Sunday, 21 June 2015

The Getting Clear conference, 2015

Coverage of the June 2015 "Getting Clear" Conference on Scientology in Toronto 

I am attending the June 2015 "Getting Clear" conference on Scientology in Toronto, both as an invited speaker and to cover the event.

As part of efforts to evolve my coverage, I am experimenting with a new online platform for this event.

But I will use this page as an index to the reports, updating it throughout the week as and when I file.

1 Introduction: the Father Christmas Principle 

2 The Man who would be Hubbard
Jon Atack and Russell Miller on the lies Hubbard and Scientology have told about his life

3 "What are Your Crimes?"
 Scientology can convince you that its faults are actually your own, argues one former member.

4 Nora Crest in Toronto
Growing up in Scientology means indoctrination from birth.
(At the Underground Bunker.)

5 PI Hacked Scientology Critics
A private investigator has been jailed for a hacking operation, but two Scientology critics targeted want officials to dig deeper.

(Not a conference event, but too interesting to ignore.)

Friday, 24 April 2015

Basel: It might get loud

Protesters are gathering in Basel, Switzerland to counter the official opening ceremony of Scientology's latest Ideal Org. We talked to some of the campaigners -- including the man who set up the first org there.

The entrance to the new Basel Ideal Org (Courtesy of Wilfried Handl)
This might get loud.

Critics of Scientology – including local residents and former members – are mobilising Saturday in the Swiss city of Basel to protest the official opening of the latest Ideal Org.

There will be music, there will be speeches and the permit even clears them for two five-minute bursts of “ALLES WAS KRACH MACHT” – which appears to translate as “EVERYBODY MAKE A RACKET”. (Update: I've been told it's more like Anything that makes a noise, but you get the idea.) And the organiser, Thomas Erlemann, means business.

In his announcement about the protest, he invites participants to bring drums and trumpets. And the Swiss edition of the free paper 20 Minuten has a photo of him holding a Vuvuzela, those god-awful horns used during the 2010 South Africa World Cup. (There's a reason they were banned from last year's World Cup in Brazil.)

But he has also stressed – time and again – that this is to be a peaceful, festive affair. They are not looking for a confrontation.

Erlemann, who got official clearance for his counter-demonstration earlier this week, says it will run from from 1:30 pm local time (1130 GMT) at Burgfelderstrasse – just over the road from the official opening. Supporters from Austria, France and Ireland are among those expected at the three-hour event.

Erlemann, 50, is a social worker who lives next to the new 4,600-square-meter Scientology building at Burgfelderstrasse 215 in the Iselin district of Basel, a city in the mainly German-speaking part of Switzerland.

When he first learned about the new building last year, he knew next to nothing about Scientology. “I didn't even know who L. Ron Hubbard was,” he said. “So I started researching on the Internet.”

Once he had done his homework, he decided to start warning local people about their new neighbours – and the response was overwhelmingly positive. So he set up a Facebook page for his campaign – 1,404 likes as of Friday morning – and sent out a press release.

For the last three or four weeks I have been getting calls nearly every day,” he said: newspapers, radio and the local television. “And now people who were members of Scientology have been getting in touch.”

When Erlemann started doing his research online, he quickly discovered that he wasn't the only person tracking development at Basel. Former Scientologist Wilfried Handl has been following developments from his base in Vienna, Austria, for several months now, via his German-language blog.

It was not long before the two of them were comparing notes and exchanging information. Handl does not get the impression that Scientology is booming in Switzerland – far from it. But he was still glad to find someone sounding the alarm.

I consider him my friend, even if I haven't met him,” Handl told Infinite Complacency.

Scientology's official opening had originally been scheduled for early March, but they had to postpone because they weren't ready. In the meantime, critics of the movement have kept a close eye on developments at the building.

Rolf Moll, Scientology's spokesman in Basel, has told local papers they are expecting between a thousand and 1,500 people to attend their opening ceremony (Erlemann is hoping for more than 300 people at the counter-demonstration). Moll didn't say if David Miscavige would be attending.

Another ex-member who has been following developments is Izhar Perlman, an Independent Scientologist (OT VII) based in Portugal, who monitors the development of the Ideal Orgs at his “Idle Orgs” website.

Regulars over at the Underground Bunker will know that Tony Ortega has more than once noted the way Ideal Orgs have been the kiss of death to once-thriving Scientology missions, draining off resources into grand buildings that are as imposing as they are empty. That's pretty much the point that Perlman's website is making too (the clue's in the name).

Perlman started it in response to an April 2012 post by Mike Rinder over at Mark Rathbun's website, in which he dismissed Scientology's claims of massive expansion. After Rinder pointed out the moribund state of the US orgs, Perlman decided to apply the same idea internationally.

He launched the website, appealed for help and now he has people filing pictures and commentary on the various Scientology centres around the world – and it seems to be a similar story every time.

So far as one can see from the photos at the sites of both Handl and Perlman, Scientologists in Basel are keeping the shutters down and a low profile until the big day. Occasionally, they pick up a camera to snap anyone taking too much of an interest in their building.


The local media meanwhile has given the story extensive coverage. As well as talking to Erlemann they have interviewed several former members involved in the campaign – including one of the co-founders of the first Basel org.

Hania Mrkos' story

Amid what looks like a steady stream of sympathetic coverage in the local media – including more than one front-page splash – Hania Mrkos, who helped set up the original Basel org in the early 1970s, has been telling his story.

He took time to talk to us too – and his is a cautionary tale all too familiar to anyone familiar with Scientology.


Mrkos is 67 now, but as a young man in the late 1960s he fled communist Czechoslovakia for the West. He was someone who was influenced by the Beat generation – Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg – a free-thinker even before the hippy era.

He spent several years travelling and exploring different spiritual paths: Gurdjieff, occult philosophies, Zen Buddhism – even the native American tradition. “But with these techniques I never found enough stability – I was trying to find something new that would stabilise my mind.”

Then around about 1973, a friend, a fellow seeker, introduced him to Scientology.

At the time, the movement had a major centre in Munich, in the southern part of what was then still West Germany. It was there, in the summer of 1973 that he sat the Oxford Capacity Analysis Personality Test – the point of departure for so many new recruits – and was duly told he had major problems.

I was really bad,” he recalled. “I was totally wiped in this test. So they said the solution for that was the Communication Course.”

Some former members say the course is as much about conditioning people to submit to control as improving communications skills. But for Mrkos, it felt like just what he had been looking for. “I felt very, very good. 'Woah, great!' I had stabilised myself, I had a big gain. I could confront things. There was none of the indoctrination. I found it very useful.”

Not long afterwards, he was back in Basel introducing the people in his circle to the techniques he had discovered. Back in those days, he recalled, the hard-sell attitude did not dominate the movement. “There was no pressure at all, it was very spontaneous.”

And that's how the Basel centre grew: spontaneously, with Mrkos and his friend introducing fellow seekers to the techniques they had discovered. And since, as students, they didn't have much money, they paid for their own courses by selling books on the street and drawing more people in. (As he recalls, the book that really sold the best was not one of Hubbard's but Ruth Minshull's Miracles for Breakfast – long since purged from corporate Scientology reading lists but still popular among the independents.)

For a couple of years, things went smoothly enough: they would sell books and introduce people to the basic principles during the week; come the weekend, they would jump into a minibus and drive the 240 miles to Munich to get more training and stock up on books. “For us it was to expand our consciousness, to understand more about what was going on,” he said.

Even then though, the pressure from above was beginning to build up. “We were forced to produce more people for the seminars and I started to be – I didn't like it too much.”

Because the Basel org had expanded so quickly, Mrkos and his then wife decided to move to another Swiss city, Berne, and start a new operation there. Again, he said, their unorthodox approach – mixing free talks and seminars with community activities such as photography workshops and concerts – allowed them to build a following. (He even recalls meeting Diana Hubbard during this period: as he recalled it, she was a very good pianist.)

They were aware of a more regimented, hard-nosed side to Scientology, but they tried to keep as far away from it as possible.

By then, we were sending people to Copenhagen,” he said – in part because they were unhappy with the increasingly harsh regime at Munich. “We were very successful.”

But then in 1976 they started having problems with Munich officials. Since he believed in the system, Mrkos asked for a Committee of Evidence in which he could put his case. Instead he walked into a Johannesburg Security Check, the most brutal of the interrogations Hubbard devised.

28. Have you ever had intercourse with a member of your family?
29. Have you ever been sexually unfaithful?
30. Have you ever practiced Sodomy?
31. Have you ever consistently made a practice of sexual perversion?
32. Have you ever slept with a member of a race of another color?
33. Have you ever committed culpable homicide?
34. Have you ever bombed anything?
35. Have you ever murdered anyone?

They made me do it 12 times in a row,” he said.

They even inspected my teeth: Czechoslovakia was a communist country, my father was in the military – they thought I was some kind of communist spy.”

After that, understandably, he stepped back from Scientology for a while.

Commie spy or not however, it seemed that they still needed him when things were not going well. On more than one occasion, he said, he got called in to try to sort out problems that cropped up in the Basel org that he had helped set up.

But as the movement became increasingly authoritarian in the 1980s, he continued to have brushes with Scientology's hierarchy.

On one occasion he was summoned to Basel for what was meant to be an auditing session. But when he walked into the room for the meeting he found three Sea Org officers waiting for him: two of them standing and one sitting. But when they tried to start in on the heavy-duty interrogation again, this time he was prepared.

I told them 'This is not standard auditing and this is illegal what you are doing here. You have no legal power here. So if I am not out of here in half an hour, my wife will go to Basel police.'”

That did the trick.

Paying the price

By this time, Mrkos was no longer a penniless student. He had built up a profitable real-estate business and so he and his wife were able to pay their way up the Bridge. So life was looking up.

Then in the 1980s he went to Clearwater, Florida, and Flag Land Base, which markets itself as the center of excellence for Scientology auditing. He had signed up to do the Ls, an extremely expensive set of auditing. It was a disaster, he said.

These techniques are very powerful, but also dangerous in the hands of dilletantes,” Mrkos explained. “And it is even more dangerous when they are using it to get more money from people.

I actually went almost insane … I was totally fucked up,” he said. “They wanted more money from me, so they didn't finish the processes … I crashed and went totally phobic.”

In the end, he was in such a mess he had to be accompanied on the flight back to Switzerland. “I was really crazy.” It took him two years to recover from the experience, he said, and at time he was suicidal. In the meantime, his business collapsed and his marriage ended.

Looking back now, he can see how out of control the hard sell in the movement had become. Don't bother to keep back money to pay your taxes, they told him – it will only go to funding the Psychs. “And at the time, I have to confess, I listened to them.”

But the hardest blow has been the loss of his daughter, Jelena.

Against his better judgment, he said, he let her attend the Scientology-run Delphi School in Oregon, in the United States. Far from her parents' influence, it was not hard for the Sea Org recruiters to talk her into signing her billion-year contract.

Then in 2012, they tried to sell him the Golden Age of Tech – again – expecting him to return the old materials and pay through the nose for the newly repackaged versions. But they had already been through this experience at least once before.

When they said 'This is the real technology, the real LRH, I said 'No. They are just trying to our money. And that was the first time I decided to look outside, on the Internet, about Scientology. … I decided I had to understand what happened to me, to understand what was wrong with this technology.”

So for the first time, he started researching Scientology on the Internet. And when he read the accounts from former senior figures such as Mike Rinder and Debbie Cook – someone he knew personally – he pulled back further from the movement.

Then one day – June 12, 2014 – he got a phone call from his daughter. “There was a lot of noise in the background and I said 'What's going on?' and she was very depressed. She said that I was against her group and so she had to disconnect from me.”

So far as he can tell, it was his persistent refusal to buy into the repackaged materials from the Golden Age of Technology that provoked the final crisis. Now he is taking legal action against Scientology – in the Swiss courts and in the United States – to recover his money.

They are spitting on human rights, on democracy, everything,” said Mrkos. “They don't accept freedom. Switzerland is a free country with free people and they are enslaving people.”

And that's what people in Basel need to understand, he says. If you enter Scientology you are gradually delivering yourself into slavery.

In the beginning, they do a little bit, and then a bit more and then you get more and more enslaved.” And he is not just talking about the Sea Org members, he says. “Most Scientologists are heavily in debt.

I don't understand – now we know so much about Scientology's crimes – that some countries can accept them as a church.”
---
This is an extended version of the piece published earlier today at Tony Ortega's Underground Bunker.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Tracing Danielle Ambert: the Lopez Affair II

Cults: France drops its guard
French police failed to track down three Scientologists for questioning over the 2006 suicide of Gloria Lopez: but at least one of them has maintained her links with Scientology. Now French daily Libération has weighed in to the battle.

Scientologists told French police investigating the death of one their members that they did not know where three key witnesses, all Scientologists, could be found. But one of them at least has stayed a part of the movement.

And now French newspaper Libération, in an astonishing five-page broadside, has cited the lack of progress in the case to illustrate the inertia they say is gripping the French authorities over the issue of cults.

Danielle Ambert is a person of interest in the December 2006 suicide of fellow Scientologist Gloria Lopez.

According to handwritten notes that Lopez left behind, Ambert acted as her financial adviser. When Lopez got a windfall of more than 200,000 euros from the sale of a property she had been gifted, it was Ambert who persuaded her to spend nearly all of it on Scientology courses.

Police here in France wanted to question her to get a clearer idea of what might have driven Lopez to kill herself. Senior Scientologists told investigators she had gone abroad – but that they did not know where she was.

But different sources, including public documents available in the United States, show that in the years following Lopez's death, Ambert spent much of her time in Clearwater, Florida, one of the movement's main hubs. And the latest evidence suggests she is on Freewinds, Scientology's cruise ship in the Caribbean.

Here's what we know about Danielle Ambert.

The entries in Kristi Wachter's database, based on Scientology's own publications, show that she has been a Scientologist at least since 1997. Entries in Scientology's business directory – listing members of the World Institute of Scientology Enterprises (WISE) – show that in the early 2000s she ran a business out of Marseille, on France's Mediterranean coast.

And an entry in issue N° 114 of Impact magazine, published in 2006, lists her as a Patron, which means she donated $40,000 to the cause – so she was not short of money.

Wachter's database also shows that as far back as 2004 Ambert had already completed Scientology's top auditing level, the new OT VIII, on Freewinds, the movement's cruise ship in the Caribbean. So when she left France after the death of Lopez, it was not to complete her journey up Scientology's Bridge to Total Freedom.

As an OTVIII – and with money to spare – Ambert was far from being a marginal figure on the French Scientology scene. But it was not simply because she had paid her own way up the Bridge: she also enjoyed a high profile because of her standing as a mission holder – and in Scientology, mission holders bring the money in.

In 2000, she opened her first mission in Marseille, on the French Mediterranean coast. (The previous year, a Marseille court had handed down fraud convictions against several senior Scientologists, including a past mission-holder there – so a vacancy had opened up.1)


A few years later she launched another mission in Avignon, about 60 miles away – an event marked by a story still available on a Scientology website. She had opened the first mission in Marseille, she explained, because “... it was time to do something to help my fellow man”.

Then, in the summer of 2006 – just months before the suicide of Gloria Lopez – she inaugurated another Scientology mission in southern France – this time in Montpellier.

For Scientologist and Mission Director, Danielle Ambert …, it has been a whirlwind of excitement and Scientology expansion in the South of France,” says a report at another Scientology website.

With guests arriving from Marseille, Clemont-Ferrand, Saint-Etienne, Avignon and as far as Paris, to attend the grand opening of France’s newest Scientology Mission, it was a extraordinary event signaling a bright new future for the Montpellier community,” it added.

Marseille, Avignon and Montpellier: a golden triangle of three Mediterranean missions and a “bright new future”.

But just a few months later, Ambert had left the country.

Following the paper trail

Danielle Ambert had persuaded Gloria Lopez to spend more than 200,000 euros on Scientology courses. Rather than buying an appartment for herself outright Lopez ended up having to take out a mortgage to buy one just outside Paris – in a suburb she did not know and a flat she hated.

This much is clear from Lopez's handwritten notes, which her family found at her apartment after her death. “Danielle Ambert is clearly involved,” Lopez's son, Gwenn Le Berre, told Infinite Complacency. “My mother implicates her directly.”

They also found Ambert's business card. (The address on the card, at Codolet, is a town about half an hour's drive from Avignon.)


But when French police asked Scientology officials where she was, they got nowhere, said Le Berre. One of them told police that “he had heard” that Ambert had gone abroad – but he did not say where. And when police requested information from Scientology officials in the United States, they got no help there either.

That does seem extraordinary given that Ambert was the toast of the French Scientology community in 2006: all the more extraordinary given that the paper trail leads straight to one of Scientology's main centres of activity.

Clearwater, Florida is home to Scientology's Flag Service Organisation which boasts well over 1,000 staff members. It is, says the movement:

...a religious retreat which serves as the spiritual headquarters for Scientologists from all over the world. It is the hub of the Scientology worldwide community, a dynamic, multilingual organization and is the largest single Church of Scientology in the world.2

On January 5, 2007 – a little over two weeks after Gloria Lopez's suicide – Danielle Ambert was in Clearwater, Florida. There, she signed a document granting power of attorney to fellow Scientologist Josée Goudreault for a property deal at Madison Avenue, in Clearwater. (Goudreault, like Ambert, works in real estate).3

Public records – and one or two other sources – suggest that Ambert was probably based in Clearwater between 2007 and 2011. And as Kristi Wachter's database shows, she was taking Scientology courses at least up until 2008.4

An unexpected bonus is that someone entered French data into the US system by mistake: Ambert's French address – the one on her French business card – pops up in one database where it should not have.

What might have happened, one source explained, is that a US official took the French word “de” – from Place de l'Église in her French address – to be a reference to the US state of Delaware (DE). In any case, what those accidental entries indicate is that Ambert spent time in France between June 2007 and June 2008; and again in 2013.

From 2010 to late in 2013 another address appears on records: 118 N Forth Harrison Avenue, in Clearwater, just a few minutes' walk down the road from Scientology's Flag base.

This address is the relay office for Freewinds, Scientology's cruise ship where back in 2004 she took the highest level of Scientology's Bridge to Total Freedom: OT VIII. This official Scientology locator page gives the same address.


So this is what we have so far.

Barely two weeks after the suicide of Gloria Lopez, Ambert turns up in Clearwater, Florida and grants a fellow Scientologist power of attorney for a property deal. Public records suggest she lived in Clearwater for a few years. Then from 2010 to 2013 she gives as her forwarding address the relay office for Freewinds.

And the only thing Scientology officials could tell French investigators was that she had gone abroad somewhere.

Full circle

Another clue to her current whereabouts comes from a Facebook page in the name of Danielle Ambert. This particular page has no photo and – until recently at least – only two friends. But both those friends are relatively high-profile Scientologists from the French-speaking community.

One is Robert Galibert, whose profile picture is one of those cute Tribble-type creatures on the illustrated version of Scientology's Tone Scale.5

Galibert is president of “Non à la drogue, Oui à la vie”, a French offshoot of Scientology's Foundation for a Drug-Free World. He confirmed in an interview with the News of Marseille back in April 2012 that the French outfit was funded by Scientology.6

Ambert's other contact is Gisèle de Benoit, a Scientology activist in Switzerland. Some people there thinks she a little too active.

De Benoit heads up Des jeunes pour les droits de l’homme, the Swiss wing of Youth for Human Rights, another Scientology front group. Back in June 2013 Swiss paper La Tribune de Genève ran a story on her efforts to introduce a DVD on human rights into local classrooms there. She got a rap on the fingers from local officials, who rejected the DVD because of its links to Scientology and threatened legal action if she persisted.7

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Ambert's Facebook page is that she gives Oranjestad, Aruba, as her place of residence. Aruba of course, is part of the Dutch Antilles, the chain of islands in the Caribbean where the Freewinds plies its trade.

So a decade after having completed OT VIII there, the evidence online – and from public records in the US – suggests that Ambert has come full circle and is back on board Freewinds. Though this time perhaps she may be a crew member rather than a paying customer.

Maître Rodolphe Bosselut is representing Gloria Lopez's family in the complaint they have lodged – against persons unknown – for alleging abuse of weakness, organized fraud, and failure to help a person in danger.

When we spoke to him last month for our first piece on this case over at Tony Ortega's Underground Bunker, he expressed frustration at the lack of cooperation from Scientology officials during the investigation.

For an organization as centralized as Scientology — as obsessed with documenting everything about its members — it is simply not credible that it can offer no useful information in this affair,” he said at the time.

We presented him with the evidence of where Danielle Ambert had spent the years since Gloria Lopez's death; evidence that suggested she had not cut her ties with Scientology – and that she had even returned to France for periods. He was particularly interested in that part.

The people who would be useful to this investigation, we can't manage to reach them,” he noted. So he had only question: “If Scientology has nothing to reproach itself about in this affair, then why can't we get in touch with these people?”

Phone calls, emails and Facebook messages to Scientology officials – and the Scientologists named above – produced nothing conclusive.

One flustered girl at the Freewinds office in Clearwater swore blind that Mme Ambert was neither on board as a crew member nor a paying passenger. But that rather smacked of panicked improvisation – and certainly nobody more senior has been in touch to confirm or deny Ambert's presence.

Roger Galibert, asked how Ambert might be contacted on Freewinds, suggested a message via the ship's generic email address before ringing off, pleading pressing business. But again, this is hardly definitive confirmation.

De Benoit did not return my phone calls or respond to my messages. But some time in the last day or two she has dropped off Danielle Ambert's Facebook page.

The good news though, is I'm not the only one who has been looking.

Ils accusent!

Here in France, Thursday's edition of the left-leaning daily Libération devotes five pages – including the front page – to an attack on what it says is the French government's loss of nerve on the issue of cults.

They argue that there is a lack of political will at the top to tackle the issue of cults, which has led to inertia in the investigation of such cases.

Libération put a team of reporters on the Gloria Lopez affair and their report argues that the problems the investigation has had moving forward is symptomatic of this wider malaise.

One source close to the case told them that the way the investigation was conducted completely ignored Scientology's well-earned reputation for obstructing any outside inquiries into its affairs.

Whether Danielle Ambert is on Freewinds or back in France, the key question appears to have been resolved. She never really cut her links to Scientology and their leaders' claims that they could not help police find her were at best disingenuous. At best...

The case nevertheless looks set to be closed. That at least is the conclusion of the report from the judge investigating the case, which Libération has had sight of.

Unless of course someone steps forward with new information.
---

1    Fraud-related convictions were handed down against five defendants by the Marseille court on November 15, 1999.
2   From Scientology's presentation of the Flag Service Organization.
3   You can consult the document online at the Pinellas County website. According to her Facebook page, Goudreault is from Quebec, Canada, though it looks as if she has been doing business in Clearwater since at least 1997. Back in 2007 she ran property business Chic Realty, which had an office at 28 N Fort Harrison Avenue, in Clearwater. That is just around the corner from Flag, where Gloria Lopez had been due to go once she started at the Sea Org.
4   Ambert's name also comes up in various county court property-related documents until at least the end of 2014 – though that does not necessarily mean she stayed in Clearwater that whole time.
5   I could be wrong, but I think it's 8.0: “exhilaration”.
Here's Scientology's explanation of the Tone Scale, which was devised by founder L. Ron Hubbard. Former members have criticised it as another tool for controlling people. Jon Atack wrote: “Through Tone Scale drilling, people learn to pretend emotions. The downside is that they can lose spontaneity by doing so. They can lose the capacity for natural emotions, or become confused about what their real emotions are.” ( From “Scientology is an Implant”, first posted to alt.religion.scientology
6   La Scientologie, accro aux Drogues? (“Is Scientology addicted to Drugs?”): the News of Marseille, April 10, 2012.
7   La scientologie tente de s’inviter dans les classes vaudoises (“Scientology tries to invite itself into Vaud's classrooms”). June 28, 2013: by Lise Bourgeois.

The Gloria Lopez Affair

A French investigation into the suicide of a Scientologist has stalled because police have been unable to interview key witnesses in the case. But the movement has not shared everything it knows about the affair.1

(This story first ran on March 31 at Tony Ortega's Underground Bunker. Thanks again to Tony for helping us launch this investigation at his site.)

Gloria Lopez
A judge investigating the 2006 suicide of a Scientologist in France may finally close the case because police have not been able to track down key witnesses.

Officers have been looking into the death of 47-year-old Gloria Lopez, who in December 2006 stepped in front of a speeding train at Colombes station just outside Paris.

But they have been unable to find three Scientologists the judge considers key to the affair, all of whom had dealings with Mme Lopez in the months leading up to her death.

After Scientology officials in France insisted they did not know where the three women were, police wrote to Scientology centers in both Copenhagen and the United States in a bid to trace them. They got no help there either.

But Infinite Complacency – with the help of ex-Scientologists, public records in Florida and an investigative team over at the French newspaper Libération – has established that the movement's executives have not been telling the whole story.

Gloria Lopez had been involved with Scientology since the mid-1990s. During that time her family estimates she spent around 250,000 euros on the movement.

Her two children say she was depressed in the months leading up to her death and they blame that on her involvement in Scientology. The family's lawyer, Maître Rodolphe Bosselut, dates her final crisis to a visit to Scientology's Copenhagen centre that she made in July 2006.

Strangely, she did not return on the appointed day,” he said. “When she did return, several days later, she said that Scientology had asked her to stay and she had not felt she could leave.”

Her work colleagues said they noticed a dramatic change in her mood after she came back from Copenhagen. “She was much more withdrawn,” one co-worker, who asked not to be named, told Infinite Complacency. “She hardly spoke at all… . She seemed sad, withdrawn, preoccupied.”

Documents her family found at her apartment after her death included a billion-year contract for the Sea Organization, Scientology's corps for its most dedicated, full-time members. She had signed it during her July visit to Copenhagen.

Other papers show she was expected to return to Copenhagen for further training and then travel on to Clearwater, in Florida. Yet she never told her family about her Sea Org membership or her plans to travel to the United States.

Gloria Lopez committed suicide on December 21, 2006: she had been due to start in the Sea Org in January 2007.

Lopez's family has filed a complaint against persons unknown alleging abuse of weakness, organized fraud and failure to help a person in danger. Scientology officials have repeatedly insisted that her death had nothing to do with them, and a Paris spokesman refused any further comment for this article.

In 2011, prosecutors abandoned the case after several years of investigation, arguing that there was not enough evidence to build a case. After the family filed a second formal complaint, an investigating judge was appointed to take another look. Like the prosecutor, he has the power to take the matter to court if he thinks there is a case to answer.

But now Maître Bosselut has sounded the alarm.

He fears the judge is about to close his investigation, at least in part because police cannot locate the key persons of interest to interview them. The judge's decision is expected in the next few weeks.

Persons of interest

These are the three Scientologists investigators want to interview:

Juliette Wagner
Juliette Wagner-Quercia, who introduced Lopez to Scientology and who, according to family and friends was a strong influence on her during her first years inside the movement. She was working at Scientology's Copenhagen base in 2006 and was Lopez's point of contact there;

Elisabeth Haley, Lopez's auditor at Copenhagen. Haley wrote twice to Lopez in the months that followed, trying to get her to return for further auditing. The contents of her letters make it clear she knew that Lopez was in difficulty;

Danielle Ambert
Danielle Ambert: a high-level Scientologist (OT VIII and a former mission holder in France), she acted as Lopez's financial adviser at a time when she came into a substantial sum of money – most of which she subsequently spent on Scientology. (This photo, from her Scientology page, is likely more than 10 years out of date.)

Gloria Lopez's behavior changed drastically on her return from Copenhagen in July, said Maître Bosselut. “She stopped taking courses and she became more withdrawn at work,” he explained.

During the same period, letters were arriving from Copenhagen urging her to return. But as Gloria Lopez sank into depression, the Scientologists around her failed to give her the help she needed, he added.

Lopez's son, Gwenn Le Berre said that when police searched Scientology premises in 2009 looking for documents relating to the case, all they found was an empty dossier with Gloria Lopez's name on it. And when officers interviewed Scientologists about his mother, none of them admitted to knowing her well, even though she had been a regular at the Celebrity Center for years.

Nobody knew her, even those who wrote her letters with 'kisses, lots of love',” he said. “Even those people continue to say that they didn't know her. It's completely bizarre.”

Among the papers that Lopez's children found at her home after her death were writings in her own hand from the final months of her life. In them, she expressed her distress at the financial difficulties she was experiencing, as well as a sense of failure – the antithesis of what Scientology promises its followers.

The financial advisor

These writings also revealed the role that Danielle Ambert played in advising Lopez on her financial affairs, said Maître Bosselut.

Lopez had inherited a property in Spain, which she had told her family she would sell so as to buy an apartment just outside Paris. The handwritten documents found at her apartment make it clear however that instead of buying the French apartment she spent the money on Scientology courses.

Ambert advised Mme Lopez that no bank would lend to her for Scientology courses but that she would be able to get a loan to buy an apartment,” Me Bosselut explained.

So despite having received a large sum of money from the sale of the property in Spain – more than 200,000 euros – she ended up having to borrow to buy an apartment near Paris.

Ambert's business card, which Lopez's family found at her apartment after her death, describes her as a “counsellor in independent investment”.

Lopez's handwritten notes show that she had paid in advance for most of Scientology's advanced Operating Thetan (OT) levels. “A first part of the money allowed me to get to Clear,” she wrote.

The state of Clear is the position half-way up Scientology's scale of courses. Attaining it opens up the route to the more advanced – and far more expensive – Operating Thetan (OT) levels. Paying for levels I to VII effectively meant she was paying for courses years in advance.

Ten days later she attended a seminar on a push to get 10,000 OT VIIs. “The next day I paid the levels up to OT VII,” she wrote.

The original 2009 Paris court judgment convicting two Scientology organizations of organized fraud noted that the movement's practice of hard sell meant that members were pressured into paying for training years in advance and thus driven into debt – as this site reported at the time.

The 2013 Cour de Cassation ruling that rendered those convictions definitive also specifically mentioned Scientology's hard-sell policies and referred to how Scientology's victims were:

...quickly led to commit to several years of courses, auditing sessions, purification cures forming part of the Scientology doctrine, for the financing of which they spent all their savings, got themselves into debt and in the end found themselves in a particularly difficult situation, both materially and morally...2

One former Scientologist has already explained to investigators how relentless the movement's salesmen can be in getting people to buy more courses, said Maître Bosselut. And despite the vast sums Lopez had spent on courses, the papers found at her apartment also show that Scientology was telling her she owed them money.

Oppressive and aggressive”

Lopez's growing desperation is evident from the writings she left behind, said the lawyer. She wrote:

For the moment I am losing money instead of earning for the Bridge [her courses] (I have to get the money together to pay the expenses for when I will be in Denmark and the United States for the OT levels.) … Despite everything I have understood, I am not getting better, at work I am making mistakes.

The police unit that investigated Gloria Lopez's death was the Office for the Repression Violence against Persons (ORCVP). Their report, submitted to the prosecutor's office concluded:

[I]n 2000 Gloria Lopez broke with her family and friends, lost custody of her children, sold her house and left her job with the sole aim of moving closer to the Paris Celebrity Center. She invested all her money, which was in fact a substantial amount, in Scientology and got into debt to pay for her expenses and an apartment... .

The report also described Scientology's operating method as “commercial, very organized, oppressive and aggressive,” designed to ensure maximum profits for its directors.

Despite those findings however, the prosecutors office at Nanterre, just outside Paris, decided in June 2011 to drop the case. They argued that there was not enough evidence to show that Gloria Lopez had been subjected to undue influence.

For Maître Bosselut, that decision betrays a complete lack of understanding of how Scientology operates; and it ignores crucial evidence in the documents written by Mme Lopez herself in the final months of her life.

Now however, it looks as if the investigating magistrate, Jean-Michel Bergès, might follow suit.

Maître Bosselut argues that the failure of Scientology officials in France and abroad to provide any leads that would help investigators to find these three women is evidence of their bad faith.

For an organization as centralized as Scientology – as obsessed with documenting everything about its members – it is simply not credible that it can offer no useful information in this affair,” he said. Scientology officials had failed to turn over Mme Lopez's files or even to say who her auditors had been, he added.

Gloria Lopez's son, Gwenn le Berre, says he is determined to keep fighting to find out more about what drove his mother to kill herself.

I would certainly like to have at least some answers from a few people named in the file, and if we could go after Scientology as an organization then that would be really great.” Because as important as the three missing witnesses are, this is not just about individuals, he insists.

Clearly, it's the organization, because in this organization there are people who are just bad to the core, who do bad things, who ought to be convicted; and there are others who are the victims and who are in a way used by these people...

[T]here are people who know. There are people who are paid to organize this fraud. And there are those who profit, clearly.”

Infinite Complacency has established that the movement's executives have not been telling the whole story about the missing Scientologists.

Public records in Florida show that at least two of the missing women, – Danielle Ambert and Juliette Wagner – spent the years following Gloria Lopez's death in Clearwater, one of the major centres for the movement.

And French paper Libération has tracked down one source who confirmed that Danielle Ambert has been working for the movement on Freewinds, Scientology's cruise liner in the Caribbean.
---
1    This story first ran on March 31 at Tony Ortega's Underground Bunker. Thanks again to Tony for helping us launch this investigation at his site.
2  See here for the complete text of the judgment.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Australia: Xenophon back in the fray

Senator Nick Xenophon has called on Australia's charity regulators to investigate Scientology in the wake allegations set out in Alex Gibney's bombshell documentary on the movement.

The shockwaves created by Alex Gibney's documentary on Scientology, Going Clear, have reached Down Under.

More than five years after first denouncing Scientology's activities in Australia, independent Senator Nick Xenophon has returned to the fray, calling on the authorities to investigate Scientology's charitable status.

In a letter to the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC), Senator Xenophon said he was prompted to write by the allegations contained in Gibney's documentary, in which he says Scientology:
  • tortures its members;
  • has stolen US Government documents;
  • requires current members to cut ties with friends and families who quit the movement (disconnection);
“The Church of Scientology is a global organisation with common rules that apply to all of its branches,” he continued. “I am deeply concerned about the potentially wide-reaching and harmful influence this organisation may have on its Australian branches...

“I therefore request that a review is conducted into the charitable status of the Church of Scientology and any associated entities in Australia as a matter of urgency,” Senator Xenophon said.

Gibney's documentary goes into detail about the violence meted about by Scientology's leader, David Miscavige, and the humiliating punishments he is still inflicting on those who are – nominally at least – his most senior lieutenants.1

His interview subjects include Mark Rathbun and Mike Rinder, two of the movement's most senior former executives, both of whom have witnessed Miscavige's violence, as well as being on the receiving end.

The allegations of the theft of government documents appears to be a reference to Operation Snow White, back in the 1970s. Those activities, when they were finally uncovered, led to FBI raids of Scientology premises in 1977 and the conviction of 11 senior members – including founder L.Ron Hubbard's own wife, Mary Sue – a few years later.

And Scientology's practice of disconnection – forcing its members to break off contact with anyone deemed an enemy of the movement – has been well-documented in the media.2

Violence at the top, espionage and Scientology's disconnection policy: on the face of it, there is nothing her that a seasoned Scientology watcher did not already know about.

And having stood up in Australia's Senate in November 2009 to denounce abuses committed by Scientology that were at least as serious, if not worse, the issues he is raising now cannot be new to Senator Xenophon.

But the force of Gibney's documentary is such that it has become a major media event. And as Tony Ortega recently pointed out over at The Underground Bunker it has prompted more journalists to start asking tougher questions of John Travolta and Tom Cruise, the two celebrity members Gibney zooms in on in his film.3

Perhaps the senator thought now was a good time to revive the campaign he started in 2009.

“Scientology is not a religious organisation,” he told the Senate at the time. “It is a criminal organisation that hides behind its so-called religious beliefs. What you believe does not mean you are not accountable for how you behave.”

In his letter to the ACNC, Senator Xenophon mentioned that Scientology's organisations in Australia were registered as charities for the purpose of “advance religion”. Clearly he doesn't see it that way.

Vicki Dunstan, Scientology's president in Australia, has responded to the senator's latest initiative in comments to the Australian media.

“I am afraid he has bought into the propaganda and continues to try the Church of Scientology in the media and hold a kangaroo court,’’ she said.

“Only now he is using a Hollywood work of fiction as his source of disinformation about the church, to resurrect his old witch-hunt and waste taxpayer funds on this pointless exercise.’’

For the moment, all the ACNC has done is acknowledged receipt of the letter: it will be a while before we know if they actually intend to act on it.

In the meantime, listen to this interview with Senator Xenophon on Australia's Studio 10 programme, in which he sets out his case. As usual, he's done his homework.



In Australia, a group gets charitable status if is recognised as a church. Senator Xenophon suggests that a better test would be the one used by the Charity Commission for England and Wales – that a group should serve the public good. The Charity Commission decided in 1999 that Scientology failed that test.4

And not for the first time, he calls for a government cults watchdog along the lines of France's MIVILUDES. Georges Fenech, when he was still president of MIVILUDES (the inter-ministerial mission for monitoring and fighting cults abuses), met Senator Xenophon during a visit to Australia in 2011.

Start here for a look back at Senator Xenophon's campaign and the letters from former members that prompted him to stand up in the senate and speak out.

And go here for a detailed summary of the letters from former Scientologists that prompted his campaign – letters he subsequently filed with the Senate.


Update:

In his letter, Xenophon wrote: “According to the ACNC's website there are 14 organisations that contain the word 'scientology' in their names that are, or have been, registered as charities. Of those 14 organisations, two have had their registration revoked and one has had its registration voluntarily revoked.”

I got 13 when I searched under “Scientology”. Here they are:


Follow the links to the Launceston and Melbourne missions and you learn that both had their charity status revoked because their annual reports were 12 months overdue.

As Xenophon had noted, both had the advancement of religion as their stated purpose.

In his letter, the senator requested an investigation not just of Scientology but of “any associated organisations”. A quick browse of the database shows that that was a wise precaution.

Here are some of the usual suspects.

The Asoociation [sic] for Better Living and Education Inc.? Check. (Shame about the typo, though.) ABLE of course, is an umbrella group for a number of Scientology-rooted organisations, as you can see from this website.

Narconon? Check. The disastrous drug rehab programme based on Hubbard's quack treatment features no less than five times:
The Commission has revoked the licences for three of them; a fourth voluntarily, leaving just one still standing.1

In any case, Australia seems to have woken up to the dangers of the organisation. As Tony Ortega reported in February, campaigners in Warburton, in the state of Victoria, stopped one opening there.

Criminon, Scientology's prison programme, does not feature on the charities list. But Applied Scholastics Western Australia is out there, running its Hubbard-devised reeding-iz-eezee programme.

And so on, and so forth; you get the idea. And no doubt there are more. But why should I have all the fun?

Settle down with cold drink and some munchies, open up your list of Scientology front groups and start punching them into the Commission's search engine.

Only don't go denouncing the horse rescuers or the bulldog breeders just because they put “Second Chance” in their title.
---
1   For those of you not lucky enough to have seen the documentary yet, Tony Ortega wrote a comprehensive series of article in the run-up to its March 29 HBO premier in the US. Start here for full details of the documentary and Gibney's interview subjects.
2  For a more detailed explanation of disconnection, see “Introduction to Disconnection” elsewhere at this site. For a particularly egregious example, see “The Henderson's Story”. Over at the Underground Bunker, Tony Ortega had returned to this subject again and again: take your pick from this list.
3   His April 8 post, second item: “Reporters asking better questions of Scientology celebrities”.
4   For details of the Charities Commission's decision see here.
5   If you want to know what's wrong with Narconon, have a look at the articles on the subject at this website; or search Tony Ortega's site for the string of lawsuits the organisation is facing in the United States; or look at the comprehensive website on the subject developed by Dave Touretzky and Chris Owen: Narconon Exposed.