Listening to ex-Scientologists

dianeticsSay what you will about the Church of Scientology, but its members are tenacious. I have some friends who left the church 30 years ago and they are still occasionally contacted by members who encourage them to be careful with what they say. And what's interesting about that is that my friends actually have many positive things to say about the church and what they got out of it. Last year I highlighted a captivating three-part series on the church that ran in the St. Petersburg Times. The reporters spoke with four former members, some of whom were very high ranking, and wrote about their claims of mismanagement in the church. One former member had previously made news as the public relations official who was videotaped in a confrontation with a BBC reporter.

That series marked the first time a major paper had dealt substantively with claims of physical and mental abuse by Scientology's current leadership. It broke news and it gave the Church of Scientology ample space and time to respond to claims. For their part, church officials discounted all the former members' allegations as coming from poor performing employees who inflated their importance. To bolster their claim, the church opened up former members' "ethics files" and showed records of their "confessions, contritions and laments that the church keeps to document their failures."

This weekend, New York Times religion reporter Laurie Goodstein took on the issue. She speaks with two other former members who raise a separate complaint about the Church of Scientology:

Raised as Scientologists, Christie King Collbran and her husband, Chris, were recruited as teenagers to work for the elite corps of staff members who keep the Church of Scientology running, known as the Sea Organization, or Sea Org.

They signed a contract for a billion years -- in keeping with the church's belief that Scientologists are immortal. They worked seven days a week, often on little sleep, for sporadic paychecks of $50 a week, at most.

But after 13 years and growing disillusionment, the Collbrans decided to leave the Sea Org, setting off on a Kafkaesque journey that they said required them to sign false confessions about their personal lives and their work, pay the church thousands of dollars it said they owed for courses and counseling, and accept the consequences as their parents, siblings and friends who are church members cut off all communication with them.

Writing about the Church of Scientology can be difficult. The church takes a strong interest in its public relations and fiercely fights any negative stories that appear. And the claims made by former Scientologists are always strongly disputed by church officials. Goodstein handles this simply by quoting the opposing sides. She says that former members are calling for a Reformation. Here's a sample response from the church:

The church has responded to the bad publicity by denying the accusations and calling attention to a worldwide building campaign that showcases its wealth and industriousness. Last year, it built or renovated opulent Scientology churches, which it calls Ideal Orgs, in Rome; Malmo, Sweden; Dallas; Nashville; and Washington. And at its base here on the Gulf Coast of Florida, it continued buying hotels and office buildings (54 in all) and constructing a 380,000-square-foot mecca that looks like a convention center.

"This is a representation of our success," said the church's spokesman, Tommy Davis, showing off the building's cavernous atrium, still to be clad in Italian marble, at the climax of a daylong tour of the church's Clearwater empire. "This is a result of our expansion. It's pinch-yourself material."

Reading this story, I'm reminded of something I've said before about Goodstein. She manages to pack so much information into so few words. She writes very clearly and concisely. Here she gives a view from above:

Scientology is an esoteric religion in which the faith is revealed gradually to those who invest their time and money to master Mr. Hubbard's teachings. Scientologists believe that human beings are impeded by negative memories from past lives, and that by applying Mr. Hubbard's "technology," they can reach a state known as clear.

They may spend hundreds of hours in one-on-one "auditing" sessions, holding the slim silver-colored handles of an e-meter while an auditor asks them questions and takes notes on what they say and on the e-meter's readings.

By doing enough auditing, taking courses and studying Mr. Hubbard's books and lectures -- for which some Scientologists say they have paid as much as $1 million -- Scientologists believe that they can proceed up the "bridge to total freedom" and live to their full abilities as Operating Thetans, pure spirits. They do believe in God, or a Supreme Being that is associated with infinite potential.

The story allows Ms. Collbran to discuss her journey from a child raised in the church to a former member. It's a fascinating personal story that includes many of the reasons why they say they couldn't be members any more. One thing I learned from the piece was that Scientology doesn't permit Sea Orgs to have children. Ms. Collbran intentionally got pregnant and waited until the end of her first trimester to inform the church since, she said, she'd known workers who had been kicked out when they refused to have abortions.

Getting back to the issue of competing truth claims, I thought this was a good way to handle the competing claims of Mr. Collbran -- who says that Scientology is shrinking -- and those of the church. After quoting Mr. Collbran saying that the Ideal Org he set up in Johannesburg was nowhere near self-supporting, Goodstein talks to the church officials:

The church is vague about its membership numbers. In 11 hours with a reporter over two days, Mr. Davis, the church's spokesman, gave the numbers of Sea Org members (8,000), of Scientologists in the Tampa-Clearwater area (12,000) and of L. Ron Hubbard's books printed in the last two and a half years (67 million). But asked about the church's membership, Mr. Davis said, "I couldn't tell you an exact figure, but it's certainly, it's most definitely in the millions in the U.S. and millions abroad."

He said he did not know how to account for the findings in the American Religious Identification Survey that the number of Scientologists in the United States fell from 55,000 in 2001 to 25,000 in 2008.

I mentioned above that the former Scientologists I know have many good things to say about the church. In fact, some of them really think the media have done a horrible job explaining what's good about Scientology. Usually described as little more than Xenu and thetan science fiction, many former Scientologists say the auditing is a strong point. And they continue to use the auditing technology after they leave.

Goodstein actually gets into this a bit by quoting church detractors speaking highly of the "old" Church of Scientology and in this description. And Ms. Collbran says she still receives auditing from other Scientologists who defected. Mr. Collbran, on the other hand, says he wants nothing to do with the religion at all.

Whenever we cover stories about Scientology, we get quite a few comments from anonymous -- an anti-Scientology group mentioned in the story -- and church members. I'm curious what those two groups think about this series. I suspect that the church members might not be happy with this piece -- it's highly critical of the church -- but I'd like to know what the specific journalistic complaints are, if any.

Remember, we are interested in complaints about the journalism.

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