For scientologists, divorce is no simple matter

The New York Times/July 8, 2012

Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes pose in their wedding attire at the 15th-century Odescalchi Castle overlooking Lake Bracciano outside of Rome after their 2006 wedding. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS / File)

When Scientologists marry, the words conveyed in the church's wedding service typically contain plenty of warnings that couples are expected to uphold their commitments even when romance and good fortune wane: "Know that life is stark and often somewhat grim, and tiredness and fret and pain and sickness do beget a state of mind where spring romance is far away and dead."

Couples like Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise who are looking to end their marriages are expected to find — through the Scientology organization — ways of working things out. So divorce for Scientologists can often be a long and difficult process, according several former members of the church.

As in other religions, the ultimate dissolution of a marriage is "something that's taken up in a legal court," said the Rev. Ann Pearce, a spokeswoman for the Church of Scientology of Washington state. "That's between two individuals, just like anybody of any religion getting divorced," she said, adding, "There's no ceremony recognizing divorce in the Church of Scientology."

But along the way, former church members say, couples face unusual marital counseling sessions and are sometimes pressured to use in-house divorce lawyers.

One former church member who underwent this type of marital counseling is Carmen Llywelyn, 37, an actress and photographer who was once married to Jason Lee, best known for his starring role in the NBC comedy My Name Is Earl.

Llywelyn and Lee, a member of the Church of Scientology, married in 1995, and she joined the church, too. Five years later the marriage was falling apart, she said.

Before deciding to divorce, the couple agreed to pay for a form of counselling that Llywelyn said entails sitting in a room answering questions while hooked up to a device known as an E-meter, which Scientologists believe can detect unexpressed thoughts.

She said a chaplain, also known as an auditor, questioned them for hours.

"You do it until the needle is flat, until the sign on the machine doesn't read any more thoughts," she said. "They think that once you unload all these bad things, you're going to fall madly back in love with each other."

And when they didn't, Llywelyn said, she was assigned an in-house lawyer.

"Scientologists aren't allowed to sue each other," she said, because of a policy to contain any public disputes.

Pearce confirmed that the church offers counseling but declined to provide details, saying only, for further information, consult the website.

Similarly, Karin Pouw, a spokeswoman for the Church of Scientology International, offered only emailed links to the church's official website, which provides little information about divorce but offers this on its counseling program: "Scientology Marriage Counseling is an exact procedure for alleviating marital problems." It also says that "chaplains have successfully salvaged thousands of marriages."

The organization's approach to divorce can be gleaned from the writings and life of L. Ron Hubbard, the church's founder, who was married three times. In "Introduction to Scientology Ethics," he wrote, "Man has been frantic about the high divorce rate, about the high job turnover in plants, about labor unrest and many other items all stemming from the same source — sudden departures or gradual departures."

A close reading of the book suggests that Hubbard was less concerned about the breakup of marriages than about having people break away from Scientology. Sometimes students leave and never come back.

"And that gives us more trouble than most other things all combined," he wrote.

Yet sometimes, according to Claire Headley, another former member, the church encourages divorce. Headley said she was told that she must divorce her husband of 12 years, Marc Headley, or be kicked out of the Religious Technology Center, a Scientology compound near Hemet, Calif., that is known as Gold Base. Claire Headley said that she had grown up in the church and it was all she knew but that she and her husband began having trouble after expressing doubts about church authorities.

"At the last minute I was wavering on whether I should just divorce Marc," said Headley, who, like her husband, has since filed suit against the church. Instead, she left Gold Base in 2004, three weeks after he did, and together they moved to Colorado.

Being asked to divorce was not unusual at Gold Base, Headley said.

Steve Hall, who lives in Dallas, said he blamed the church for the dissolution of his 16-year marriage to Sue Turton, after he decided to leave the church and Gold Base in 2004.

"With tears streaming down both our faces, we hugged each other and then she was taken away," Hall wrote in an email.

He noted that he was later labeled "declared," which he and other former members say means that none of his former friends and associates in the church are allowed to talk to him.

A lawyer and spokesman for the church, Gary Soter, denied this account.

"The church is aware that a handful of disaffected and excommunicated members have made false and/or misleading statements about the church and their experiences within the church," Soter wrote in an email. "Mr. Hall's allegations are false."

Soter also wrote that he had spoken with Turton, "who categorically denies Mr. Hall's claim" and that she asked him to respond on her behalf. Soter's comments came in response to a reporter's request to interview Turton.

"Ms. Turton and Mr. Hall mutually decided to divorce upon his departure from the Scientology religious order," Soter wrote.

"She is in the Church because it provides her with spiritual fulfilment and because she is doing her part to help mankind," he wrote, adding, "she loves her work and 'loves what she is doing.' "

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