Scientology's arrival gets mixed reactions

The Boston Globe/March 28, 2004
By Jimmy Cronin

With some 35 traditional churches and storefront ministries in the area, the Rev. Robert W. Castagna of the Church of Scientology has picked a neighborhood thick with religious options as a home for his new Scientology Volunteer Ministry.

But, says Castagna, that only encourages him in the work he plans to do, which includes free adult and child literacy tutoring, drug education and prevention programs, and training for other clergy who wish to volunteer or help out in the community.

"I'd like to work with the many other churches in Codman Square on an interfaith basis to try and solve some of the problems that we plan to address at the new ministry," said Castagna, who has been part of the Church of Scientology for the past decade and lives with his wife in Cambridge.

The ministry, which is opening tomorrow, is renting storefront space from Joe Onujiogu, who has owned the Codman Square Pharmacy next door since 1990. Onujiogu said he had been considering how to contribute to the community since he started working in Codman Square.

"This neighborhood sincerely needs the services [Castagna] will be offering," Onujiogu said.

Reaction in the square to the arrival of the Church of Scientology, which has been criticized for what some consider controversial recruiting tactics and has been involved in numerous lawsuits, is mixed.

Bill Walczak, director of the Codman Square Health Center, said he was worried that the new ministry might use what he called "aggressive proselytizing" methods. While Walczak, who has worked in Codman Square for more than 30 years, doesn't object to the center being there, he said he believes the quality of life would be diminished if the Scientologists decided to, as he says, "aggressively proselytize."

"I'm not in favor of churches that recruit on the street," said Walczak.

Dennis Agler, building caretaker for the Second Church in Dorchester, a Church of the Nazarene, also has concerns.

"It bothers and scares me because I don't think a lot of people here know what they are," said Agler. "They don't tell the whole story when they recruit. They appeal to the needs of the community. But it's just a way for them to get new members and more money."

Steve Hassan [Warning: Steve Hassan is not recommended by this Web site. Read the detailed disclaimer to understand why.], a mental health counselor and cult specialist based in Somerville, has researched the Church of Scientology.

"I think they're trying to get good [public relations], recruit members, and make money," said Hassan, adding that he is "extremely skeptical" about the new ministry offering free services. "I think it's to advance the cause of Scientology," he said.

Castagna, aware of such fears, asks people to judge for themselves.

"My purpose is truly to help," Castagna said. "I believe that I'm sincere in my efforts, and people will see through that if it's not sincere."

According to the Scientology Church's website: "Scientology offers real tools for use in everyday life. Thus, it does not depend upon a system of beliefs or faith. The emphasis is squarely on an exact application of its principles toward the improvement of one's life and the world in which we live."

Candice Gartley, executive assistant at the Codman Square Health Center, had a different objection to the opening of the church. A new ministry, she said, is the last thing needed in the square, and it won't connect with the community.

"The majority of churches serve the flock of people who come," she said. "They're not part of the neighborhood."

Others in Codman Square were unfamiliar with the group and took a laissez-faire attitude. David Barber, a social worker for the Polus Center for Social and Economic Development, said although he is unclear on what the Church of Scientology is all about, it has the right to open a new ministry.

"I don't care what those people do," said Barber. "It doesn't really bother me."

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