Scientology: Down the rabbit hole and into a curious court case

The African headquarters for the Church of Scientology in South Africa. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

The African headquarters for the Church of Scientology in South Africa. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Read an interactive version of this story here.  


A curious court case

An unusual summons was lodged in the high court in Johannesburg in May. A high-profile business couple were suing their church for R5.8-million, or R16?million with interest, over a loan that they claim has not been repaid.

The church was a local branch of the Scientology religion, and the couple were wealthy South African property developers and former committed church members Ernest and Gaye Corbett.

Their excommunication late last year has enabled them to break one of the many purported rules of Scientology: they took legal action against the church.

In documents that are now in the public domain, with more to follow, the lid is coming off the church in South Africa after decades of alleged secretive dealings involving huge sums of money and harsh policies that some say have ruined families.

The Corbetts are two of apparently dozens of senior members of the church who were expelled late last year and early this year, in what many say has been one of the largest purges of the church in South Africa.

The Mail & Guardian spoke to nine disgruntled former members of the church who say many others have been excommunicated, all for the same reasons: they googled their church.

Scientologists are forbidden from looking their faith up on the internet, to shield them from damaging allegations, several former members claimed.
But the rumours about the church that were filtering down from the United States were too troubling to ignore: alleged physical abuse and torture at the hands of senior leaders, alleged financial misuse and other scandals that have rocked the church internationally.

Most of those the M&G spoke to said they were excommunicated after they had raised their concerns about these allegations. All live in the Johannesburg area.

“They cut you off so you can’t spread that information to anyone else inside the church,” said one former member who preferred to remain anonymous. The church itself would not respond to questions on why certain members had been excommunicated.

The M&G also spoke to a number of members still in the church, some of whom hinted that those in the ousted group were covering up “harmful acts” — but they would not be drawn on what these may be.

The alleged purge has now freed up dozens of former members to take on the church.

The Corbetts’s daughter, Lisa Goosen, is taking the church to court after she paid more than R2-million for courses for herself and her husband that were meant to take them to the top of the church’s hierarchical spiritual ladder. But the pair were excommunicated, along with most of their family, before they could do the courses and say they are unable to get their money back.

Two other former members, who also asked to remain anonymous, told the M&G they would be taking legal action against the church to reclaim donations, which one claimed was close to R1-million.

The litigants want to take the church to task over its alleged policy of “disconnection”, which forbids church members from associating with someone who has been excommunicated or declared a “suppressive person”, as it is phrased in the religion. Four people the M&G spoke to said they had suffered financially because of being disconnected, either through threats to their livelihood from those in the church or by losing clients who are forced to avoid them because of  the policy.

The Corbetts’s court case, which is expected to be heard next year, will enable their lawyers to dig into the local Church of Scientology’s finances by looking at its books dating back to 2007, when the loan was made.

An investigation into the church’s finances may reveal how much of its donations and income allegedly gets filtered up to the international head of the organisation, the slick David Miscavige, who lives a lavish lifestyle as is widely reported, while thousands of the church’s employees, including those in South Africa, are said to earn a pittance.

Gaetane Asselin, a senior church member who arrived from one of the church’s main bases in California late last year when the alleged purges began, spoke to the M&G on the church’s behalf. 

Asselin would not comment on matters currently before the court. She dismissed the allegations by former members, noting that the claims by apostates of any religion are not reliable. Neither would she respond to questions about whether members are forbidden from looking up the religion on the internet.

The international church has previously denied the claims of abuse and financial misuse.

The members of the ousted group say Asselin is part of an international team that was dispatched to patch up the instability in South Africa following the uncomfortable questions posed by former members.


Scientology and its beliefs

Scientology was created in 1952 by L Ron Hubbard, a prolific writer of pulp science fiction novels and something of a polymath who dabbled in everything from photography to sailing and aviation. Hubbard wrote the best-selling self-help book Dianetics in 1950. Following the enormous popularity of his self-help system he twinned it with a spiritual backstory, created a rigid hierarchy of progress and Scientology was born.

It is difficult to explain exactly what Scientologists believe as many of these beliefs are meant to be secret and are released to members carefully, one stage at a time, after they have paid a fee. Information on blogs by those who have left the church internationally and locally, together with news reports and books such as Going Clear by Pulitzer prizewinner Lawrence Wright, create a picture of a complex system of beliefs.

Scientology’s more innocuous beliefs draw in new believers. The first idea you are likely to hear is that past experiences leave ill effects and that the true essence of who we are is spiritual, not physical. Scientologists offer free stress tests and other services to show a person how damaged they are and then provide “auditing”, which is their own version of therapy. Except they do not call it that because they are vehemently opposed to all forms of psychiatry, as actor Tom Cruise proved in one of his more bizarre interviews with Matt Lauer on the Today Show in 2005. He attacked fellow actor Brooke Shields for taking medication to treat her postnatal depression.

Auditing is therapy Scientology-style, where the emphasis is on science and method. An “e-meter” or electro-psychometer tests areas of resistance and keeps a copious record of all that an individual confesses to — which critics say is handy for blackmail material should they leave. “Auditing is like a drug. You feel good, and three days later you’re back,” said Robert Berrington, who was excommunicated from the South African church in 2010. 

The church says auditing and other studies will take you further and further up the “bridge to total freedom”, which is a ladder charting your spiritual and academic progression in the religion until you hit “clear”. Then the real work begins for those serious about the religion: progressing up the eight “operating theta” or OT levels.

Scientologists believe that a developed enough person, or “operating thetan”, can control the physical universe, including space, time and matter. Success stories are regularly published in the church’s Advance! magazine, including accounts of people communicating with and healing their pets, and preventing car accidents by moving other cars forward with just “pure intention”. 

It’s only once you gets to OT3, or the “wall of fire” as Hubbard put it, that things get more outlandish.

Scientologists believe that a dictatorial alien overlord called Xenu — also known as Xemu, depending on how you read Hubbard’s handwritten notes — sent billions of excess people to Earth from the overpopulated Galactic Confederacy 75?million years ago, stacked them around volcanoes and set off hydrogen bombs to kill them all. Their spirits, or thetans, are said to cling to us now, causing spiritual harm. Only arduous — and expensive — Scientology techniques will rid us of their ill effects, according to reports.

The story is not supposed to be public knowledge, however, and Scientologists avoid mentioning Xenu’s name and go to great lengths to conceal the belief system underpinning the religion. It was revealed in court papers, but this knowledge was meant only for those who had worked their way up to OT3. When you gets to this stage, you are handed a folder containing Hubbard’s cryptic handwritten notes and are sent alone into a room to make sense of it all. According to the church, the knowledge is not to be consumed by those who are not ready for it because it is harmful unless approached in the right way.

This knowledge is not for the poor: various newspaper reports put the cost of each OT level at thousands of dollars. Goosen paid more than R2-million upfront for she and her husband to do OT levels one to eight, she claimed.

Members inside the church emphasise that they believe in helping the world become a better place through the teachings of Hubbard. They boast of their work in prison reform and education, plus their volunteer services in disaster zones. But ultimately everyone who is not a Scientologist is a “wog” and beneath them in every respect, former members of the church told the M&G. If you are sick or your life is not going well, Scientologists may see this as reasons to judge you for not progressing spiritually.

South African Travers Harris, a 73-year-old former Scientologist who worked alongside Hubbard, says he will not judge the religion’s beliefs but simply cannot believe the “more advanced” stuff, as he puts it.

“It’s been 60 years and we still don’t have an operating thetan: somebody who totally controls space, time, matter and life itself.”


Scientology and its people

It is tough to understand what it is like to be a second- or third-generation Scientologist in South Africa, to have grown up with the religion as one’s entire world and to suddenly have the curtain torn away. Some of the former church members still believe in Hubbard’s teachings but think the church is getting them wrong, while others call the entire system a “crock of shit”.

Former member Berrington, who was a Scientologist for 12 years and worked in the church, falls into the latter school. “Leaving Scientology and finding out what’s happening the real world is tantamount to finding out your parents are aliens,” he said.

In its heyday in the US during the 1960s and 1970s, Scientology aggressively courted celebrities and artists, who saw it as a thinking man’s religion and each new stage of learning was infused with mystery and excitement. The possibilities — to discover one’s past lives and control negative events — were endless.

Then the internet happened.

“The internet is going to probably be the ultimate downfall of Scientology,” said Ryan Hogarth, a former president of the church in South Africa, who was ousted at the end of last year with 17 others. “They’re unable to control the flow of information.” 

The stranger aspects of the religion are not carefully released in easily managed doses to the faithful. They’re out there along with damaging allegations, as fodder for countless blogs, articles and even an Emmy-nominated South Park episode — prompting Scientologist Isaac Hayes, who voiced the Chef character, to leave the show.

The M&G also heard from nine other people still in the fold of the South African church, who spoke about how Hubbard’s teachings transformed their lives.

“If it wasn’t for the training and counselling I have had, my life would have been a very unhappy one,” said Sally-Anne Cooke, who has been in the church for 42 years and credits it with saving her marriage and helping her start a successful business.

Sabina Laktionova comes from a family of Scientologists and said the church “has taught me that I am powerful and strong and have huge capabilities”.

Camerene Pendi said it helped her recover from her father’s death. “After I had completed it I felt I could actually breathe again.”

Another woman described how the church’s teachings helped her overcome extreme shyness and become a better communicator. (Comedian Jerry Seinfeld has said that although he never became a Scientologist, the church’s teachings on how to effectively “land” one’s communication helped his stand-up act in the early years of his career.)

The nine still in the church said those who had been expelled had not used Scientology materials in the correct way — a cardinal sin in the religion.

“If you want to build a model aeroplane or a bridge, you have to do it in the proper way,” explained Robin Hogarth, whose nephew is Ryan Hogarth. “If you’re going to use Scientology, use it the way it was meant to be used — don’t mix it with something.”

He would not comment on his disconnection with anyone, including his nephew or other family members.


The church in South Africa

A mere five years after it was founded in 1952, the church had already gained a foothold in apartheid South Africa. By 1960 Hubbard himself made his way to our shores, taking residence for just under a year in a sumptuous house with oak panelling and unparalleled views in Linksfield, Johannesburg. The house is now a heritage site and was immaculately restored by the church in 2010, down to the replica 1960s fridge in the kitchen and the original parquet floors.

Allegations of racist statements by Hubbard were dismissed by Asselin, who said many of these statements were taken out context.

An early questionnaire that asked whether members had had intercourse with someone from another race only existed because it was the South African law at the time, she said.

Luc du Boir, the tour guide at the Hubbard house in Linksfield, talks instead of the Constitution, Bill of Rights and penal code that Hubbard penned for South Africa, advocating one man, one vote.

“Hubbard had two purposes when he arrived here,” says Du Boir. “To extend the church in South Africa and assist with the social situation that was happening at the time.”

In the 50 years that followed, the apartheid regime rose and fell, South Africa’s borders opened and the insular community of Scientology quietly grew, largely shielded from the scandals of abuse and fraud that rocked its parent church in the US in recent years.

The headquarters for the Church of Scientology in Africa sit on the corner of a busy street in Kensington, Johannesburg. It is a large compound with geometric, African-inspired flourishes. A small chapel stands across from a large building where the main business of this religion takes place: studying. One can purchase a beginner course on improving your marriage, communication and more, for just R200. This is just the beginning for a religion that is extremely esoteric — and expensive. Materials are sometimes reissued, says Robin Hogarth. Ex-members say this practice forced them to re-enrol in the courses at additional expense before they could progress. New levels are also added. Robin Hogarth told the M&G he is at the highest OT level of eight — “for now”.

“Before Hubbard died [in 1986], he researched a whole lot more levels beyond,” he said. Each new level introduced would cost hundreds of thousands of rands to complete.

The church is not particularly representative of the South African population but Hogarth, a Grammy award-winning producer of the Soweto Gospel Choir, notes the programmes undertaken by Scientologists to help poor black communities. “Our campaigns take us into incredibly diverse situations … in many different societies in South Africa.” 

Asked if any of these people they reach out to could enter the upper echelons of the religion without money, Hogarth only shrugs.

The fortunes of Scientology in South Africa have waxed and waned. It was not recognised as a religion in South Africa under apartheid, but this changed after democracy. After a lengthy process the church even managed to attain tax-exempt status as a public benefit organisation, Asselin confirmed, which Ryan Hogarth said happened around 2005. This frees the church from paying tax on the millions it receives in donations, and from paying transfer duties on the many properties it has bought.

Its ability to attract wealthy patrons has meant it could expand rapidly. Asselin estimates there are 350?000 Scientologists in South Africa, which she measures by the number of people who have completed courses.

In Going Clear, Wright estimated that globally the church has a billion dollars in liquid reserves, in addition to its extensive property portfolio.

Six Scientology churches have been built in South Africa, along with two missions. The church has also bought a “castle” compound in Kyalami, where it is hoping to offer further OT training that members would otherwise have to travel abroad to attain.

Few of these bases are fully operational, its critics claim, even though millions of rands were solicited from people such as the Corbetts to build “ideal organisations” that are meant to have all the resources and staff that Hubbard envisioned. But some of those who have donated large amounts are now disillusioned with the church’s activities, and suspect their money was not spent on bettering the world as they had hoped.


Fundraising gone wrong

‘They badger you. Every week we were getting calls to come to fundraising events. Three people would talk to you at once and you couldn’t leave until you had promised some money.” Two former members, who spoke off the record, shared how they ended up giving millions of rands to the church, which has been lampooned as a “spiritual pyramid scheme” by its critics.

Former members say fundraising instead of making money from auditing and courses was a new invention in the church, under Miscavige.

“You think it’s not about the money because you’re paid shit,” said former staff member Berrington.

Ryan Hogarth said he was the third best-paid person in the organisation and earned less than R40?000 a year. Others were worse off. Berrington worked at the church for 10 years and earned about R50 a week in 2010 He left the church with little in the way of relevant skills for the real world.

“But every week money goes to a higher organisation … no one sees where the money is going,” said Berrington, who worked with the church’s finances. “It keeps going all the way up. At that point it was funding Hubbard’s lavish lifestyle and at this point it is funding Miscavige’s lavish lifestyle.”

Miscavige has a chef and a fleet of luxury vehicles, and enjoys the finer things in life on the same level as his friend Cruise, whereas the workers in the organisation generally earn way below any minimum wage, according to numerous international reports.

“I personally think most of what is preached about is how to extract the most money out of people,” said Kim Kihm, who was in the Johannesburg church since the age of six. “In believing it so emphatically you will ultimately give your last cent.”

She related how her ex-husband, Robi Kihm, mortgaged their house and made donations behind her back. He, in turn, told the M&G it was all done with her knowledge.

Berrington calls it brainwashing. “The guys convince you that you have lifetime after lifetime and we’re heading down as a species unless Scientology wins and prospers. So you believe this. In a war situation you don’t worry about driving your fancy cars.”

 George Orwell once wrote to a friend: “I have always thought there might be a lot of cash in starting a new religion.” Scientologists say the statement is misattributed to Hubbard. But many of his writing peers remember him making similar statements.

Sea Org, the paramilitary wing of the Scientology church, attracts members at a very young age. Its women members are allegedly not allowed to have children — leading to claims of forced abortions that the church has denied, according to multiple reports. “I joined the Sea Org and all I got was this lousy abortion,” reads a placard at one protest by former Scientologists.

However, it is the policy of disconnection that has been the most brutal for South Africans.

Senior church leaders, including Miscavige, have denied the policy exists and Asselin would not comment directly on it, save to say: “As L Ron Hubbard stated: ‘If one has the right to communicate, then one must also have the right to not receive communication from another.’ The same would apply to one’s right to freedom of association.”

Goosen described comical scenes: “I would meet people [church members] in the shops and they would literally run away from me.”

Shelly Ashurst Jackson, who was also ousted late last year after being born into the church, said she watched as 120 friends unfriended her on Facebook. Far worse are the tales of parents who have been cut off from their children.

“My daughter had been a staff member in the Sea Org since the age of 15 or 16,” related Dr Lawrence Retief, who was in the church for 28 years and was declared a “suppressive person” in January this year.

“Within 12 hours of my receiving that email telling me I was excommunicated they made sure her cellphone, Facebook and emails were shut down. That her mother, father, sisters and grandparents couldn’t get to her in any way. They made her disconnect from us totally.”

Retief mused on his being labelled as a “suppressive person”, which the church characterises as someone so evil they can’t be helped. “To deny a parent and child a relationship … that must be the real evil.”

Asselin denied or dismissed all criticisms of the church by former members, whom she accused of “gross and repeated violations of church policy. Criticisms of the international church have also been repeatedly denied. Asselin maintains that the church is a force for good in the world.

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.  Read more from Verashni Pillay

Client Media Releases

UKZN graduate lauded among 200 South African trailblazers
NWU, stakeholders collaborate to assist visually impaired