The red velvet rope fronts a spectacular office - one so ornate it looks out of place in the plain but well-kept building. Behind the massive desk, the black office chair is tilted slightly to the right, as if its occupant had just stepped out to lunch. A glance down to the nameplate, however, shows the name of a man - L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology - who has been dead for 15 years.
An office similar to this one in Ann Arbor is a staple in all Church of Scientology buildings since the 1960s, when Hubbard was Scientology's executive director and requested an office when he came to town. One could be coming to Battle Creek, along with the church, this spring. The Church of Scientology is in the final stages of buying the former Hart Hotel built in 1930 by W.K. Kellogg. The structure has had various uses in recent decades and is now vacant.
The desk and the tradition behind it are only part of the unique nature of Scientology, a religion that has seen its share of critics, especially in recent years. Scientologists speak glowingly of how its teachings have drastically improved their lives, yet critics contend Scientology is a "destructive cult." The two sides paint sharply contrasting pictures.
Scientology officials say their staunch drug-free stance, which includes condemning all psychiatric drugs such as Prozac and Zoloft, has fueled a campaign against them that is funded by "vested interests," a term several Scientologists used to describe all critics.
"It is a multimillion dollar industry, and when you're a group that does not support that, you can run head-on into some opposition," said Mike Delaware, an executive secretary with the church now based in Ann Arbor. "Those that oppose us usually have a vested interest behind it."
It's the "vested interests," Scientology officials say, who are viciously spreading lies that range from people being held against their will to the church luring members to give it thousands upon thousands of dollars. Critics, including some in the mental health profession and some former members, speak of innocent lives being ruined and bankrupted by the church.
"It all seems very innocent when you first start, and then you're needed to fight psychiatry, fight the big drug companies, fight the government because they're taking away man's only chance at freedom," said Jesse Prince, a former Scientologist who has come under heavy criticism from church leaders.
"A person quickly gets into a frame of mind that they're in a battle." Critics speak of being on "24-hour watch" by church officials, who respond by producing voluminous documents about the critics' criminal histories and describing them as "paid anti-Scientologists." So where does the truth lie?
Success stories are in abundance.
There's Jai McFall of Milan, about 20 miles south of Ann Arbor, who turned to Scientology while going through a divorce and says she improved her landscaping business because of the church; Teresa Atkinson, who now lives in Toledo, Ohio, who credits the teachings of Scientology for giving her the courage and will to end a struggling business relationship while living in Italy in the early 1980s; and several others with whom the Enquirer spoke at length.
"Scientology gives you the knowingness you need to help yourself," Atkinson said. "When you see it works, you want to know more and you want to know more. If you are done with yourself, you want to start helping others." John Stout and John Green, both members of Scientology for more than 25 years, say Hubbard's teachings on the method of study have proven extremely beneficial.
Stout, who owns the computer firm Stout Systems, first read Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, the foundation of Hubbard's writings that began Scientology, in 1975. The Ann Arbor resident has been an active member of the church since and says the teachings have helped him become a successful businessman - something he hadn't envisioned after graduating from the University of Michigan with a master's degree in music.
Stout says he has spent money on various Scientology courses and auditing sessions, yet he said he could not estimate how much over the past 25 years. "It's insignificant to me," Stout said. "... Anything I have spent has been rewarded for more than I have spent. I have been able to make more money because of the teachings of Scientology."
Like Stout, Green, of Flint, attributes his success as a learning consultant to learning how to study through a Scientology course called "The Student Hat." "I thought I knew how to study. After all, I was a college graduate. What more can you learn about the subject?" said Green, who had taught math and chemistry to middle school students in the early 1970s. "I discovered I hardly knew anything about the subject at all, and most of what I had learned, I learned was false."
Green has since worked as a consultant, mostly for General Motors and its vendors, using Hubbard's study techniques to help teach employees new policies. "I've spent darn near 25 years now using basically what I learned in the first course to build my career," Green said. "Once you've learned how to study, you begin to tackle life. It's basically how to handle life, that's what all the courses are about."
Around the same time Stout and Green found Scientology, Stacy Brooks did as well. Brooks was an aspiring writer in Atlanta in 1975, struggling a bit as many do. She recalls having dinner with some people who were Scientologists and mentioning some of the problems she was having. They suggested she take some courses that could help her communicate better and get her career off the ground.
"They seem to have whatever it is you're needing," Brooks said. She began with four free lectures and paid $50 for a communications course - the first course most people take in Scientology. She then went through some "auditing" sessions, a type of therapy that uses an Electropsychometer (known as an E-meter) to measure a student's mental state or changing mental state using a small electric current that runs into the body.
The E-meter helps identify thoughts, such as a traumatic childhood experience, that need to be addressed to help the student get past that event or fear, said Margarita Davis, executive director of the Church of Scientology Ann Arbor.
After several auditing sessions, "gradually, my whole life sort of became oriented around Scientology," Brooks said. She started growing emotionally apart from family and friends. She then physically moved away, joining the Scientology staff in Los Angeles later that year.
"There were a lot of very stringent rules, very long hours, people not being able to sleep a lot, people being given a diet of rice and beans if they didn't earn enough money (through recruiting) for Scientology," Brooks said. "I didn't agree with it, but I thought it was just people who didn't understand what Scientology was supposed to be. "I tried to get high enough in the organization to teach people what Scientology was supposed to be."
Brooks says she then tried to speak out about conditions, but was told to be quiet and was threatened with separation from her husband. "It became a very closed world," Brooks said. "If something was a violation of your civil rights or your human rights, you weren't allowed to go to anyone outside of Scientology for any recourse." The couple then began to play by the rules, Brooks said, and both were promoted to work as assistants to those in the upper levels of Scientology.
It was then, Brooks claims, they saw the "real" Scientology. "It's a very powerful, very wealthy scam which even people in the lower levels of Scientology don't know about," Brooks said. Brooks now lives in Clearwater, Fla., and works as president of the Lisa McPherson Trust - just across the street from Scientology's flagship building in the waterfront town.
The trust is named after a woman whom some critics charge was starved by members of the Church of Scientology in Clearwater. The church denies the allegation, and criminal charges against the church were dropped in June. A civil wrongful death suit is still pending in Florida.
The trust's mission statement: "To expose the abusive and destructive practices of the Church of Scientology and help those who have been victimized by it." Brooks says Scientology will try to silence its critics with allegations of criminal wrongdoing.
"What you're getting is a very carefully orchestrated plan to make us look like criminals," she said. "We are characterized as criminals because we are criticizing and exposing the abuses and deceptions that are going on within Scientology. "Scientology is not willing to listen to critics. All they want to do is destroy their critics."
"I've heard what Stacy says and she lies through her teeth," said John Carmichael, who is president of the Church of Scientology of New York and handles some public relations work for the church. "It really exasperates me because it's so far from the truth."
Carmichael has been involved with the church for more than 30 years and says the church would not be around today if allegations such as those made by Brooks and by Prince -- also a Lisa McPherson Trust employee who described similar experiences in the church -- were true.
"The Church of Scientology would've been swept away years ago if people were being held against their will," Carmichael said. "It's just not happening." Carmichael calls the trust a "hate group" and added, "I think anyone who makes a career out of harming a good group that helps people is evil. "They are paid to say bad things about the Church of Scientology." But policies dealing with Scientology's detractors did exist.
Among Hubbard's writings are thousands of policy letters, which are indexed and available at any Church of Scientology. One letter dated Feb. 25, 1966, and not included in the index is titled Attacks on Scientology. Davis, who joined the church staff in 1989, said she was not aware of such policy. Carmichael was.
"It's from a time when Scientology was under a very real attack from the United States government, when the Church of Scientology was on the United States government enemies list," Carmichael said. The policy details investigating those who are speaking against Scientology and feeding the findings to the press.
"It was a time when we were growing up tough, from a time that said, 'Find out who's attacking you and why,' and we still do," Carmichael said. "If someone wants to make a career out of attacking Scientology, we want to know why." Carmichael describes the motives of Brooks and Prince simply.
"They look back and see how they were genuinely helping people and making a difference in people's lives and they want that back," Carmichael said. "They weren't afraid to leave. Anybody can leave Scientology, and they did. "Then, five years later, they decided they had a hard time leaving and decided to be paid anti-Scientologists."
In a broader sense, Scientologists contend that much of the criticism can be traced back to Scientology's stance against drugs. "We don't believe that you can achieve spiritual awareness if you are on any mind-altering drugs, including psychiatric drugs, and that's not a very popular opinion with the drug companies," Delaware said, adding the church does not support its parishioners using psychologists or psychiatrists.
The church, through several other nonprofit extension agencies, is fighting against war and crime, which also puts them at the forefront for attacks, Scientologists say.
"If you look at those three aims, a world without war, a world without insanity, a world without crime, and you look at how much money is in those three interests ... we are talking big money," said Laurie Gailunas, a Scientology minister who represents the church on the Interfaith Roundtable of Washtenaw County, which includes 31 churches in the county.
"I've seen for myself over the years, Scientology is really making inroads in these areas. "Every single attack can be traced back to someone's money. Follow the money." Prince, now executive vice president of the Lisa McPherson Trust, said Scientology officials have been trying to follow the money of the trust in the organization's 13 months of existence. That's why he says he won't disclose how much he and the trust's other six full-time employees are paid. "It's really a matter of privacy," Prince said.
Yet some small details of the trust's funding by Robert Minton came out in court last week in a case involving the trust and church officials violating court orders to stay more than 10 feet away from each other. Minton, a retired New England investment banker who now lives in Clearwater and is chairman of the trust, told the court he has given $1.3 million to the trust since January 2000.
"I can tell you that less than 20 percent ($260,000) of that goes to staff pay," Prince said. "We're not getting rich here like they say we are. "What makes this trust so expensive is us in court with them, us having to pay lawyers to be in court with them."
Carmichael said the church will aggressively try to protect itself from "lies and false statements" in court, and he described the trust as the primary source of those statements. "The point is, if one person is dissuaded from getting help because of the lies these people told, as far as I'm concerned, that's too many," Carmichael said. In terms of following money headed into the church, Scientology officials and some parishioners acknowledge the services are not cheap, likening it to the cost of a college education.
Students are working to reach what the Church of Scientology calls the state of "Clear," and can take a variety of different classes and services to reach that level, Davis said. That can cost between $19,000 and more than $30,000, depending on the route the student takes, Davis said.
The money members pay the church is among the things Steve Hassan [Warning: Steve Hassan is not recommended by this Web site. Read the detailed disclaimer to understand why.], a licensed mental health professional in Massachusetts, follows. He says he's counseled hundreds of former Scientologists in his 23 years in the field and sees the same patterns again and again.
"Essentially, this is a group that wants to take over the world," said Hassan, author of several books including Combatting Cult Mind Control. "This is a group that will extract large sums of money from people, this is a group that will encourage its members to disconnect, that's their term, from family members and friends that raise questions about the church."
The term "disconnect" is referred to in different court cases involving the Church of Scientology, including Padgett v. Padgett, a divorce and child custody case in Kentucky stemming from a man who left the church while his wife stayed. The man then sought custody of his two children, both raised in Scientology.
Potential parishioners are lured in by Scientologists whom Hassan says claim to have all the answers people need in life. "They often act friendly and whatever you're into, they'll push it. If you're into making more money, they'll push that. If you're looking for a better relationship with a person, they'll push that. They'll get you in the door and they'll begin controlling things."
"I think on one level, one could grant it status as a religion, but I look at it as a destructive cult." Delaware said the church, which has run more than 25 advertisements in the Battle Creek Enquirer since late December, will not recruit anyone who is not interested in the Scientology material.
"The only recruiting that would occur for new staff would be for people who are interested in it," Delaware said. "If they are interested in it, they'll come in. If they aren't, they won't. "It would be no different than any other religion."
Hassan claims Scientology leaders have tried to destroy his career and reputation for speaking against them. "They are very effective at creating fear," Hassan said. "I've had private investigators follow me. They go through my trash. They've threatened to sue me."
Hassan's latest book, Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves, features his "BITE Model" to determine if a group practices mind control. The model tests to determine if the group practices behavior, information, thought and emotional control. If it has components of all four, which Hassan says Scientology does, the group practices "destructive mind control."
Hassan said the mind control is geared to make money for the church. "Typically it runs in the tens of thousands into the hundreds of thousands to climb the 'Bridge to Total Freedom,' that's what they call it," Hassan said. "Unlike legitimate religions where they tell you what the beliefs are up front, this religion makes you pay and get through these processes before they tell you what the beliefs are."
Scientology officials contend there's no mystery about their beliefs, saying all of the philosophies are in Hubbard's massive volumes of writings. "We don't have any secrets. Nothing is shrouded," said Davis, the executive director in Ann Arbor.
"Anything is available in the books. All you have to do is read the books. Many of our critics have not even bothered to read a book." Critics will always be there, said Delaware, who strongly disagrees with those who use the word "cult" to describe Scientology.
"The term 'cult' has been used to describe religions throughout the centuries," Delaware said. "The term 'cult' does not apply to Scientology. Cults don't survive after their founders pass, and ours has."
Delaware and other Scientology officials encourage people to simply pick up a book and read it or visit a Church of Scientology before criticizing something they know little about.
"There's nothing mysterious about it," said Andrew David Harrison, a Royal Oak attorney and Scientologist who is now chief executive officer of Troy-based Good Herbs Inc., which makes more than 500 health food products. "Just pick up a book and read it, go to a service -- it's a very open thing."