Los Angeles -- The National Mental Health Association accused the Church of Scientology of attempting to recruit members under the guise of providing mental health counseling after last week's terrorist attacks.
"This is a very important and sensitive time," Michael M. Faenza, president and chief executive of the Alexandria, Va.-based NMHA said Monday. "I urge the Church of Scientology to stay out of mental health. The public needs to understand that the Scientologists are using this tragedy to recruit new members. They are not providing mental health assistance."
Scientology spokeswoman Janet Weiland said church volunteers who offered assistance to people following last week's attacks at the Pentagon and in New York City were upfront about their affiliation. The church added in a statement issued Monday night that all of its volunteers wore bright yellow t-shirts or jackets with "Scientology Volunteer Minister" printed in 4-inch letters on them.
"We reject and, indeed, are outraged by the NMHA's attempt to use false statements to create controversy in the midst of this tragedy," the statement said. "While thousands of people of good will are uniting to alleviate the suffering, NMHA officials are sowing discord."
The church, which said it has sent 759 volunteer ministers to New York since the attack, promised to deliver a letter to the NMHA on Tuesday protesting what it called "petty turf wars."
NMHA spokesman Mark Helmke said at least one television outlet, Fox News, publicized a toll-free number for the church last week as one to call for people seeking mental health counseling. A Fox official in New York confirmed the number was on the screen for about two hours.
"Someone who called that number found out what it was and then they called us immediately and then we took it down immediately," said the official, who declined to be quoted by name.
A press release sent to Fox identified the number as belonging to the National Mental Health Assistance crisis hot line.
"The National Mental Health Hot Line is open and available to anyone in need of help -- or anyone who would like to assist the victims," the release said. It made no mention of Scientology.
"Here they create a National Mental Health Assistance organization, with the same initials as our organization's and convince one major news outlet to post their mental health number, and what does it go to? It goes to a place where they are trying to get people to join Scientology," said Helmke. "It's clear they aren't trying to help people with mental health but to get them to join their cult," he said.