A peek inside Scientology's sleek new Melbourne base

The Age, Australia/February 5, 2011

The office has been painstakingly decorated for a man who has been dead for 25 years. A wall on one side is lined with expensive books that no one will read and videos that no one will watch. The desk and three chairs will remain unoccupied. A rope defends the entrance from those who would dare to handle the cherished contents inside. This is the new Scientology HQ, and this office is something of a shrine to L. Ron Hubbard, the man who founded Scientology in the 1950s.

It is a "mark of respect" - a plaque says - from those "whose lives have been demonstrably bettered because he lived". Such is the gratitude of his thetans that the late Mr Hubbard keeps an office in every Church of Scientology around the world.

The new Scientology building in Ascot Vale opened a week ago - and embroiled Melbourne lord mayor Robert Doyle and former planning minister Justin Madden in controversy for giving glowing speeches. Both said their presence was not an endorsement of Scientology, which is considered a cult in some countries but has legal status as a religion here. Mr Doyle says he was invited by scientologist friend Kate Ceberano. Mr Madden says he was invited as the local MP for Essendon.

Scientology says it paid $7 million for the building and spent $14 million on its restoration. But it is less forthcoming about the source of the funds, citing "successful scientologists who have contributed according to their own means" and the sale of its Russell Street premises.

The new 6400-square-metre building was needed for the church's "growing numbers".

The reception area is glossy and shiny with TVs spruiking the Scientology message. You can get married in the building, or do courses including one called "knowing who you can trust".

Virginia Stewart, the official spokeswoman, takes us up what she says is a 1930s staircase, past a sign that reads: "Silence! Auditing in Progress." Auditing is the Scientologist version of counselling, and Ms Stewart says some people spend up to $1000 for long stints of it.

An aid to auditing is the E-Meter, or Electropsychometer, which is supposed to indicate a change of resistance in the mind of the person holding two tubes attached to a meter. Ms Stewart invites me to try it. When was your last disagreement? she asks. The meter does not flicker. Who last upset you? she tries again. Still the meter is unmoved. I feel I should apologise for my lack of angst. She confides that another journalist tried it the other day and the meter went whoooosh!

In another part of the building is the Purification Centre, for what is described as a religious ritual to free one from drugs and toxins in the body's fatty tissues. Those with heart and some other medical conditions are told not to do the program. People pay about $1500 for the purification, which often involves weeks of running on a treadmill and long periods in a sauna. Many vitamins are taken including vitamin A - people start on 5000 international units a day and some can build up to 50,000 a day.

Australian Medical Association vice-president Steve Hambleton says there is no physiological need for a purification regime, and prolonged use of more than 25,000 international units of vitamin A daily can cause serious side effects.

A video of the centre's opening is on YouTube, along with a caption describing Cr Doyle and Mr Madden as "acknowledging the church for its many contributions to the community". But if the scientologists hoped the video would go viral, they might be disappointed. Yesterday, it still had fewer than 1000 viewers.

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