in Church's ant-infested desert compound trailer'” Daily Mail. February 16, 2012. And a day later: “Scientologists waterboarded and beat me, says former church official” The Sun. February 17, 2012.
According to the latest Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) figures for February, The Sun's, circulation stood at 2,582,301 in February.
ii“Ex-Clearwater Scientology officer Debbie Cook testifies she was put in 'The Hole',' abused for weeks” the Tampa Bay Times, February 10, 2012. The Times, until recently known as the St Petersburg Times, has been covering Scientology extensively since the mid-1970s when the movement set up one of its main operations in Clearwater, Florida. It won a Pulitzer prize for its work on the movement in 1980.
iii Of course court proceedings such as Cook's testimony are privileged, so accurate and timely news coverage of such events enjoys a degree of legal protection, as The Sun and The Daily Mail know full well. The legal protection afforded by privileged proceedings is one reason this website focuses on legal cases, speeches to parliament and official reports.
iv When I say Sweeney's two investigations were Panorama's most recent investigations it is because Panorama did an excellent programme on the movement back in 1987: “Scientology: The Road to Total Freedom?”. Jean-Luc Barbier, at Anti-Scientologie, has everything you ever wanted to know about the second of Sweeney's Panorama documentaries on Scientology.
v I had spent the previous two years investigating the horror stories leaking out about what went on at Int Base with the help of a handful of key witnesses: Jeff Hawkins and John Peeler were among the first to go on the record.
The first 14 entries in the Violence and Abuse in the Sea Org section here (see the list right in the right-hand column) form the core of that initial investigation, handily supplemented with reports on the Headley and Decrescenzo lawsuits that were launched around the same time. In April 2009, I also started telling Int Base veteran Maureen Bolstad's Story. It is a tale I still have to finish. Here is the first chapter in that section.
It should be noted however, that the relevant message boards – such as Andreas Heldal-Lund's Operation Clambake and Why We Protest (Anonymous) – had been reporting on this for years already. The main source of information at the time was Marc Headley, who in those days was posting pseudonymously as BlownforGood at Clambake. His first reference to the beatings at Int Base was, I think, this February 2006 posting.
Alternative media outlets such as Tom Smith's talk show The Edge on Hawk Radio had also begun interviewing Int Base escapees. Smith talked to Jefferson Hawkins, for example, in March 2008: you can hear an excerpt here.
vii The prosecution had called for the dissolution of the two Scientology organisations on trial, relying on a law that provided for this penalty against organisations convicted of organised fraud.
Nobody had noticed however that this penalty had been deleted from the criminal code on May 12 – just weeks before the start of the trial – buried in a complex batch of amendments voted through by deputies.
When the news finally broke in September 2009 – just weeks before the verdict was due – there was outrage not just from Scientology’s critics but from two unions representing the legal profession.
The government insisted it was a simple mistake, one that was quickly corrected – too late however, for the penalty to be applied in this case.
Whatever the suspicions expressed by various commentators, it should be stressed that nobody has been able to establish that this was anything other than a cock-up, rather than something more sinister. For more details see “The Great Escape?”, my account of the controversy written at the time the story broke.
viii This is not just the view of Olivier Morice, the lawyer who represented one of the plaintiffs in the Paris trial. Arnaud Palisson, a former officer with France's internal security service Renseignments Généraux wrote recently in his French-language blog that he personally passed on his doctoral thesis on how best to prosecute Scientology to a Belgian investigating magistrate handling a case due up before the courts there. See his February 7 posting at Rapports Minoritaires, or “mnql's” English translation at Why We Protest.
x Reporters from Australia's Lateline news programme (ABC) followed up the allegations in a May 19, 2010 story (she was charged in June of the following year). The report itself appears to have been removed from their website, presumably because of the pending trial, but here is their latest update on the court case, from February 7, 2012. Eastgate has so far made no plea to the charges against her, but in a media statement she described them as “egregiously false”.