Scientologists threaten to sue cult victim group

The Age, Australia/July 10, 2011

The Church of Scientology has threatened to sue and claim punitive damages against a volunteer organisation that helps the victims of cults and their families.

The legal threat from the US-based religion accuses the group, Cult Information and Family Support, of religious vilification over statements made in a brochure advertising their conference later this year.

But the volunteer organisation has refused to bow to the demands of the Scientologists, saying instead that they will continue their "humanitarian support work".

The brochure advertising the support group's national conference in Brisbane next month quotes one of their speakers, independent MP Nick Xenophon, from a Senate speech in 2009, in which he labelled Scientology a criminal organisation.

The brochure includes allegations from that speech that members of Scientology had experienced ''blackmail, torture and violence, labour camps and forced imprisonment and coerced abortions'' at the hands of the religion.

But in the legal letter, Scientology lawyer Kevin Rodgers of Sydney firm Brock Partners, said the brochure was "grossly defamatory of [the church of Scientology], its officers and parishioners".

"The Church considers the brochure conveys defamatory imputations that it ... 'is a cult' is an 'abusive and destructive group', that it 'psychologically manipulates persons under coercive controlling circumstances and runs a 'labour camp'," the legal letter said.

The church also accused CIFS Queensland of breaching the state's religious vilification law by inciting hatred, severe ridicule or serious contempt of it.

Scientology spokeswoman Virginia Stewart told The Sunday Age that in the most offensive parts of the brochure, CIFS had compared its practices to ''the tragic and extreme beliefs and actions of David Koresh and Jim Jones''.

The legal letter said the church and its officers "strenuously deny these unfounded basely [sic] accusations", and demanded CIFS withdraw mention of Scientology and provide a written apology.

Failure to do so would "be used in any additional action our client Church is advised to take to claim punitive damages".

Ms Stewart said the church "shares none of the characteristics of a cult".

"We do not have a messianic leader, we do not predict the end of the world, our members are urged to think for themselves and are not subject to 'coercive persuasion or mind control'. And we most certainly do not promote suicide or murder as solutions to human unhappiness. Quite the opposite," she said.

CIFS president John McAlpin, a former member of the Exclusive Brethren, told The Sunday Age that all the references to Scientology in the brochure were already in the public domain, and the legal threats were an attempt to stop victims speaking freely.

The conference at Brisbane Parliament House is designed to offer support to former cult victims and their families, and to help train health professionals in how to deal with the after effects of involvement with a cult.

Former Scientology member Paul Schofield said Senator Xenophon's statements about the religion "certainly fit with my personal experience - and if they want to sue me they can go ahead".

Ms Stewart asked why Mr Schofield had not been charged with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice and/or perjury for his claims.

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