BU's Scientology Connection

Earle Cooley is chairman of BU's board of trustees. He's also made a career out of keeping L. Ron Hubbard's secrets.

Boston Phoenix/April 19, 1996
By Dan Kennedy

It was last August 12, a Saturday morning, and Earle Cooley did not seem happy.

Cooley was among several lawyers for the Church of Scientology who, accompanied by federal agents, had just raided the Arlington, Virginia, home of Arnaldo Lerma, a former church member who'd become a harsh critic. The lawyers took quite a haul: Lerma's computer, disks, a scanner, and other materials they thought he may have used to post secret, copyrighted Scientology documents on the Internet.

The success of the operation, though, was not reflected in Cooley's demeanor. "When he was sitting on my couch at the beginning of the raid, he did not look pleased," says Lerma. "He knew there was going to be trouble."

For one thing, as soon as the raid began, Lerma called two friends to have them videotape the proceedings. For another, Lerma told Cooley that he'd just been named to the board of FACTNet, a Golden, Colorado-based anti-cult organization with the legal resources to defend its members.

Soon afterward, US District Judge Leonie Brinkema ruled that the raid on Lerma's home -- which Cooley supervised -- had grossly exceeded the scope of the seizure order she had granted. She ordered many of Lerma's materials returned. "It was not the court's intention," she declared, "to give wholesale license to go through Mr. Lerma's possessions willy-nilly."

But Cooley was undaunted. What the judge saw as overzealousness, Cooley told her, was necessary to make sure that all copyrighted materials had been seized. Indeed, when the Washington Post wrote a story about the incident, Cooley sued on behalf of the church. The suit claimed that the story, which included a 46-word excerpt from Lerma's archives, had violated the church's copyright. Again, Judge Brinkema had unusually harsh words for the lawyers' efforts. "Reprehensible," she said of what she saw as an effort aimed at "the stifling of criticism and dissent of the religious practices of Scientology and the destruction of its opponents."

The church did win one significant victory: earlier this year Brinkema ruled that Lerma had violated copyright law.

For those who know the Church of Scientology, these hardball tactics are not surprising. In 1967, Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard promulgated what is known as the "fair game" policy: that "enemies" could be "deprived of property or injured by any means by any Scientologist" and "tricked, sued or lied to or destroyed." (Church officials claim the policy was revoked a year later.)

The modern version of this scorched-earth policy is a virtual war on church critics who, like Lerma, post copyrighted church documents on the Net in an effort to expose it. (See "Scientology's Tangled Web.") The manner in which the church has pursued its legal claims often appears to reflect another Hubbard saying: "The purpose of the suit is to harass and discourage rather than to win."

What is interesting is that Cooley, one of the leading strategists for a church denounced by critics as a dangerous mind-control cult, is also the chairman of the board of trustees of Boston University. What's also interesting is that, based on his past statements, he appears to be a Scientologist himself.

Cooley, of course, should be free to join whatever religion he likes, and as a lawyer he is free to represent whatever clients he likes. But it's ironic that a leading official of a major university, with a traditional mission to defend freedom of intellectual inquiry, is also a top strategist for an organization that's accused by its critics of of fighting to suppress free expression.

Healing and harassment

Scientology was founded by Hubbard, a one-time science-fiction writer, in 1954. It is perhaps best known for its celebrity members, including John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, Tom Cruise, and Chick Corea. The church claims about eight million members worldwide, but critics say the true number is probably much lower. Scientology bills itself as a philosophy of spiritual healing that can cure a wide range of psychological and physical ills. Among its tenets is the belief in continual reincarnation over billions of years, and across billions of galaxies.

The most notorious incident in the church's controversial history occurred in the late 1970s, when 11 top church leaders, including Hubbard's then-wife, went to prison for burglarizing the Internal Revenue Service, the Justice Department, and other government offices. Hubbard himself was named an "unindicted co-conspirator."

At the heart of Scientology's current legal battle are documents, written by Hubbard, that cannot be shown to members until after they have completed a long series of steps. One of the most sensitive of these secrets is the revelation that much of humanity's misery is caused by the souls, or "body thetans," of space aliens who were transported to Earth 75 million years ago, chained to a volcano, and exploded with hydrogen bombs. (See "The Secrets of Scientology.") Indeed, church doctrine holds that a person exposed to such knowledge without sufficient preparation could become sick or even die.

Surely these assertions sound odd, yet from an objective point of view they're no odder than the tenets of, say, Christianity. The problem, according to critics such as Steven Hassan, the author of "Combatting Cult Mind Control" (Park Street Press, 1988) and an internationally recognized expert on cults who's appeared on CBS's "60 Minutes" and ABC's "Nightline," is that the organization is a dangerous cult. Scientology controls its members, Hassan contends, through such techniques as hypnotic trances in which they're taught to reject the anti-Scientologist entreaties of family and friends. Hassan, an alumnus of BU, is appalled that the chairman of its board appears to be a Scientologist.

"I don't think people understand how pernicious Scientology is. They should be horrified that somebody so high up at BU is involved," says Hassan, who became a pioneering exit counselor after leaving the Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church in the mid 1970s.

Before ex-members started posting Scientology's documents on the Internet, Scientologists had to pay tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege of enlightenment. That, they say, is why the church has pursued its foes with such vigor.

The Lerma case is only the best known example of the church's -- and of Cooley's -- very aggressive tactics. In 1986, for instance, ex-Scientologist Larry Wollersheim sued the church in California, claiming that "fair game" harassment and coercive religious practices worsened his mental illness. In the July/August 1992 issue of the American Lawyer, California Superior Court Judge Ronald Swearinger, who presided at the trial, was quoted as saying that Cooley and his co-counsel made numerous attempts to stop the trial, including filing a motion for Swearinger's disqualification based on "some secret conversation I'd had with someone I'd never heard of." They also tried to claim that Swearinger had attempted to deny the church its civil rights by allowing the case to go forward.

While Cooley was engaged in what Swearinger believed were stalling tactics inside the courtroom, the judge said that weird things were happening outside. "I was followed [at various times] throughout the trial...and during the motions for a new trial," the judge told the magazine. "All kinds of things were done to intimidate me, and there were a number of unusual occurrences during that trial. My car tires were slashed. My collie drowned in my pool."

A church official characterized Swearinger's implication as "completely outrageous." And in a letter to the editor published that October, Cooley wrote: "In the eight years that I have represented the Church of Scientology, I have been impressed with its dedication to the highest ethical standards and to the rule of law." Wollersheim was awarded $30 million, an amount later reduced to $2.5 million. (The church has never paid Wollersheim, but Cooley blames Wollersheim himself, claiming he never took any steps to enforce the court order.)

Another incident reported by the American Lawyer took place in Los Angeles in April 1992, when a federal-court master, James Kolts, criticized Cooley and several other church lawyers for refusing to comply with orders to turn over materials as part of a trade-secrets-and-copyright-infringement suit the church had filed. In dismissing the suit, Kolts, who'd been appointed to make findings of fact, cited the church's willingness to "literally flout court orders and defy the authority of the courts," which he said amounted to a "cynical and unfair use of the judicial system."

Cooley replies that contrary to the article, Kolts's remarks were aimed strictly at the church, not at the lawyers, and that in any case Kolts's criticism was unjustified.

"The Scientology church litigates hard, and I'm not ashamed of being a part of that," Cooley says. "That goes with the territory. But I have never abused the legal system on behalf of the Church of Scientology or any other client."

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