Thursday, 26 July 2012

Appeal Court rejects Headleys' lawsuits

A US appeal court has thrown out lawsuits brought by former Sea Org members over the abuse they suffered inside Scientology. But the ruling suggests that another legal approach might have been more fruitful.

Claire and Marc Headley, two former members of Scientology's Sea Organization, have lost their lawsuits over the violence and abuse they suffered inside the movement.

Marc Headley had argued that he and fellow workers were subjected to “assault, threat and menace” to make them work more than a hundred hours a week, for far less than the minimum wage.

His wife, Claire Headley, as well as alleging forced labor, said she and several other Sea Org members had been pressured into having abortions they did not want.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit accepted as fact many details of the harsh regime they endured at the Gold Base, or Int Base, Scientology's international headquarters in California.

But it ruled the evidence supplied was not enough to prove their complaint, which was brought under the human trafficking laws.1

The court ruled that they had failed to establish their case for human trafficking in terms of physical coercion, rejecting the psychological grounds advanced as inadequate.

Intriguingly however, in its closing paragraph, the court appeared to suggest that the evidence presented might have been better applied to any one of a number of other offences.

The case for human trafficking failed, wrote Judge Diarmuid O'Scannlain on behalf of a three-judge panel. But he added:

...we do not decide how the Headleys might have fared under a different statute or on other legal theories.

The Headleys abandoned claims under federal and state minimum wage laws.

And although the Headleys marshaled evidence of potentially tortious conduct, they did not bring claims for assault, battery, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, or any of a number of other theories that might have better fit the evidence.

The Headleys' lawyers had counted on establishing their case under the laws against human trafficking.

That would have allowed them to challenge Scientology's argument that its religious status precluded any scrutiny of their conduct – the so-called ministerial exception derived from the US First Amendment protection religious freedom.

They were effectively arguing that the First Amendment could not override the Thirteenth Amendment: the one guaranteeing protection from involuntary servitude and slavery.

But they failed to clear that hurdle: the appeal court ruled that they had not made their case for human trafficking.

We emphasize that the Headleys had innumerable opportunities to leave the defendants. They lived outside of the Base and had access to vehicles, phones, and the Internet.

They traveled away from the Base often. The security that they decry afforded them a multitude of opportunities to leave, as hundreds of other Sea Org members had done – whatever their commitments and whatever they may have been told regarding the permissibility of leaving ...

They have not established a genuine issue of fact regarding whether they were victims of forced-labor violations.

And that, the court added, meant it did not have to consider the constitutional question of whether or not the ministerial exception could trump the laws on human trafficking.

The Headleys had put all their money on the human trafficking allegations, the court noted – and lost.

Whatever bad acts the defendants (or others) may have committed, the record does not allow the conclusion that the Church ... violated the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

The Headleys' response

Contacted for a reaction, the Headleys released the following statement.

“Our intention in filing this lawsuit was to expose the many abuses we suffered at the hands of the scientology organization.

“Aside from escaping scientology, this lawsuit has been extremely tough on us emotionally.

“Regardless of the legal outcome, and that it seems scientology is authorized to commit these abuses in the eyes of the law, we are thankful that we have managed to establish, in public record, the many harmful and abusive activities scientology perpetrates on its members.

“There is not one statement we made, in regards to abuses and our experiences that scientology either denied nor disproved. If even one person is saved from suffering as we did, we are thankful for that.

“Scientology made all of our immediate family members disconnect from us, with the statement that we had told lies about what we experienced.

“Well, it has now been documented in courts of law, with under oath testimony and deposition, in volumes, that nothing we ever said was a lie. Of course scientology has not told our families that, but it is now in the public domain.

“We did not expect this outcome and are disappointed we lost, but on the other hand, we know that many others are now speaking out as a result of what we went through, and that scientology has had to curtail many of its worst abuses, for example, we know for a fact they no longer force members to have abortions.

“We are making every effort to move on and live our lives, and to put scientology in our distant past.”

Looking at the allegations presented in the case – and accepted as fact in the appeal court judgment – the Headleys certainly established the abusive nature of the regime at Int Base.

The restrictions on Sea Org members' lives was detailed: letters censored, phone calls monitored, limited access to the Internet.

The Sea Org ban on having children was also set out; and the restriction placed on staff at the Religious Technology Center – the holy of holies inside the Sea Org – that they can only marry fellow RTC workers.

The judgement also noted the lengths to which the Sea Org will go to track down and recover a member who has “blown” – left without permission.

But while court also described the practice of disconnection, in which Scientologists shun outcast members – it failed to grasp the coercive way it is enforced and its devastating effects.

Apparently the pain and suffering caused by disconnection do not constitute “serious harm” – at least under the terms of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

The violence and abuse at Int Base also received a mention, even if it hardly begins to cover the extent of the problem.

Marc and Claire experienced and observed verbal reprimands and physical abuse while in the Sea Org.

A senior Scientology executive physically struck Marc on two occasions and another official punched him on another occasion. A co-worker shoved Claire once.

Marc and Claire allege that they saw senior Scientology leaders physically abuse other staff.

Missed opportunities?

Somewhere along the line, the Headleys' legal team at Metzger Law Group appear to have conceded the point that their clients could be considered ministers for the purposes of this case.

Certainly that is what one of the judges suggested during oral arguments at the appeal court in February.

It is difficult to see why a minister would be assigned to “hand-cleaning human excrement from a large aeration pond” as Marc Headley and some colleagues had to do for two days – even if it was a punishment detail.

Unfortunately, the Headleys' new legal team also dropped the claims under the minimum wage and child labor laws that Barry Van Sickle, the attorney who filed the original lawsuit, had included.

At the risk of sounding like a Monday morning quarterback, that now looks to have been a bit unfortunate given the some of the points made in the final paragraph of the judgement.

But as attorney Scott Pilutik points out in his contribution to Tony Ortega's Village Voice article, “...there is an inherent risk-reward component here:

In baseball terms, if you swing for the fences you're more likely to hit a home run... but you're also more likely to strike out. If the Headleys' human trafficking case was successful, it would have had a massive impact on how Scientology treats its staff members going forward.2

This ruling means that the only remaining lawsuit from a former Sea Org member is the one filed by Laura DeCrescenzo in 2009, shortly after the Headleys.

Recruited at the age of 12, and married at 16, she fell pregnant when she was 17.

Her employers forced her to have an abortion because of the ban on Sea Org members having children, the lawsuit alleges.

She eventually became so desperate to escape she swallowed bleach to get herself thrown out.
Her case, also filed in California, was knocked back at the district court level, but reinstated by an appeal court ruling in June last year.

Her original complaint pursued the movement for unpaid wages, discrimination and invasion of privacy, human trafficking, intentional inflicting of emotional distress and obstruction of justice.

Subsequent amendments added fraud, deceit and deprivation of liberty and other alleged offences to the list.

That looks like a more scattergun approach to her case: what the court will make of it remains to be seen.

1 You can find the full judgment posted at the court's website.
2 From Tony Ortega's July 24 Village Voice article: “Scientology Wins Appeal In Lawsuit Alleging Forced Labor and Forced Abortions

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Atack Reloaded

After years of silence Jon Atack, who literally wrote the book on Scientology, made a brief but effective television appearance in May – and the good news is, he is working on a new book.

See here for the new edition
Jon Atack, whose book A Piece of Blue Sky remains the definitive work on Hubbard-era Scientology, made a fleeting appearance on British television in May.1

Atack's television appearance does not signal a return to the front-line against Scientology: it is more of a one-off gig.

But the good news is, he is working on another book – of which more below.

The show Atack appeared in, The Big Question, was trying to answer the question: is there a difference between a religion and a cult?

It featured members of a number of controversial organisations: the Moonies, the Raelians and a survivor of David Koresh's Waco community – though not, so far as I could see, a Scientologist.

Perhaps they did not fancy their chances against Atack.

In a wide-ranging programme packed with speakers from all sides of the debate, Atack didn't get a lot of time: but what he did get, he used effectively.

Presenter Nicky Campbell asked Atack what it had been like to leave Scientology.

It's a very baffling experience,” he replied: “Particularly – and I think this may be something that defines a cult – because of the attack that you receive from the group, because when you are expelled you are shunned, you are disconnected from.”

That brought an appreciative burst of applause from that section of the audience familiar with the destructive effects of shunning.

Already during the show, a number of true believers had complained of how their movement had been misunderstood and wrongly characterised as a cult: so Atack offered a definition formulated by the American Family Foundation in 1985:

A cult is group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing, and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community.

That was the edited version for television. The full definition Atack was quoting goes on to add:

Unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control include but are not limited to: isolation from former friends and family, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgement, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it, etc.2

Campbell asked him about the large amounts of money Scientologists were expected to pay in order to advance through the movement's different levels.

I met somebody who had given $2 million to Scientology and ended up in hospital,” Atack replied. Unfortunately, he did not get a chance to elaborate.

And having paid to advance up the levels, said Campbell – moving along to what he really wanted to talk about – Atack had himself got to read the big secret in Scientology.

What's the secret?” he asked.

The secret,” said Atack, “is that we're all composed of millions of little beings, we are not individuals, and so our thoughts and our feelings are confused by this, and so the idea is to extract ourselves from these clusters of things.”

Thetans...,” said Campbell, just to show he'd done his homework.

Body thetans...,” said Atack.

...which came from an intergalactic war...” prompted Campbell,

...75 million years ago in this sector of the galaxy,” Atack continued, in his best portentous Hubbard voice.3

Question the teaching

Supposing for the sake of argument that all this business of thetans is nonsense, said Campbell: “Why do sane, rational, intelligent human beings buy it – literally – and buy into it?”

Well, it's a secret,” said Jon. “I'd been a member for seven years before this was put to me. So … I'd gone along that road for a long way.

And in fact the day that I opened the Pack to these materials I said 'This is like Colin Wilson's novel The Mind Parasites' – it didn't make sense to me.

But I said 'I've been on this road for seven years, I'll check it, I'll see' – and I still never did feel convinced and two years later I left.”

Atack made it clear he had had time to get over his experience: it has been 30 years since he left.

But I think the problem with people who leave is they often consider the emotional experiences they had rather than questioning the truth of the teaching,” he added, to another scattering of applause.

Scientology claimed to be scientific, he added: but if you looked at its tenets, if you discussed them openly, you found that they were anything but scientific.

Campbell prompted him on the gulf between what Hubbard had preached and what he had practised.

He preached against drugs...,” said Campbell.

...and yet he himself admitted to having been a barbiturate addict, in a lecture,” said Atack.4

And from there, the discussion moved on to other contributors – though not before Atack got in a sly plug for his book. (Did I mention his book? A Piece of Blue Sky, Lyle Stuart, 1990).

Let me declare an interest here: I have written previously about my experience when a friend got involved in Scientology – and the frantic six months I spent working to get her out. (That experience was what started me down the path that led to this blog.5)

What I did not make clear in that previous article is that it was Atack who played a key role in advising me through that crisis.

He understood my need to know how my friend, an intelligent, open-minded woman, could have been so rapidly transformed into a close-minded zealot, incapable of considering critical material.

He supplied me with the information – and the moral support – I needed to deal with the situation.6

At my request, Atack sent me a reading list not just on Scientology but on cults: a crash course in key issues, including the debate over what constitutes mind control and how one can distinguish a cult from a legitimate religion.

Atack struck a nice balance describing the issues surrounding mind control: he spelt out how it worked and what the dangers were, without presenting it as some kind of all-consuming, irresistible force. And I have to say, not all of the people I turned to for advice took such a measured view.

When you're trying to deal with the shock of losing a loved to a totalist organisation, this is the kind of advice you need: accurate, carefully considered and shorn of the hysteria that sometimes accompanies anti-cult rhetoric.

For my money, Atack's book is still the best place for any serious researcher to start if they want to know about where Scientology came from. It tracks the movement until just a little after the death of founder L. Ron Hubbard and David Miscavige's rise to power.

Tilman Hausherr maintains a fairly comprehensive archive of Atack's other Scientology-related writings – together with information about the campaign to get Blue Sky pulled from Amazon (it was reinstated after a wave of protest).7

Having failed to stop him from publishing his book, Scientology stepped up its harassment of Atack, as he himself detailed in a 1995 talk delivered in Berlin: Scientology: Religion or Intelligence Agency?

At the end of 1992, scientologists started to arrive uninvited on my doorstep. They always came in pairs, a new pair each time. The visits happened about once a week, but not on the same night. The timing of the visits varied, with the latest being after 11 o'clock.

The first couple accused me of "persecuting" their religion. When I asked for details, one of them said that I had told a newspaper that Scientology "brainwashed" its members.

I explained that the journalist had given his own opinion. I tend to avoid the emotive term "brainwashing" and speak instead of "coercive psychology".

Having failed in the particular, they moved on to the general. I was accused of being a liar. Unable to give any example of a lie I had told, one began chanting hysterically "you tell lies".8

Done with “the dreaded clut”

After several years of this kind of harassment Atack eventually fell victim to England's notoriously oppressive libel laws.

A Scientologist sued him, a pre-trial ruling choked his defence at birth – so he never got his day in court – and he was forced into bankruptcy.9

Atack quietly withdrew from the fray and moved on to other interests: his poetry, his other writing and his art – all of which you can see at

By then, it was the mid-1990s: the Internet-based campaign against Scientology's excesses was just getting into gear, so the movement still had plenty on its plate: more than it could handle, as it turned out.

It was good to see Atack back in action, however briefly – if only because a lot of the airspace supposedly being given to critics of Scientology is often going to Scientologists critical of the current regime – but nostalgic for the halycon days of Hubbard.

So far as Atack is concerned however, he is done with Scientology – done with “the dreaded clut”, as he likes to call it.

The show was nevertheless a useful reminder of why he was, for a period in the 1980s and '90s, the most effective critic of Scientology – and Blue Sky remains a landmark of research on the movement.

In a sense, Atack's new work picks up where Blue Sky left off.

Waking Reason: the Science and Art of Persuasion, is not about Scientology. But it takes as its starting point the mechanics of what he encountered there, which he once memorably described as The Total Freedom Trap.

From there, it moves beyond the issue of cults to take a much broader, multi-disciplinary look at unethical influence.

I've been fortunate enough to read a few chapters – and I can tell you, he has not been idle these last few years.

Remember: you read it here first. :-)
For more information on Jon Atack, see "Atack Unchained" and Steven Hassan's introduction to the new edition of Blue Sky, elsewhere on this site.
1 BBC1's The Big Question show has been posted in two parts on You Tube: the first part is here; the second features Atack about 14 minutes in. It went out on May 20 and you can find the programme details at the BBC website here.
2The American Family Foundation is now known as the International Cultic Studies Association and as you can see here, their working definition has not changed over the years.
3This is as good a thumbnail sketch of Scientology's founding myth as you could ask for: the full version of course is widely available on the Internet, but for a good summary and critique see Dave Touretzky's scathing assessment at the OT III Scholarship page. (A glance at it reveals that Atack misspoke when channelling Hubbard: in fact it was 75 (not 95) million years ago – perhaps he was just channelling Hubbard on barbiturates.)
4Atack provides the source for this claim – The Research and Discovery Series, vol.1, first edition 1980, Scientology Publications Org, p.124 – in his essay “Hubbard and the Occult”, available at this page which is a collection of his Scientology-related writings. I think he is referring to a June 15, 1950 lecture in the collection, “Case Factors: Paralleling the Mind”, in which Hubbard warns his audience off certain drugs as harmful to auditing, (the therapy process he had developed). Telling his audience about the dangers of trying to come off a soporific such as phenobarbital, he says: “I know because I made myself a guinea pig on one of those experiments, and trying to get off the soporific was a tough job.” (My thanks to Caroline Letkeman for helping me to track down the relevant Hubbard lectures.)
Here is how the U.S. National Library of Medicine describes the problems of coming off phenobarbital without the guidance of a doctor: “ If you suddenly stop taking phenobarbital, you may experience withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, muscle twitching, uncontrollable shaking of a part of the body, weakness, dizziness, changes in vision, nausea, vomiting, seizures, confusion,difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, or dizziness or fainting when getting up from a lying position.”
In a June 1983 interview with Penthouse magazine, Hubbard's son, L. Ron Hubbard Jr. (who later changed his name to Ron De Wolfe) described his father's drug addiction. Asked what Hubbard had used, he replied: “At various times, just about everything, because he was quite a hypochondriac. Cocaine, peyote, amphetamines, barbiturates. It would be shorter to list what he didn't take.”
In an August 1994 affidavit, Hubbard's former butler Andre Tabayoyon described how he would “lay out the pills he took from 10 different numbered bottles” for him. This was between 1971 and 1973, the early days of the Sea Org, when they were on board the Apollo.
Virginia Downsborough, who cared for Hubbard in1967 during his time in Las Palmas told Atack she was astonished that he existed almost totally on a diet of drugs: Blue Sky, Part Four, Chapter One: “Scientology at Sea”.
5See Why I Protest elsewhere on this website (the previous item in the miscellaneous section).
6As I have explained in the article cited above, my friend eventually left after being introduced to a former associate of Hubbard. But I should make clear that Atack played no part in that intervention
7So far as I can tell, Tilman Hausherr became an an active critic of Scientology in the early 1990s, at least. I'm not sure to what extent he is still active, but his home page is still worth a visit for a guide to good source materials regarding Scientology.
8 Scientology: Religion or Intelligence Agency? Again this is archived at Tilmann Hausherr's site.
9 For details, see the text of the talk cited above.