Scientologists, Catholics and More Money Than God

The New York Times/July 21, 2011

We do not need these books to tell us that money and religion make for a poisonous combination. But it is of some interest to see that ancient truth confirmed in both a church as relatively new as Scientology and one as ancient as Roman Catholicism. Even religious leaders develop a certain swagger when they know they are backed by bundles of cash. When a French court fined Scientology nearly a million dollars, one of its officials shrugged that off as "chump change." And when the Vatican ran a deficit of nearly 2.4 million euros in 2007, an Italian journalist familiar with the church's finances dismissed the debt as "chopped liver." Chump change or chopped liver, both churches have bigger sums they can get to and use, and few outsiders are given a look at how they do it. These two books trace the cash source of theological confidence.

As Janet Reitman describes in "Inside Scientology," Scientology did not begin as a religion, which its founder, L. Ron Hubbard came to consider his initial mistake. In 1950 Hubbard published his book "Dianetics," which proposed a variant on the "mind cures" that have littered the American landscape through most of its history. He offered his followers a process of "auditing" that combined Freudian sessions with elements of his former career as a writer of science fiction. People being audited could relive their births, or test their future hopes on the E-meter, a kind of super lie detector that revealed "the anatomy of the human mind." Mental health authorities, Reitman notes, were quick to condemn Hubbard's claims as fraudulent. He did not, at this point, have the money to fight against such attacks, a situation he would spend the rest of his career correcting.

Hubbard's failure to secure a strong financial base exposed him to a takeover of his concepts and properties. Barely two years after founding the movement, he lost Dianetics to a wealthy supporter named Don Purcell, who simply bought him out. To restart his project, he needed protection for it. He found that protection in religion. After all, one cannot buy out a religion. This "religion angle," he wrote in 1953, is "a matter of practical business." Being a church, Reitman writes, gave Scientology tax exemption, clerical status for his "ministers" (who wore Roman collars) and clerical exemption from the draft for these ministers. It also allowed him to rally even non-Scientologists to his defense against increasingly hostile government agencies, presenting any of his troubles as a persecution of religion, violating the separation of church and state.

There was another advantage to becoming a religion. In the 1960s, especially in Los Angeles, where Hubbard's early success came to him, there was a spiritual hunger among young people that took them to religious figures like Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (the Beatles' guide) and the Hare Krishnas. Some of those who came into Scientology as '60s "kids" stayed on to hold responsible positions under Hubbard.

Hubbard's experience with Dianetics, Reitman writes, taught him to keep all parts of Scientology under his personal control, to keep his governance secret, and to have a cash supply to deal with enemies, real and imagined. It takes money, after all, to sue the Internal Revenue Service 200 times after it revoked the church's tax exemption. The early criticisms Hubbard received from psychiatrists made him an unremitting foe to all mental health activities but his own. The general public became aware of this when the Scientologist Tom Cruise attacked psychiatry on the "Today" show. But for years Scientology had been trying, with lawsuits, propaganda and harassment, to bring down the mental health establishment. psychiatrists maim and kill, read a sign carried by Scientologists outside a London mental health center.

Hubbard's feuds were deadly. Of a person suspected of stealing his secrets he wrote his followers: "The law can be used very easily to harass, and enough harassment on somebody who is simply on the thin edge anyway . . . will generally be sufficient to cause his professional decease. . . . If possible, of course, ruin him utterly." Those who opposed Scientology in any way were called "suppressive persons," of whom Hubbard wrote: "A truly suppressive person or group has no rights of any kind, and actions taken against them are not punishable." They "may be tricked, sued, or lied to or destroyed." Thus, when Hubbard became convinced that government agencies were collecting negative information about Scientology, Reitman writes, a secret agency of the church (Branch One) planted operatives inside the I.R.S., the F.B.I., the Justice Department and that old enemy, the American Medical Association. According to Reitman, they stole tens of thousands of documents to use for their own smear campaigns. The church gave them awards for this service.

Hubbard was particularly fierce against defecting members, especially if they put online the higher levels of enlightenment that were supposed to be revealed only to loyal trainees. Hubbard feared ridicule, Reitman argues, since the upper levels of disciples learned that a Galactic Confederation had destroyed earth millions of years ago (using hydrogen bombs) and planted captive souls in volcanoes. Even some of the most conditioned and docile disciples, including Tom Cruise, balked at this secret knowledge when first exposed to it.

When Hubbard died in 1986, his leadership role was taken over by a less flamboyant figure, David Miscavige, who had been a Scientologist since the age of? 8. He followed the founder's plans, especially his "celebrity strategy," conceived in 1955. Hubbard's initial hopes were to lure admired people like Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso and Edward R. Murrow into his church. But this ambition shrank, by Miscavige's time, to recruiting show business personalities. The big catches here were John Travolta and Cruise, on whom Miscavige danced continual attendance, in a tactic the church called "admiration bombing." A glitzy Celebrity Centre was built for any new catches, and less-known figures proved useful. Nancy Cartright, the voice of Bart Simpson, gave the church $10 million in just one of her years of devout service.

Reitman, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone who spent five years trying to pierce the walls Scientologists put up against outsiders, gives us the most complete picture of Scientology so far. She seems, now, uncertain of its future. But its continued existence, given its weird aspects, is its main claim to religion's power. It is something of a miracle.

The Catholic Church offers a very different picture, but one where money is even more important. Jason Berry, the reporter who broke several of the priest abuse scandals of recent times, finds the same pattern of deception, denial and subterfuge in the church's handling of money as in its treatment of pedophiles. The Vatican comes to its high-handed way with money in an understandable fashion. In the Middle Ages, all authority was male and monarchical, so the pope became a king. His multiple realms had all the appurtenances of a medieval monarch - armies, prisons, spies, torturers, legal courts in papal service. The money flowed in from many sources - as conquest, as tribute from subordinate princes (secular and religious) or from the crops on farm lands held by the pope, who was not accountable to anyone for use of these funds. When normal sources did not satisfy papal ambition, clerical underlings invented new kinds of revenue - like the granting of time off in Purgatory for cash contributions during life ("indul­gences" for sale).

All that seemed to be ending in 1860 when Italy at last united its secular government and began taking away the pope's realms. Pope Pius IX rejected the Italian government's efforts at partial restitution, calling the secular regime illegitimate. He made himself a "prisoner of the Vatican," never venturing out into Rome, or even addressing it from his balcony. Catholics in sympathy to Pio Nono's "martyrdom" by the modern state increased their popular donations to the Vatican called Peter's Pence. This donation arose in the seventh or eighth century, when the pope was still a monarch. It was set aside from the monies exacted from various parts of the papal empire, as something coming voluntarily from the people in the pews. The announced purpose was for the pope to have extra money for the charities he supported.

But after 1860 a surge of sympathy made Catholics every­where, but especially in America, pour large sums into the Vatican, originally conceived as giving the pope military assistance, but then turned over to him for any use. No longer were papal charities the rationale. In fact, the lay cardinal who was Pius's secretary of state, Giacomo Antonelli, took all available Vatican sums for ambitious new financing schemes. Already in 1857 he had used Peter's Pence funds as collateral for a new loan from the Rothschild banking firm. Antonelli made one of his brothers the head of the Pontifical Bank. Another Antonelli brother secured a monopoly on Rome's grain imports (a key to power in Rome since classical times). Antonelli soon had papal investments in countries all over Europe. The pope's distress was made the excuse for a new financial empire, with no accountability for the funds used.

That non-accountability continues. The Vatican issues statements of its assets - in 2007 the amount was 1.4 billion euros -but the Vatican Bank is off the books, as is a metric ton of gold, and other things not reported. On a list of papal assets, St. Peter's Basilica and other historic sites are listed as worth one euro each. No wonder, as Berry says, "the Holy See's true net worth is invisible."

Having set this historical background, Berry begins his true project - the use of funds in the American church during its modern time of troubles. He grants there are excuses for the financial maneuvering of the Catholic bishops. "The Roman Catholic Church in America is undergoing the most massive downsizing in its history," he writes. "Since 1995 the bishops have closed 1,373 churches - more than one parish per week for 15 years." There are many reasons for this wrenching development - lower church attendance, which means fewer donations from the pews; the movement of parishioners from inner cities to the suburbs, stranding old ethnic structures; the loss of free labor in Catholic schools by the declining number of nuns. We can add to this the payment of damages to the victims of priest pedophiles - though many bishops claim they haven't closed churches because of the sex scandals.

Berry says it is hard to verify this claim because the ordinary bishop is as loath to reveal his transactions as the pope is. A lay group begun in Boston, the Voice of the Faithful, asked that the financial arrangements of the diocese be exposed, and it was fiercely resisted by bishop after bishop. Church authorities in some cities banned the V.O.T.F. from meeting in any parish. The same bishops had earlier opposed revealing what sums were paid to victims of sexual abuse. Settlements forbade the victims from revealing this. Even when settlements were reported, other hidden costs were kept secret - for instance, how much had gone to expensive rehabilitation centers through which the pedophiles were endlessly and uselessly recycled, and to legal costs while the bishops were denying accusations.

Lay people were also kept out of the decision on which churches to close. Good faith attempts by lay people to cooperate in evaluating this procedure were rebuffed. While Cardinal Sean O'Malley was trying to remedy the harm done the Boston diocese by Cardinal Bernard Law's recycling of pedophiles, his auxiliary bishop Richard Lennon was managing a professedly separate operation to close churches - he would finally shut down 62 in the Boston area. The opponents to Lennon's plan alleged that he was selecting properties most likely to bring the highest price for resale, not taking into account community support, unconsidered resources or the possibility of merged work with nearby parishes. At eight condemned parishes, people devoted to their churches kept round-the-clock vigils, refusing to give them up. Appeals were taken to Rome, but the man responsible for parishes, Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos, refused them a hearing. Berry finds the Boston pattern repeated in other dioceses, like those of Cleveland and Los Angeles.

Then, returning to Rome, Berry shows the power of money to squelch evidence that the founder of the ultra-conservative Legionaries of Christ, Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, was a serial child molester and had illegitimate children in Mexico. I met Berry in 2002 at the bishops' Dallas meeting on the sex scandals. He was just beginning his exposé on Maciel, and I followed his work after that, since he was up against vituperation from the Legionaries, criticism from people like William Bennett, and a cold shoulder in Rome, where he went with Maciel's victims to plead their cause. Unfortunately, Maciel was a great favorite with Pope John Paul II and his secretary of state, Angelo Sodano. It helped that Maciel showered Rome's cardinals with expensive gifts. Every Christmas Legionary brothers fanned out across Rome to deliver lavish Christmas baskets to the hierarchy, with fine wines, liqueurs and rare Spanish hams worth up to $1,000. He sent a million dollars in support of the pope's visit to Poland. He gave large cash gifts to Sodano. He ordered a Mercedes-Benz for Cardinal Pio Laghi, though Laghi turned it down. Sodano and others were entertained in style at the Legionary headquarters.

Cardinal Ratzinger, who had taken charge of all sex claims reaching Rome, sat on the charges against Maciel, at the urging of Cardinal Sodano, who reminded him that Maciel was well liked by Pope John Paul. Ratzinger held off until John Paul was clearly dying; then he hurried to remove this incubus from the church. In December 2004 Ratzinger's office ordered Maciel to step down, pending an investigation. Even then the Vatican Press Office, under pressure from Sodano, denied that there was any "canonical process" against Maciel. But once Ratzinger was Pope Benedict XVI, he consigned Maciel to a period of prayer and penitence and began a thorough re-evaluation of his order.

Whether Berry is considering sex scandals or money scandals, or the refusal of the hierarchy to be open with its own believers on many fronts, the thing that sours all relations is secrecy - as we can see from the conduct of our own government. Secrecy eats at the soul. Some are surprised that religion is so corruptible. They should not be. When secrecy is used to protect a higher order of knowledge, it can make the keepers of the secrets think of themselves as a higher order of humans. Corruptio optimi pessima, goes the old saying. Blight at the top is the deepest blight. It is the sin of taking God's name in vain.

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