'Searched for weapons?': Church of Scientology upsets neighbours with new security measures

The Age, Australia/December 8, 2019

By Andrew Taylor

The Church of Scientology has been accused of blocking access to public parklands and intimidating residents with security guards and guard dogs.

The church wants to install a vehicle security gate at the entrance of its Asia-Pacific headquarters in Chatswood, which would operate 24 hours a day, and distribute swipe cards to neighbouring residents.

The new security measures have been implemented without council approval. They are in response to a “security incident” earlier this year when a Scientology employee was fatally stabbed by a teenager at the church’s headquarters.

Walking trails connect the church’s site, which formerly housed the National Acoustic Laboratory, to the adjoining Lane Cove National Park and Blue Gum Reserve, and members of the public have long been permitted to access the site via two entrances.

Planning documents lodged with Willoughby City Council state the church wants to install intercoms for pedestrians to contact on-site security to ask for access to the site and walking trails.

“Security will ensure the pedestrian does not represent a threat,” it said.

However, residents opposed to the new security measures claim the church has already closed gates at two entrances, with members of the public required to contact staff via an intercom system to gain access to the site.

“Having the gates closed 24/7 with patrolling security guards and guard dogs outside the property, in Greville Street, has resulted in resident concern when walking in the street or in terms of easy access to the site,” a resident said.

A Scientology spokeswoman said in a statement that the church was seeking a “balanced solution” that ensured access for the community while maintaining “appropriate security”.

“The Church has a good relationship with the vast majority of our neighbours and has given access cards to all who have asked for them to access the site,” she said.

She said religious groups had faced increasing violence in recent years.

“The Church of Scientology is taking on the responsibility to ensure the health and safety are maintained on our premises for staff, parishioners and all visitors,” she said.

But the council received a number of submissions objecting to the church’s security measures, including privacy concerns associated with obtaining a swipe card and how church staff will determine if a pedestrian is a threat.

“Will they be searched for weapons?” a resident asked. “Will they have to sign a register? Will they have their photo taken? Will they have to provide some type of proof of identity?”

Tony Butteriss, the president of the Friends of Lane Cove National Park, said he was concerned about the church’s new security measures, which he said could pose problems in the event of a bushfire.

“It does appear that it will make it more difficult for walkers in the area, and we are opposed to any restriction on existing rights of way,” he said.

“I would be very concerned about the public, whether members of Friends of LCNP or not, handing over personal information to the Church of Scientology.”

A council spokeswoman said access through the Scientology site had been provided since previous federal government ownership and incorporated into council controls.

The council recommended the Sydney North Planning Panel reject the church’s application because of noise concerns and the potential for cars queuing for access.

It also said the new security would restrict access to bushland trails, create a gated community and allow card-only access to a limited number of people.

The panel has deferred its decision to allow the church to respond to the council's concerns.

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