Oscar Wilde’s remark that there is only one thing worse in the world than being talked about, and that is not being talked about, can perhaps comfort the organisation setting up shop in one of the buildings that face the writer’s statue in Dublin.
The Church of Scientology opens a national affairs office at 4 Merrion Square today, making Dublin only the second city in the world, after Washington, DC, to have such a presence.
The new office is said to house five permanent staff from the Sea Org, Scientology’s elite group, whose members sign billion-year contracts pledging future lifetimes to advancing their religion.
There will also be five permanent members of the Office of Special Affairs, which manages several of the church’s front groups but is perhaps best known for managing its intelligence-gathering and lobbying operations.
The Merrion Square premises was bought in June 2015 for a price believed to be close to €2 million. It will serve as “a PR base to host VIPs and government officials”, as Gerard Collins, an Irish Scientologist, announced on social media.
The role of the national-affairs office in the US capital is to try to “create a positive narrative about Scientology and keep down the critics”, says Jon Atack of the Open Minds Foundation, a UK organisation.
Atack has devoted his life to building the world’s largest private archive relating to L Ron Hubbard, the American science-fiction writer who founded Scientology, in 1953; Atack is also the author of A Piece of Blue Sky, an authoritative history of Hubbard and his brainchild.
In Atack’s opinion the Church of Scientology probably “considers Ireland an easy, safe place to be in. Although they’ve experienced some pressure here, it pales in comparison to the bad news they’ve had in other European countries, like France, Belgium, Germany and Russia.”
In Paris Scientologists have been convicted of fraud. Belgian authorities recently tried to outlaw the self-styled religion as a criminal organisation after an investigation that took nearly two decades. (The presiding judge dismissed the case, citing prejudice and errors by the prosecution.) In June Russia’s federal security service raided a dozen properties connected to the organisation in Moscow and St Petersburg. The Russian Orthodox Church last week called Scientology “a brutal, totalitarian sect”.
By contrast, Spain, Sweden, Portugal and Croatia are among the countries that have recognised Scientology as a religion.
In Ireland the Church of Scientology is a registered company that has failed to obtain charitable or religious status.
John Duignan joined the Sea Org in 1985, serving for 22 years at the highest level of Scientology until returning to Cork. He is now a vocal critic of his former movement, whose Hollywood followers include Tom Cruise and John Travolta.
Duignan likens the new national affairs office on Merrion Square to “a Russian embassy in London or Washington during the cold war. Ostensibly it’s a social co-ordination office. That’s what they want to appear as.” But the Office of Special Affairs, according to Duignan, is “no stranger to underhand techniques, spy networking, setting honey traps – that kind of stuff, subverting enemies or government officials to achieve political goals”.
The Office of Special Affairs is the successor to the Guardian’s Office, which was disbanded in 1983 after 11 of its members, including Hubbard’s third wife, were jailed for one of the biggest government- infiltration conspiracies in US history.
There are historical links between Scientology and Merrion Square. In 1956 Hubbard briefly installed what he called the Hasuk Atomic Energy Healing Division Emergency Station at number 69, to provide a base for his followers should the UK come under nuclear attack.
The organisation’s return to the square six decades later has a different motive, according to Duignan. “This office will be building up the efforts to bolster Scientology’s position within Ireland. On the surface they will be cleaning up a park or a beach, some kind of PR activity, while making sure to get their picture taken with the mayor or councillor, photos that can be used for internal and external public relations.”
In Duignan’s experience the office’s core activities tend to be less conspicuous. The procedure, he says, “is to hire private investigators and find out all about the political and social interests of a specific person, as well as their dirty little secrets, in order to compile a dossier on them. Their strategy from there is to reel that person in, little by little, by contributing a certain amount of money to his or her next campaign or by obliging to do favours for them.
“Eventually they will come up with a proposal in return,. say to push to get Scientology recognised as a church in Ireland,” Duignan alleges.
It remains to be seen how the Dublin office will work, but Atack agrees with Duignan about how the organisation typically operates. “They tend to sneak in. You first of all profile a politician, find out where they go and what their habits are. You put somebody next to someone in a position of power and sweet-talk them, all according to Hubbard policy.”
This summer one of several Scientology front groups, the Truth About Drugs campaign, did approach an Irish politician. Accompanied by a British Scientology swing band, The Jive Aces, several members travelled from Clearwater, the movement’s worldwide spiritual headquarters, in Florida, to promote their anti-drug campaign in Cork, Galway, Waterford and Limerick, posing for photographs with mayors and councillors.
John Hearne, Sinn Féin councillor and mayor of Waterford city, received a phone call in August asking if he could stand in for the lord mayor for a photo opportunity with the group. “I hurried to the town centre, because you don’t want to let people down. We do it all day, every day, standing in for pictures,” Hearne says.
“There was a band playing – they were a good old band, too. What was funny about them was that they were in their 50s but dressed as cheerleaders. I have to say that they were very nice people, full of enthusiasm. They wanted to raise awareness for their anti-drug campaign. I read their literature, and it was grand.”
The leaflets didn’t mention Scientology, and it was only after Hearne had posed with the group that the subject came up. “They said that I might get contacted about Scientology after people saw the photograph, and explained they got some funding from them. But I still didn’t have a clue that they were Scientologists.”
After the event came the phone calls, says Hearne. “They were very persistent with the phoning. They were looking to come down and set up programmes in Waterford. I work very closely with the local drug programmes that are already in place, so every time they called I blew them off, telling them I had no time.”
Colleagues informally advised Hearne to disassociate himself from the group. He warns other politicians to “find out as much as you can about any organisation, and to keep a wary eye on things”. The Jive Aces also posed with the mayors of Galway and Limerick.
Although what happened in Waterford could fit the pattern that Duignan and Atack say that Scientology follows, it never amounted to more than a photo opportunity and an effort to establish their anti-drug programme. Nevertheless, Hearne kept his distance.
Scientology’s anti-drugs programmes have a questionable history.
Scientology has an ambiguous relationship with its front groups, at times asserting that they are completely separate organisations, even though their mission statements, activities and practices can, without exception, directly be traced back to Hubbard’s teachings and writings.
Along with the Truth About Drugs campaign, Scientology groups such as Narconon and the Citizens Commission on Human Rights are expected to be introduced to Ireland.
Both are controversial. Narconon, an expensive substance-abuse rehabilitation programme, requires patients to sit in a sauna for hours on end and take high doses of vitamins that can damage an already stressed liver. In 2012 Oklahoma’s department of mental health investigated a number of deaths at the state’s Narconon facility before revoking its permit for medical detoxification. That year officials in Quebec also closed down Narconon in Canada, citing a risk to health.
The Citizens Commission on Human Rights says its goal is to “eradicate abuses committed under the guise of mental health”. It opposes psychiatry and prescription drugs to such an extent that it has called psychiatrists “the architects of the Holocaust”.
The Church of Scientology will retain its Dublin mission, on Middle Abbey Street, Dublin 1, where members of the public can take personality tests and purchase and study Scientology courses to help them on “the Bridge to Total Freedom” that the movement claims to offer. The Dublin mission did not respond to interview requests for this article, but the organisation’s headquarters in Clearwater did issue a statement to The Irish Times: “The Church of Scientology is delighted to be opening a national office for Ireland in Merrion Square, which will be a centre and emanation point for our community programmes.
“These programmes provide resources and tools for drug education and awareness, human rights, criminal reform and other issues that concern all of us. We make these programmes and the materials available to everyone. The staff in the office will be working with like-minded groups and individuals to help those in need in all walks of society.”