LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
DEBORAH AMOS, HOST: And I'm Deborah Amos. The Church of Scientology is embattled overseas. German officials view Scientology as a dangerous cult. Germany is trying to suppress the church and has banned Scientologists from public sector jobs. A variety of court actions have also been taken against the organization in Canada, Italy, Spain, and Greece.
WERTHEIMER: Many Scientologists regard all this as the sort of persecu- tion any young church undergoes on the road to becoming an established religion. And whatever its critics say, Scientology is a religion. It has tax-exempt status in the United States. It also has ordained ministers, a recognized creed, a literature of its own, established places of worship and regular services. Despite its troubles with foreign governments, the Los Angeles-based church says it is booming. It claims to have eight million members around the world, though observers say the numbers are far lower.
NPR's John Burnett has this special report on the Church of Scientology.
JOHN BURNETT, NPR REPORTER: In biblical terminology, Scientologists would consider themselves the chosen people. Only Scientology, they believe, can save the human race. A Scientology minister concluded a recent sermon with this quote from the church's late founder, L. Ron Hubbard.
UNIDENTIFIED SCIENTOLOGIST MINISTER: The 2,000-year cycle of ignorance, cruelty and bloodshed is over. Reenter into a golden age. We are golden men. We are the new men, the new spiritual leaders of earth. You are the creators of new country and new wealth. New people and new life begin.
SOUND OF BANGING AND DOOR OPENING
BURNETT: There is a public and a private side to Scientology. Celebrity Center Hollywood is the image of glittering success the organization wishes to project. It stands as a monument to the church's superstars: Tom Cruise and John Travolta, Mimi Rogers and Kirstie Alley, musicians Isaac Hayes and Chick Corea, and dozens of lesser-known celebrities. They come to this French chateau-style mansion with its gourmet restaurant, saunas, and private theater with its security guards on mountain bikes to study Scientology and, as church official Janet Weiland says, just to get away.
JANET WEILAND, CHURCH OF SCIENTOLOGY OFFICIAL: This church is particu- larly geared for people that are active in the arts. They can come here and it's very peaceful. And they can just study or get counseling or just kind of rest and relax if they want to, so they're not disturbed by, you know, people trying to access them as people in the arts.
BURNETT: Upstairs in one of the posh hotel rooms, seated at a table, wearing a velvet dress and an eight-point Scientology cross is Bart Simpson, rather, Nancy Cartwright, the voice of the Fox TV cartoon character.
NANCY CARTWRIGHT, VOICE OF BART SIMPSON, "THE SIMPSONS", FOX TELEVISION: Once I started it, I said, "Oh, my God. This is cool." You know, this is something that I've been looking for a long time. And I just started doing - there's all kinds of courses here that you can do. You know, people hear about, well, what is like? It's not like a real religion. It's - it's different. I hear, you know, you don't pray, you do courses...
BURNETT: Nancy Cartwright says she got into Scientology eight years ago looking for a spiritual life and a husband. She says she found both.
CARTWRIGHT: ... yourself spiritually, that when you read - for me anyway -when I read what L. Ron Hubbard has spent years and years writing because, you know, he - he just was incredibly prolific - that when I read this stuff, it totally makes sense to me.
BURNETT: Lafayette Ronald Hubbard was a successful science fiction writer until the late 1940s when he brought his imagination to bear on the nature of man. First came his book "Dianetics," the modern science of mental health, which evolved into Scientology, an applied religious philosophy. Scientology seeks to explain negative spiritual forces in the world and offers salvation from those forces through a technique that's been compared to psychotherapy. Scientology teaches that people are burdened by painful memories of past experiences called "engrams".
For example, a person gets hit by a car. As he's lying on the ground, unconscious, a bystander says, "He'll never walk again." When sure enough he cannot walk, Scientology says he's been crippled, not by a physical ailment, but by an engram lodged in his unconscious mind.
Reverend Heber Jentzsch, president of the Church of Scientology Interna- tional.
HEBER JENTZSCH, PRESIDENT, CHURCH OF SCIENTOLOGY INTERNATIONAL: You start to play the videotape, or the replay, of that unconscious moment in which everything was recorded. And by viewing it again, you then find out wha... it was affecting you. And by looking at that, it alleviates that condition.
BURNETT: The central practice of Scientology is a self-help confessional known as "auditing". The individual sits at a table holding two metal tubes attached to a device called an e-meter, which measures emotional response like a lie detector.
A counselor, called an "auditor", leads the individual through these painful memories over a period of weeks, months, or years until the person has erased his engrams. Scientology says he is then clear and he can enjoy unlimited creative power, physical health, and professional success.
Barbara Wiseman is a 26-year-old believer who describes Scientology as nothing more than a bag of tools.
BARBARA WISEMAN, SCIENTOLOGIST: Very workable, amazing tools that are incredibly sane, incredibly simple when you get down to the basics of them and that work. You take them out. You use them in life. You improve your life. That's it.
BURNETT: Well, that's partially it. The Church of Scientology has a complex theology, based not on God, but on a concept L. Ron Hubbard called "thetans". These are the immortal spirits that inhabit all of us and which have reincarnated for billions of years.
Hubbard spoke to a skeptical BBC reporter in this rare television interview in 1968.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP OF BBC TELEVISION INTERVIEW OF L. RON HUBBARD)
BBC REPORTER: Do you believe that you have lived before?
L. RON HUBBARD, FOUNDER OF SCIENTOLOGY: Now to answer that question would be very unfair.
REPORTER: Scientologists believe they've lived before, though, don't they?
HUBBARD: Oh, yes. As a matter of fact, it's quite interesting that exercises can be conducted which demonstrate conclusively that there are memories which exist prior to this life.
BURNETT: Scientology's stated goal is to clear the planet, to make everyone a Scientologist. But the church also believes that Hubbard's teachings in the fields of literacy and drug rehabilitation can solve the world's social problems.
Scientologists tutor in schools and prisons as part of a program called the World Literacy Crusade. They've established residential substance abuse facilities under the name Narconon.
On the whole, the church quotes its own statistics about the program's success rates. Nevertheless, some public officials have complimented Narc-Anon for its benefits to prison parolees. And the literacy program has won praise from some community leaders. J.B. Payton (ph), director of the M.L.K. Center in South Memphis says in 1995 when Scientologists volunteered to tutor at-risk students, he didn't care what church they were with.
J.B. PAYTON, DIRECTOR, M.L.K. CENTER: But if I'm drowning and you've got the rope, I'm not going to ask you what you belong to, I'm just going to grab the rope. And I think that's what they offered us. They offered us a rope. I thought that the tools they used for teaching reading and self-help and motivational things to students was excellent.
BURNETT: Memphis Public Schools eventually dropped the World Literacy Crusade over concerns that tutors were teaching Scientology. There's a pattern here. Scientology is constantly working to shed its cult image and win mainstream acceptance with its humanitarian programs, neighbor- hood watch groups, charity fund-raisers, and countless other community projects.
But the public still has a negative perception of Scientology. Last year, pollster George Barna conducted a national religious survey of popular attitudes toward seven faith groups. Scientology came in next to last. Only atheists fared worse. Over the past four decades, the Church of Scientology has earned a reputation for belligerence towards its adversaries, both real and perceived. A long list of journalists, judges, academics, lawyers, and former members have reported a pattern of reprisals when they displeased the church.
In some cases, it takes the form of lawsuits or private detectives looking for dirt. In other cases, people say odd things happen to them when they run afoul of the church: they're followed; they get crank phone calls; their trash is stolen; and they're the subjects of bogus police reports. For its part, the church denies its involvement in dirty tricks. From the beginning, L. Ron Hubbard was convinced that a global conspiracy of psychiatrists, newspapers, and government agencies was out to destroy Scientology. Though Hubbard died in 1986, what observers call a "siege mentality" still permeates the church.
Consider how Reverend Heber Jentzsch, the church's chief spokesman, responds to a question about their confidential higher teachings.
JENTZSCH: I understand what your purpose is, which is to destroy Scientology. I understand you want to destroy religion. I understand you want to create chaos among the people who - who believe it. I know that that's your purpose. I understand that. I disagree with it.
BURNETT: L. Ron Hubbard considered all critics to be, in his words, "merchants of chaos." Here's what he wrote: "People attack Scientology. I never forget it. Always even the score. The law can be used very easily to harass. If possible," he continued, "ruin him utterly. If you are attacked, attack much more forcefully, artfully, and arduously."
A case in point: In December, 1995, a 36-year-old Scientologist named Lisa McPherson who police described as emotionally distraught, died after spending more than two weeks in what a Scientology spokesman called "voluntary isolation" at the church's spiritual retreat in Clearwater, Florida. Dr. Joan Wood, the Pinellas County medical examiner, concluded that McPherson died of a blood clot brought on by severe dehydration and bed rest. Furthermore, she said the woman went for five to 10 days without liquids, had been in a coma before she died, and her body was covered with bruises and insect bites. Lisa McPherson's aunt has sued Scientology for wrongful death. State and local police are investigating it as a suspicious death.
Scientology's response has been to call the police investigation "harassment" and the medical examiner "a hateful liar." In January, the church sued Dr. Wood in order to get access to the forensic evidence and conduct its own medical probe into McPherson's death.
A Scientology attorney did not return phone calls to NPR. But church lawyers have been quoted as saying McPherson was well cared for. She was conscious until shortly before her death. And she may have died of a fast-acting staph infection.
Pat Anderson is the lawyer representing the medical examiner. Anderson has run up against Scientology before. And she calls them "the masters of Rambo litigation."
PAT ANDERSON, ATTORNEY FOR JOAN WOOD: If you are not a member of the church or an active supporter of the church, you are fair game for the church. And they will use litigation to silence their critics. They do not tolerate contrary opinion.
BURNETT: In another recent example of the church's use of courts, Scientology's long-time foe, the Cult Awareness Network, or CAN, filed for bankruptcy last year after being sued 50 times by the church and once by an individual represented by a Scientology attorney. The bankruptcy court sold off the anti-cult groups name and a portion of its assets to new owners.
SOUND OF TELEPHONE RINGING
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN ANSWERING PHONE: Hello, CAN.
BURNETT: Hi, this is John Burnett. I'm a reporter with National Public Radio...
Today the Cult Awareness Network is owned and answered by Scientologists, though callers are not told that.
WOMAN: I run a hotline here. And it is a non-denominational, non-profit organization that runs it...
BURNETT: International Church President Heber Jentzsch says the old CAN deserved to disappear because its deprogrammers were kidnappers. On the issue of lawsuits:
JENTZSCH: We have a perfect right to go to the courts of this country and to protect our rights. And we have done so. Now, if people wish to characterize that as being an attack on critics when some of them have actually sued us and we've gone to defend ourselves, well then that's hardly - hardly fits the equation you've just given me.
No, no, the church has had its critics. And I say they're very, very few. Have we gone to court? A few times.
BURNETT: At one time, the church had at least 100 lawsuits pending against the Internal Revenue Service alone.
On Sunday, "The New York Times" documented Scientology's elaborate strategy to gain tax exemption from the IRS. In addition to lawsuits, the church used private eyes to investigate IRS officials and tried to publicize damaging information about the agency.
The 30-year war between Scientology and the IRS ended in 1993 when the agency ruled that Scientology, indeed, qualified as a tax-exempt reli- gious organization.
CHOIR SINGING: Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me. With God as our father...
BURNETT: Today, the Church of Scientology has something to sing about: 150 church entities pay no federal income taxes and parishioners can write off all the money they spend on auditing and course work as donations.
CHOIR: Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.
BURNETT: Many former members have a hard time swallowing the notion of Scientology as a religion. Vaughn Young was a Scientologist for nearly 21 years, at one point serving as the church's national spokesman. He now testifies against the church as an expert witness.
Young, who used to be known as Reverend Young, recalls that in 1971, Hubbard ordered Scientology to transform itself into a church, in part to keep the increasingly-nosey federal government at bay.
VAUGHN YOUNG, FORMER NATIONAL SPOKESMAN FOR CHURCH OF SCIENTOLOGY: We had orders to create the image. We had to build chapels inside, start wearing these ministers collars turned around; we had to wear crosses, put up crosses around the organization. And we had these programs and that - that we knew were just a joke.
BURNETT: Church defectors say Scientology uses religion as a shield in order to acquire wealth. They say specially-trained church salesman called "registrars" pressure members to constantly move on to higher and more expensive courses, even if it means borrowing heavily. Auditing sessions can cost from $300 to $1000 an hour and must be purchased in 12-and-a-half hour chunks. Taped Hubbard lecture sets go for $100 to $2,000. E-meters run from $500 to $5000 dollars.
John is a 46-year-old engineer from Los Angeles who calls himself "a recovering Scientologist." He doesn't want to give his last name because he's afraid it might cause estrangement from his daughter who's still in the church. John estimates he and his wife spent about $100,000 in the 10 years they were Scientologists, at one point taking out a bank loan and a second mortgage on their home to pay for course work. And he says they did so willingly because at the time, they thought it was worth it.
JOHN, FORMER SCIENTOLOGIST: Some of this stuff can be used to the benefit of people. But I don't think that the approach the church taken - takes is going to get there. And I think that they have - any potential benefit that could have been derived from auditing has gotten perverted. I think the church is more about controlling people and accumulating money.
BURNETT: Heber Jentzsch responds that Scientologists, because their lives are transformed, tend to make more money and don't mind giving it to the church.
JENTZSCH: The difference with Scientology is that people feel their religion is worthwhile. And they do contribute to it. And they feel they do so because they get something out of it.
BURNETT: There is still another level to Scientology. When Scientologists reach what the church considers spiritual maturity, they pay thousands of dollars to read Hubbard's creation story. These so- called upper-level materials are so secretive, the church has sued maverick Internet users for posting them on the web.
A federal judge who heard one of those lawsuits last year summed up Scientology's highest beliefs this way - quote - "Scientologists believe that most human problems can be traced to lingering spirits of an extra- terrestrial people massacred by their ruler Xenu over 75 million years ago. These spirits attach themselves by clusters to individuals in the contemporary world causing spiritual harm and negatively influencing the lives of their hosts." - End quote.
These troublesome clusters are called "body thetans". And they must be exorcised through even more auditing in order for Scientologists to reach their state of enlightenment known as OT for "Operating Thetan."
When this creation story was brought up in an interview, Heber Jentzsch reacted this way.
REPORTER: ... creation...
JENTZSCH: Let me - let me - let me...
REPORTER: Let me - May I finish this quote, please?
JENTZSCH: No, no, no, wait a minute...
REPORTER: ... 75 million years ago...
JENTZSCH: Hold on. Hold on. First of all, you're using information from people who hate my religion without question. Secondly, I am bound by my own code not to discuss the levels that I study that I am part of in my religion. I have a right to do that. And I have a right to keep that sacrosanct.
BURNETT: Church critics say Scientology is hyper-sensitive about this story because if newcomers heard about Xenu and the body thetans, they'd never join in the first place. Church officials contend that they must protect these sacred scriptures because they're not intended to be heard out of context by people who are not spiritually-prepared for them.
Scholars who study new religions say this is actually not so unusual. There's ample precedent for secretiveness in different belief systems. The higher levels of Mormonism, for instance, are only accessible to those who meet what's called "the twelve steps of righteousness". Mystic or Kabbalistic Judaism has a tradition wherein certain interpretations of the Torah are only available to rabbis. And in the Hare Krishna religion, only spiritual masters may learn the intimate secrets of Krishna's life. Dr. Gordon Melton is an expert in new religions and editor of "The Encyclopedia of American Religions." He says Scientology belongs to this esoteric tradition of religion.
DR. GORDON MELTON, EDITOR, "THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF AMERICAN RELIGIONS": In a sense, Scientology follows a very time-honored tradition. It's a Masonic pattern. In Masonry, you - you go through 32, 33 degrees. And at each degree, you learn something new. That is not a popular pattern today in this information age where we kind of think that you ought to get the secrets up front.
BURNETT: The same could be said of the content of Hubbard's higher-level teachings, asserts Dr. Lonnie Kliever. He's also an expert in new religions and head of the Religious Studies Department at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Kliever says every creation story seems far-fetched to outsiders.
DR. LONNIE KLIEVER, RELIGIOUS STUDIES DEPARTMENT, SOUTHERN METHODIST UNIVERSITY: We're so familiar with the creation myths of Judaism and Christianity that the imagery does not strike us as strange or unusual. So when we look at Greek creation myths or indigenous creation myths or Scientology creation myths, they look so far off the wall.
BURNETT: Regarding Scientology's emphasis on money, Kliever points to his own upbringing as a Southern Baptist when he was trained to collect financial pledges from parishioners.
KLIEVER: We - we tend to think that mainstream religions operate completely independent of coercive or manipulative techniques. And we just haven't paid much attention if we believe that or we haven't been to church lately.
BURNETT: Kliever and Melton have both studied Scientology extensively. The church considers them to be sympathetic scholars and has asked both to testify as expert witnesses on its behalf. Even so, Gordon Melton finds that Scientology's history of retaliation against its critics tests his limits.
MELTON: Those of us who - who work in areas of religious liberty find ourselves in terms of - of Scientology very much like the ACLU was in defending communists in the '30s, that was a tough thing to do.
BURNETT: Lonnie Kliever says he's also troubled by what he calls Scientology's "mean streak". But he takes a broader approach. Religion, he teaches his students, is not necessarily a good thing.
KLIEVER: One of the things we need to understand is that religion deals with power in similar ways that politics and education deal with power. Religious organizations and religious traditions need to build into their fabric ways of limiting the abuse or the misuse of power. And I think Scientology as a religious organization needs as a next step of development to find ways to guarantee power is not abused.
BURNETT: New religions can gain respectability over time. Joseph Smith's Mormon Church and Mary Baker Eddy's Church of Christian Science are two examples. They have unorthodox beliefs and practices and had turbulent early histories. And both are now considered mainstream. Religion scholars, editorial writers, and former members suggest that when the Church of Scientology learns the responsible use of power, only then will it too achieve the acceptance it so relentlessly seeks.
This is John Burnett reporting.