Has the local council of a sleepy Sussex town fallen under the spell of Scientology? Civic leaders in East Grinstead have been dazzled by Tom Cruise - and even given red carpet treatment to the church's controversial leader

Daily Mail, UK/March 31, 2024

By Sam Merriman

A chance to rub shoulders with Hollywood stars and royals at film premieres would be beyond the dreams of most local council officials or pen-pushers. But for those representing the sleepy market town of East Grinstead in Sussex, attending glitzy celebrity events and meeting A-listers is seen as a perk of the job.

Take, for instance, the picture of yoga teacher and former East Grinstead mayor Julie Mockford 'just chillin' with her 'pal' Tom Cruise on a Mission: Impossible film set in 2018.

Or more recently, the snap of the current mayor of East Grinstead, Frazer Visser, with Cruise last year. 'I had the unforgettable experience of attending the premiere of Tom Cruise's newest Mission: Impossible film in Leicester Square, along with some previous mayors,' he said.

No one would want to rob civic dignitaries of celebrity moments, but such photo-opportunities are starting to raise eyebrows.

For Tom Cruise is of course heavily involved with Scientology, which has long been established in East Grinstead. And the cosy relationship between Scientologists and local politicians is causing mounting concern among critics and council insiders.

They claim that town, district and even county councillors are 'tapped up' by Scientologists the moment they are elected, while the mayor is dazzled and made to 'feel like he's Sadiq Khan'.

They allege that the Scientologists use flattery and inducements to increase their influence over the council, and there are fears that some councillors may be sympathetic towards the controversial religion.

East Grinstead Town Council last night denied there was an inappropriate relationship between councillors and any 'community group', and said all hospitality it receives from such groups is declared properly.

For its part, the Church of Scientology, which is considered an 'anti-constitutional sect' by the German government (although it has not been banned), said it has been 'deeply involved' in East Grinstead life for decades and seeks only to 'make things better for all'.

A spokesman added: 'To suggest that there is anything wrong with a religious organisation doing this, or working closely with elected officials and many other people of goodwill is not only ridiculous, it is frankly bigotry.'

Scientology maintains that it is a genuine religious movement.

Whatever the case, a Mail investigation has established that the Scientologists have certainly become involved in the affairs of local politicians in East Grinstead to a considerable degree.

Local council representatives have attended a number of Scientology events; the church's controversial leader David Miscavige has been given a guided tour of council offices; the local fire service has been using the Scientologists' headquarters for training and was offered £50,000 by the church; and the Scientologists were involved in running East Grinstead's Christmas lights switch-on ceremony as well as a celebration for the Coronation of King Charles.

Of course, the church is a large organisation and, as such, may be expected to take part in civic life of the town where it is based.

But in the eyes of some it is also deeply contentious.

Scientology is a set of beliefs and practices dreamt up by sci-fi writer L Ron Hubbard, who founded the church in 1952.

Its accusers say it is a profit-hungry business rather than a religion, charging large sums to members for 'self-improvement' courses.

Its 'revelations' about existence include the claim that Earth was populated 75million years ago by billions of extra-terrestrials led by Xenu, a ruler of a 'Galactic Confederacy', who then annihilated every living soul on Earth – or 'Teegeeack', as the planet was then known – by dropping them into volcanoes before blowing them up with hydrogen bombs.

Their spirits are said to adhere to humans, and to be the source of many of our problems.

The church has faced accusations of exploitation and abuse from former members, as well as 'brainwashing', although has always denied all such allegations, arguing that it is unfairly misrepresented and maligned.

In September last year, the US actor Danny Masterson, a former Scientologist, was sentenced to 30 years in prison for rape. He was a member of the church when he committed the offences in 2003, and prosecutors alleged he used his prominence in the organisation – the two women he was found guilty of raping were also members – to avoid facing justice for decades.

Scientology officials have denied 'scandalous allegations that the church harassed the accusers', saying the claims have been 'debunked' and that portions of the Masterton trial testimony regarding the organisation were 'uniformly false'.

Meanwhile, in the US, David Miscavige is facing a lawsuit on behalf of three former members of the church accusing him of trafficking them into his organisation as children and forcing them to work for little to no pay. The church and Miscavige have repeatedly denied the allegations.

The church has had a base in East Grinstead ever since L Ron Hubbard bought Saint Hill Manor, surrounded by 60 acres, just outside the town in 1959. The attractive Georgian country house served as its worldwide head-quarters until 1967 (it is now in Florida) and still plays a significant role in its global operation.

Why East Grinstead? Despite talk of the area's ley lines – ancient alignments in the landscape believed to have spiritual significance – the most likely explanation is that the town is just an hour on the train from London and close to Gatwick airport.

And the house came up for sale at a moment the Scientologists were intent on expansion beyond America. Tom Cruise is a frequent guest at Saint Hill, while Grease star John Travolta, another prominent Scientologist, made headlines when he tried to book a table for his entourage at a nearby branch of KFC.

Scientology's presence in East Grinstead largely goes unnoticed by residents, but campaigners and council insiders increasingly fear local dignitaries are excessively in thrall to the church's money and celebrity potential.

For it was not just town mayor Frazer Visser who attended the Mission: Impossible premiere. (He's described the church as a 'valued and large part of East Grinstead'.) Three representatives of the town's county and district councils were also pictured at the May 2022 premiere of Top Gun: Maverick, which was attended by the then Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, William and Kate.

Sujan Wickremaratchi, the vice chair of West Sussex County Council, posted photographs of the event on social media alongside the comment: 'Great to see Tom Cruise and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Walking on the red carpet with my daughter was just wow.'

Rex Whittaker, a former mayor of East Grinstead who is now a Mid Sussex councillor, also attended. Mr Wickremaratchi declined to comment when approached by the Daily Mail, and Julie Mockford, a current Mid Sussex councillor, did not respond to requests about her time with Cruise on the Mission: Impossible set. Nor did Mr Whittaker.

Nothing wrong with that, many will say. But such largesse from the church appears to be part of a pattern. Back in 2012, it was accused of 'grooming' City of London Police officers with gifts worth thousands of pounds – including invitations to film premieres – ahead of the opening of a new central London Scientology headquarters. Again, the church denied it had done anything wrong.

In the late 2000s, MPs expressed concerns that the church had made donations of thousands of pounds to both the Labour and Tory parties as part of an extensive lobbying operation to promote its drug treatment programme, Narconon. The church said informing MPs about its programmes was 'a responsibility of ours' and maintains that Narconon is effective.

Meanwhile, in East Grinstead, local apparatchiks appear to be devoting a significant amount of time to Scientology events.

This includes the annual gathering of the International Association of Scientologists, which sees thousands of members flock to Saint Hill each year to hear Mr Miscavige speak. Last year's event, held from November 3 to 5, was attended by representatives of Mid Sussex and West Sussex councils, as well as the current mayor and five former mayors of East Grinstead.

Mims Davies, the minister for disabled people, health and work, also attended, telling this newspaper it was in her role as local MP: 'Doing so doesn't convey my support beyond my gratitude for money raised in aid of numerous local good causes passed on at this event which takes place every year.'

Mayor Frazer Visser gave a speech and took to the stage to receive a £50,000 donation for the local Queen Victoria Hospital where he works as a medical photographer, according to his LinkedIn page.

There is, of course, no suggestion he or any attendees of the event did any wrong.

Mr Visser also switched on Scientology's Christmas lights at Saint Hill on November 25. He said he has attended around 100 events for 'all types of organisations, communities and groups' as mayor, adding: 'Only three of which were hosted by the Church of Scientology and open to the general public.'

Records show that nine current or former East Grinstead councillors plus a clerk have accepted gifts or hospitality from Scientology since 2019, with each of these declared as worth more than £40. A church representative also attends every full council meeting, which are of course open to interested members of the public.

Scientology leader Mr Miscavige was given a guided tour of the beautiful Grade II-listed, 18th century mansion that serves as the council's headquarters and he even offered to pay for a set of sash windows that needed replacing.

In keeping with the community spirit, the church also allowed West Sussex Fire and Rescue to use Saint Hill's grounds for training, although the fire service did turn down its offer of a £50,000 donation.

Such is the concern among some in the community that they have described Scientology as 'having a grip' over the town council and said the church's involvement with public events means they are 'practically partners'.

Alexander Barnes-Ross, a former Scientologist turned campaigner against it, said: 'If you look at Scientology policy, it is very clear that the goal isn't to help the local community, it's to assert control over the local government and influence decision makers.

'That is exactly what Scientology has been trying to do since they set up shop in East Grinstead in 1959. Now it has got to the point that it is so embedded in the local councils that it is starting to get very worrying.'

He added: 'The majority of the council are basically under the influence of Scientology.

'If it isn't stopped now this control will grow over the coming years and it's only a matter of time before they have someone in a position of authority.'

These claims are unlikely to cut much ice with public servants such as former town mayor Dick Sweatman, who is now a Mid Sussex councillor.

Judging by emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Mr Sweatman is happy to help the Scientologists when appropriate – he inquired, for instance, about having a road closed on behalf of the church after it became apparent that protesters were planning to hold a rally outside Saint Hill.

Why shouldn't he, he asks – explaining that he made his inquiries to find out who the church should best speak to about the road closure, and that he would 'point anybody in the right direction' in similar circumstances.

Nor is it the first time he has offered his assistance.

A former chair of the district planning committee, he has been involved in decisions when Saint Hill was granted permission for major building work, including in one case a 2017 retrospective application that angered locals, who claimed it had brought noise and light pollution and what they said was the destruction of wildlife habitats.

There is no suggestion that Mr Sweatman did anything wrong. Mr Sweatman has featured in slick Scientology PR videos and in one of them says the town is 'extremely grateful to the church'.

He is not alone in thinking so, given that others – including former mayor Julie Mockford and two other councillors – were happy to feature in the same video. Another former mayor, Rex Whittaker, is in it too, standing next to Mr Miscavige at a Saint Hill event.

'Saint Hill has given us nothing but support,' enthuses one Mid Sussex councillor who thanks the church in the video for its friendship and warmth, saying it is 'greatly appreciated'.

And yet, the question remains. Are the councillors too close to the church?

Indeed, East Grinstead council has now been accused by Scientology critics of censorship. Earlier this year, it removed a section of a recorded town council meeting in which members of the public raised concerns about its relationship with the church.

The council insisted this was done for legal reasons 'to protect those individuals making the allegations', but critics are unconvinced.

Mr Barnes-Ross, who joined the church in 2011 aged 15 and left in 2014, is the first British former member to speak out in more than a decade. He said the councillors' 'close relationship' with the church is deeply worrying and their heads were being turned by celebrity events.

'Scientology is looking for any sort of claim to legitimacy. They play the long game,' he said.

'They basically took over the town of Clearwater in Florida,' he said, adding that they have bought up many buildings in the area. 'They started very slowly and supported the campaigns of Scientology-friendly council candidates. They're doing exactly the same thing here in East Grinstead.'

An East Grinstead council spokesman is adamant that nothing is amiss: 'Councillors have interaction in a year with many of their community groups... Community groups often volunteer to help with the delivery of town events and the Church of Scientology has also done so. They have not been part of the organisation of any events.'

As for the church itself, it dismissed Mr Barnes-Ross's claims and insisted: 'We support our local councillors in performing public service as they give a great deal of their own time to serve their town and county and they deserve support in what they do. We are not aware that attending a charity fundraiser at Saint Hill is considered a 'perk' but are not surprised that it is an enjoyable event.'

More enjoyable still for councillors, though, will be the next red carpet photo-opportunity with Tom Cruise.

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