A young man looked for answers, found a 'money-hungry cult'

St. Petersburg Times/November 13, 2011

How much do you have in the bank?

"Anywhere else in society … it's a very rude, invasive, kind of offensive question," Brian Culkin said.

Not in the Church of Scientology.

Culkin balked when fundraisers for the International Association of Scientologists questioned him about his bank balance in the summer of 2009. But they kept pressing.

Why don't you just tell us?

What are you hiding?

Culkin trusted his new friends at Scientology's Flag Land Base in Clearwater, so he gave in and told them.

The six-figure sum got the attention of Flag's "registrars," the religious workers who collect payments for church services and solicit donations for Scientology causes. No matter how much he gave, Culkin said they pestered him almost every day to give more. He ended up spending $330,000 on church services and donations during the year he spent in Scientology.

Large groups of registrars for the IAS repeatedly approached him, pressing him to give. Another registrar hounded him to spend thousands on counseling. One day, two church staffers from different departments tugged at his arms in a hallway, competing for a donation.

Scientology said it could not verify Culkin's story, but nevertheless called it "embellished." It described him as an apostate, someone who can't be trusted to tell the truth about his former church.

"What I got was not what I expected," said Culkin, 32, who is seeking to be repaid some of what he spent.

"I got a money-hungry cult that didn't in any way, shape or form live up to what the basic philosophy of Scientology puts out there."

Like many who find Scientology, Culkin was looking for answers to life's big questions.

He grew up in the Boston suburb of Braintree, an honor roll student, a whiz on the basketball court, one of the popular kids. On the inside he felt like a contrarian, always wanting to march to a different drummer.

After graduating from the prestigious prep school Thayer Academy, Culkin went to Skidmore College in New York, majoring in American studies and starring, at guard, as the school's all-time leading scorer in basketball. Culkin, 6 feet 2, later played professionally in Europe but suffered a career-ending hip injury that got him interested in the healing powers of yoga.

Back in Boston, he and a partner started a mortgage and real estate development business. Financial success followed.

Culkin recalls stopping by Scientology's Boston church out of curiosity in 2005. He left with a copy of Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health by church founder L. Ron Hubbard. But he didn't go back to the church even after staffers there called him.

With his 30th birthday less than two years away, he grew anxious and began searching for a different path in life. In late 2007, he sold his business and unloaded several properties before the economy soured, banking the proceeds.

Deciding on a "total adventure," he drove to California and spent a year at the Esalen Institute, a picturesque oceanside retreat in Big Sur devoted to alternative education. He studied spirituality and yoga, taught meditation and made daily pilgrimages to a nearby monastery.

He returned to Boston for a Christmas visit in 2008, still on a "spiritual journey." Financially secure and unsure what to do next, he was up for anything.

That's when Scientology "just fell into my lap," he said.

The director of the Boston church called Culkin and once again invited him in. This time Culkin did the "Purification Rundown," a regimen of exercise, saunas and vitamins that, according to Scientology, removes toxins from the body.

He followed up that spring with other introductory courses and counseling. He found Hubbard's ideas fascinating, particularly the founder's long and detailed definition of the spirit, which was unlike anything he'd seen in Christianity or Buddhism. He wanted to explore Scientology's upper spiritual levels.

A New York-based "Flag service consultant" named Charlie Bills pushed him to buy "the L's," an intensive counseling regimen available only in Clearwater. The price tag: $80,000. Culkin was miffed by Bills' aggressive approach, and says he was well aware that Scientology had its problems. That intrigued him all the more.

"I thought, 'Well, God, if they're saying all these bad things, I want to figure out for myself if that's actually true.' "

Culkin had been told to hail a Scientology van when he arrived at Tampa International Airport in June 2009. But two young church staffers surprised him at baggage claim, took him to a car and drove toward Scientology's headquarters in Clearwater.

Within minutes, one of them turned around in the front seat and asked him to donate $35,000 to the "Super Power" building, the church's cavernous downtown landmark.

Culkin declined, but the staffer wouldn't stop.

He guessed she was 16. She smothered him in compliments, but he wondered if she'd report him for not donating. He feared she might cry if he got angry. He wanted her off his back.

"I finally said, 'Yeah, okay,' " and agreed to give $5,000.

She praised him, then asked for his credit card. She used her cellphone to ring up the charge, explaining that she was racing to beat the church's weekly reporting deadline — every Thursday at 2 p.m. sharp.

As the car pulled up to Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel, another church worker at the curb insisted Culkin pay the $1,000 balance on his accommodations bill. He told him it couldn't wait — again because of the deadline.

An hour later, Flag registrar Dave Foster pressed him to pay in advance for extensive counseling programs that would take him most of the way up Scientology's "Bridge to Total Freedom."

Culkin declined, but Foster never gave up. For the next seven months he cornered Culkin around the Flag campus or called him into his office at least three times a week.

Foster often became irritable, Culkin said, when he declined to buy the package, which totaled about $150,000.

"I'm not ready," Culkin told him. "Why am I a bad guy for not doing that?"

You promised you would buy, Foster said.

Yes, Culkin said, "but I didn't say I was going to do it today."

A longtime Sea Org member in his 70s, Foster often pressed the responsibility button: "You know, here I am sacrificing my life to save the planet and I need you to come on board and do it with me."

Even the church's most highly regarded figures — the counselors known as "auditors" — tried to wring cash out of Culkin. He said one of them, Nina Palmer, twice pressed him to make a $50,000 donation to the IAS, which helps spread Scientology and protects it from threats such as lawsuits and hostile governments.

It's the right thing to do, she said.

Maybe someday, Culkin told her. But he hadn't worked in a couple of years. He had to conserve his money.

"She really wouldn't back off — 10 minutes going back and forth."

Culkin said she made both pitches immediately after counseling sessions in an auditing room, a space Scientology describes as sacred.

"It's the ultimate violation of what an auditor's supposed to be doing for you," he said. "An auditor's not interested in money — a real auditor."

The church disagreed, saying: "Ministers soliciting donations from their congregations is not only appropriate, it is a constitutionally protected form of religious activity." The statement compared it to priests, rabbis and ministers asking church members for donations.

"I grew up in an Irish Catholic family. I was an altar boy. I still go to Mass occasionally," Culkin said. "But I've never in my life had a priest personally bring me into his office and say, 'We need $50,000 right now.' "

Other staffers who worked as IAS registrars approached Culkin wherever he went: in the waiting room to receive counseling, on the sidewalk in front of the Fort Harrison, near the pool.

Culkin recalled several such instances in the church's Oak Cove building overlooking Clearwater Harbor. Usually he stood in the corner of a room while eight, 10, sometimes 12 people clustered around him.

Other times they were seated at a table, each telling him how wonderful he was. One group included five or so registrars, two "ethics" officers and about four high-ranking parishioners, he said. Their pitch:

Scientology had to expand but was under attack from the media, the psychiatric industry and foreign governments. The IAS needed $50,000 — that day.

Other people were refinancing their homes for the cause. Why couldn't he?

Finally, the IAS wore him down. Culkin donated $50,000 in increments, the last one in November 2009, making him an IAS Patron.

"One morning I'd wake up and be like, 'This is a good thing. This is a selfless act,' " he said. "The next morning I'd wake up and I'd go: 'I can't believe how dumb you are, Brian. You are really stupid.' "

The church confirmed that Culkin made multiple donations while in Clearwater but said fundraisers never surrounded him. "Fundraising at Flag is done in accordance with church policy and in a respectful and professional manner," the church said.

Before long, IAS staffers drew their newly minted Patron into the selling game, twice bringing him along while they pressed for donations from other Flag parishioners. They billed him as a young, successful guy progressing nicely in Scientology.

He's a Patron. You can be one, too.

It worked so well, one high-ranking registrar nicknamed him "Golden Boy."

Toward the end of 2009, the staff's fixation on fundraising turned Culkin off.

He called Charlie Bills, the church consultant who had signed him up for Flag counseling.

Culkin told him: "Dude, you sent me down to this place and all people want from me is money."

He said Bills acknowledged the problem but was furious with him for giving in and not saving his money for counseling.

Culkin began to notice that Scientologists accepted the constant money pressure as a quirk of their church, a necessary evil never openly criticized.

One day over coffee, he confided to a Scientologist friend who had grown up in the church: "I'm in a room with 12 people, they're trying to get money from me and I'm saying no — and no one's listening." He didn't know how to handle it.

"You have to stand your ground and tell them no," the friend told him.

Her answer stuns him now.

Parishioners should feel supported, Culkin said, "not trying to fight people back."

One night in late January 2010, three IAS staffers sat down with Culkin at the Fort Harrison's poolside restaurant.

This was only weeks after he became a $50,000 man — an IAS Patron. At the time, Flag's IAS registrars had promised to stop asking him for money until he returned to Boston and settled into a new career.

Now, with no apologies, they were breaking their word. They pressed him to become a "Patron With Honors" and give another $50,000.

Culkin told them no.

They suggested he give them the money and come with them on an upcoming trip to Russia. He could help solicit Russian Scientologists and get a cut of the proceeds. He would make his $50,000 back and then some.

Again Culkin declined.

They wanted him to go on stage that evening at the weekly Flag "graduation," where parishioners got certificates for completing programs. They would announce his new "Patron With Honors" status and he could bask in the applause of fellow Scientologists.

No way, Culkin said.

He had to, they told him. They had already told their supervisors he would do it. They surrounded him, begging.

"They were having a full-blown meltdown in front of me," Culkin said. "They were like, 'Brian, you don't understand … If you don't go on stage, we are in serious trouble.' They were, like, hyperventilating."

Some had become his friends; he felt sorry for them.

Finally they asked Culkin to just go on stage and they would figure it out later. Culkin agreed. He even said he would help them out in Russia. But he made it clear: There was no way he was giving them another $50,000.

He grudgingly mounted the stage in the Fort Harrison auditorium and was announced as a new "Patron With Honors." Someone handed him a bouquet of flowers. Hundreds of Scientologists clapped and gave a lusty cheer.

"I walked off the stage and almost instantly thetly they had this paperwork ready for me to sign that said I had agreed to doing this," Culkin said. "It was a bait and switch basically."

That night and for the next three days, several staffers pressed him incessantly for the $50,000.

He said a top IAS fundraiser, Charmaine Roger, called him into an office and pushed for the name of his financial adviser so he could wire the money to the church. Culkin told her no.

A prominent Scientology fundraiser, Steve Besio, played the good cop, Culkin said. Donate the money, he advised, and it would all work out.

Culkin said he felt stalked.

The church disputes this account, saying the fundraisers involved have no recollection of the incident. It stated: "IAS fundraisers are enthusiastic but always polite and respectful and fully understanding of 'no.' "

Angry at the church but still a fan of Scientology as a philosophy, Culkin said his interest hung by a thread. He had given the church a year of his life and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"I was looking for something to give me some hope again, to find a reason to stay and feel like I hadn't made this huge mistake."

He told the staff he needed to return home to gather the $50,000. Maybe he would join them in Russia.

"Culkin clearly did not feel too much pressure as he never made the donation," the church said.

The pressure was the last straw, Culkin said.

In February 2010, he went home to Boston and never came back.

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