The faith business: Scientology in NZ

Last updated 16:57 15/02/2008

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Accountant Andrew Yong was near his office in the Panmure shops in east Auckland when he met a man who would change his life.

Andrew Wenborn was from the Church of Scientology, headquartered a few hundred metres away. An Australian on secondment from Sydney, Wenborn persuaded Yong to take a Scientology "stress test", using an electrical device called an "e-meter".

Sure enough, Yong was stressed and his health poor, Wenborn told him, and Scientology could help. What's more, said Wenborn, he could reorganise Yong's business to make it more successful.
Convinced, Yong joined the church, signed up for a $700 business management course and spent hundreds more on Scientology literature. But within two months his longest-serving employee had quit because of harassment by Wenborn, who had persuaded Yong she was "draining his life-force".
Yong landed before the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) and in 2006 was fined $13,000 for unjustified dismissal. Wenborn has returned to Australia, but other members are still hounding Yong. "They never stop," he says. "I kick one out and another comes in."

The Church of Scientology is nothing if not persistent. Founded in Los Angeles in 1952 by science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard, Scientology, its critics say, is not a religion at all, but a cult designed for one thing: to make money.

A BBC Panorama documentary last year estimated it costs followers about $250,000 to pay their way into the elite rank of the church and become an "Operating Thetan", or OT.

You criticise Scientology at your peril. The church has become notorious for its litigation, suing and intimidating those who speak out against it. But to many, Scientologists are figures of fun, principally because of the weirdness of their theology (our planet is swarming with the souls of aliens brought to earth by a galactic ruler called Xenu eons ago), and in recent months, because of the increasingly bizarre behaviour of the movement's most famous adherent, American actor Tom Cruise.

A new book by Andrew Morton claims Cruise is now number two in the church under David Miscavige, who was best man at Cruise's wedding to Katie Holmes and reportedly went with them on their honeymoon. Last month a video recording of Cruise waxing lyrical (some would say hysterically) about his religion was posted on the internet site YouTube and was watched by millions before being removed, allegedly at the behest of Scientologists. "We are the authorities on getting people off drugs, we are the authorities on the mind," enthused Cruise. "We are the authorities on improving conditions . . . we can rehabilitate criminals . . . we can bring peace and unite communities."

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Scientology claims to have millions of followers worldwide and 5000 in New Zealand, although only 357 people called themselves Scientologists in the 2006 Census.

At the church's New Zealand headquarters in Panmure the volunteer staff of about 30 is kept busy buttonholing potential recruits on the streets and offering them the kind of "stress test" that first drew Yong in.

They also target members of the business community, through the church's business management arm, Wise (World Institute of Scientology Services), which runs courses based on Hubbard's teachings.
There are claims that the money raised here through the sale of courses and literature goes to a central fund in the United States and that top- level Scientologists are getting rich off the back of lowly staff slaving for a pittance. The church here denies this, saying all money raised is spent locally, on anti-drugs programmes and exposing the "truth" about psychiatry.

YONG'S WRANGLE with the Employment Relations Authority wasn't the first time the Wise scheme had received official scrutiny. In 2002 it was revealed that a proposed plastics factory in Hokitika was licensed as a Wise training academy and two of the key players behind it were Scientologists. The failed project received a $500,000 loan from the Westland District Council but ended with audit inquiries and a Serious Fraud Office complaint.

The ERA's ruling in the Yong case, and a subsequent Employment Court ruling issued last year after an appeal by Yong, provides a rare insight into the business philosophy of Scientology.

According to the two judgements, Wenborn offered to conduct individual interviews with Yong's staff to "ascertain their integrity".

Yunpei (Sophia) Chin had been Yong's longest-serving employee, working as an accounts clerk. Yong had held Chin in high regard, but Wenborn convinced him she was the cause of his "stress" and was not good for the business.

Wenborn was particularly exercised about an old debt owed to Yong by Chin's husband - something the court found she knew nothing about - and spent most of the interview delving into her personal affairs.
Later, Yong wrote to Chin, saying: "I am now a member of Wise, which require that there are no unethical and unscrupulous staff in our firm . . . I need all of my employees to co-operate with Mr Andrew Wenborn at his/her uttermost sincerity and from the bottom of their heart."

Next, Wenborn and Yong visited Chin while she was at home on a day's sick leave and asked to discuss the debt. Chin and her husband asked them to leave, but they refused. Finally, police were called. Chin quit soon after, saying the situation had caused her stress and health problems.

Wenborn gave evidence at the ERA hearing but never turned up to testify at the Employment Court appeal. He is believed to have returned to Sydney.

"How can he just disappear?" asks Yong. "How come he can't even bother to write and ask how is the court case going? For me, he was running away."

Yong is unapologetic for the way he handled Chin, and is appealing to the High Court.

And despite his disappointment with Wenborn, Yong says he still believes in the principles he learnt from the church. He still has Wise manuals and copies of Hubbard's books, and is using Scientology's "organising board" structure to streamline his business.

He does wish they would leave him alone, though. "That is the part that is most annoying - they keep coming back. They send different people, every time different people. They send a whole army of troops."

Yong may be upset by the "pushy" approach of Scientologists, but it should hardly come as a surprise to him. A copy of a Wise manual he gave the Star-Times encourages members to target their local business communities, including business associations.

Members are told to get businesspeople along to a workshop held at the church, place a picture of Hubbard prominently, and do a "hard sell", pushing Hubbard's books. "No matter what, you want everyone to buy a book," it says.

The manual continues: "The message should be that the business workshops are being done as a public service to the community; that the Church of Scientology is in a unique position to help the business community, as our founder, L Ron Hubbard, developed a tremendous body of information on the subject of administration."

Hubbard, who died in 1986, said in the 1940s: "Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous. If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion."

Mike Ferris, the secretary of the Church of Scientology of New Zealand Incorporated (a registered charity which was given tax- exempt status by Inland Revenue in 2002), is amiable but cautious when he greets the Star-Times at the church's Panmure offices.

The upstairs reception area is dominated by a large bust of Hubbard. There's a picture of him above the reception desk and books and DVDs of his teachings are everywhere.

When visited by reporters, Ferriss says, he is like a postman sussing out a dog.

You can't blame him - most mainstream media articles are what Ferriss calls "attacky", focusing on the controversial aspects of the religion, particularly its financial affairs, litigation against its critics and former members, and clashes with psychiatry.

Ferriss is listed in the electoral roll as a musician but he doesn't want to talk about how that fits in with his full-time church job. "I don't mix the two."

He is also chairman of Progressive Panmure, the local business association, and has structured it using Hubbard's "organising board".

"It just helps structure any group or organisation," Ferriss says. "It just helps define roles, what people are doing. It's not religious principles, it's organisational principles."

Wise and the church, says Ferriss, are separate entities.

Ferriss says Wenborn is back in Australia, but that he left only because his stint in Auckland was up, not because of the Yong court case.

Ferriss believes Scientology was unfairly singled out in the ERA and Employment Court rulings on Yong. "It looked a bit discriminatory, like they were going 'nya, nya, nya' at Scientology."

Ferriss put the Star-Times in touch with church member Allison Axford, a fashion designer and make-up artist who has structured her business according to Hubbard's teachings.

"It's all just based on statistics," says Axford. "You look at your statistics, learn how to put them on a graph, see which 'condition' you're in each week or month, and then apply that condition. Scientology is an applied philosophy. It's a very practical religion, not so much going to a church and praying."

One of Scientology's most outspoken critics in the US is Graham Berry, a New Zealand-born lawyer who was admitted to the bar in Canterbury in the 1970s before setting up practice in New York and later Los Angeles. Berry, who was in Blenheim last month visiting his elderly father, says he was "sucked into the black hole of Scientology" while defending a defamation suit. He represented a psychologist quoted in a 1991 Time magazine article exposing Scientology as "the thriving cult of greed and power".

Since then, Berry says he has been the subject of a Scientology smear campaign. He says he has lost his house and business practice because of his battle with the cult. Berry assisted Andrew Morton with his Cruise biography.

Berry says Ferriss had him tailed by a private investigator when he visited his father in the mid-90s. (Ferriss doesn't deny it - "I think we were curious about what Graham Berry was up to". He says Berry has been declared a vexatious litigant in California.)

Berry also provided the IRD with a "raft of information" as to why it should not grant the church tax- exempt status. He alleges money raised by Scientologists around the world goes to a central reserve fund in Los Angeles, a claim Ferriss denies.

Berry says staff at churches work incredibly long hours for very little money. (Ferriss admits he doesn't receive "a decent salary at all") and are kept on a tight leash by the US executive.

"If they don't meet their weekly statistics they may not be getting paid," says Berry. "Everybody has a job description and a weekly productivity statistic which has to be emailed to Los Angeles every Thursday at 2pm. If their statistics aren't up, they won't get paid. Their once- fortnightly day off, their liberty day, would be cancelled as well, or you may be sent to the the rehabilitation project force (RPF) - the so-called gulags - that many former members have compared to a Russian or Chinese re- education camp."
Berry says Scientology overseas has been connected with financial fraud, including the case of Scientologist Reed Slatkin, jailed for 14 years in 2003 for fraud after raising around $200 million from more than 500 wealthy investors and funnelling much of the money to the church.

Hubbard himself, Berry points out, was convicted in absentia for fraud in France in 1978 and was convicted of passing a fraudulent cheque in California in the 1940s.

"It [Scientology] is a huge financial scam, with a few so-called public- service fronts for public relations purposes," Berry says.

The Star-Times found no evidence of financial irregularities in the New Zealand church, and Ferriss says all the money raised here is put to good use.

"We have a fantastic anti-drug education programme, we promote understanding of human rights . . . we run a wonderful human rights campaign in terms of psychiatric abuse."

The recent media coverage around Cruise has only helped create interest, says Ferriss.

"We have had some of our highest-ever attendances on courses in the last few weeks. Any publicity is good publicity."

And yet, says Ferriss, there are powerful forces working against his faith.

"It's a new religion, a new philosophy, and it says it can change people's lives and can make the world a better place. Certain people don't want to see the world a better place. They profit off the adversity and misery of others and that really is where the crux of the problem lies."

Mike Ferris wants to get one thing straight - Tom Cruise didn't buy the $10 million heritage building in central Auckland for the Church of Scientology. "That's completely daft, as if he's the only Scientologist in the world," the church's New Zealand spokesman says.

Ferriss says several people have asked him if Cruise was involved, but it was one of the church's local members who suggested the neo-Gothic building in Grafton would be a good fit with Scientology's programme of buying heritage buildings around the world.

The building was built for the Methodist Church in 1929 and was most recently home to the Whitecliffe College of Arts and Design. The building, with a 2005 capital value of $4.5m, was not on the market but the business consortium that owned it changed its mind when the Church of Scientology offered $10.2m cash early last year. Ferriss said there was no date for the move, as a major renovation project would be undertaken first.

The church's 2005 financial statements, posted voluntarily on the government's societies website, show that it had assets of $910,000, including $349,000 cash in the bank and $419,890 worth of "religious books and artefacts" (L Ron Hubbard's writings), but liabilities of $1.9m, including a non-current liability of $1m owed to Scientology churches overseas for staff training provided over several years. Ferriss says the building was bought with help from donations from Scientologists around the world.

"We're now 50 years old as a church and we're putting down our roots, and saying 'this is where we are and these are our bases'. I think people do recognise where you live. They go, 'wow that's kind of impressive'."

A BRIEF HISTORY OF SCIENTOLOGY

1911: Lafayette Ronald Hubbard born in Tilden, Nebraska.
1941-1945: Hubbard serves in US navy during World War II.
1950: Hubbard's self-help book, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, first published. He also publishes a number of pulp science fiction novels.
1952-55: Hubbard develops Scientology as a successor to Dianetics, calling it an "applied religious philosophy" and the basis for a new religion. First church established in LA. One of the first outside the US is established in NZ.
1960s: Scientology becomes a focus of controversy with the UK, NZ, South Africa, the Australian state of Victoria and the Canadian province of Ontario holding public inquiries into its activities. Scientology loses its tax- exempt status in the US after an IRS audit.
1983: Scientology is recognised as a religion in Australia by the High Court.
1986: Hubbard dies after suffering a stroke at his ranch in California. He is succeeded as church head by David Miscavige.
1993: US grants Scientology tax exemption again.
2002: Scientology recognised as a religious charity in NZ, with the IRD granting it tax-exempt status.
2007: Church of Scientology in NZ buys a heritage building in Auckland for $10.2m.
2007: Employment Court in Auckland orders a businessman who "unwisely fell under the spell" of a Scientologist to pay an ex-employee $13,000 for constructive dismissal.
2008: An unauthorised biography of Tom Cruise by author Andrew Morton alleges Cruise is number two in the church worldwide and that his ex-wife, Nicole Kidman, feared being blackmailed by the church if she spoke out against it. Publisher Macmillan says it will not be available in New Zealand.
Some famous followers of scientology: Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes, John Travolta, Kelly Preston, Nancy Cartwright, Kirstie Alley, Juliette Lewis, Priscilla Presley, Lisa Marie Presley, Isaac Hayes.

- Sunday Star Times

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