Scientology amped up donation requests to save the Earth starting in 2001

Lynne Hoverson and Bert Schippers quickly pitched in with a $12,000 donation when Seattle Scientologists started raising money for a new church in 2000. They later boosted their gift to $160,000.

On a late-autumn evening in 2005, a trio of church fundraisers arrived at the couple's home. They wanted more cash for the $13 million project.

Ninety thousand dollars.

Hoverson explained that she and her husband already had borrowed heavily to donate to church causes. Borrowing $90,000 more would mean another several months of payments.

She told them no.

A few days later, one of the fundraisers sent a complaint called a "Knowledge Report" to church officials. She was turning the couple in.

Their sin: insufficient generosity.

"The fact that it would only take them 1 ½ years to handle their debts if they donated this amount to the building tells me that they can do more if they were willing to," wrote Kelly Brown, a member of Scientology's religious order, the Sea Org.

Hoverson and Schippers were aghast when the Knowledge Report came in the mail.

This was how you asked people for a donation?

But the church's brazen sense of entitlement would not even register with them until years later.

"We were so used to being asked for money," Schippers said, "that you kind of get numb to it."

The St. Petersburg Times’ investigative series "The Money Machine" has shown how the Church of Scientology relentlessly hounds its parishioners for money, using intimidation and even deception against those it professes to serve.

Church defectors told how religious workers in Clearwater schemed and scrambled to bring in cash. Weary former parishioners recalled how church staffers harangued them to buy $3,000 sets of scripture.

But Scientology's fundraising reached another dimension in the 2000s as the church pursued two key initiatives — expand its influence and build gleaming new churches around the world.

Dozens of former church members, speaking out for the first time, said fundraisers resorted to extreme tactics:

Block the exits. In Minneapolis, church staffers followed a woman and her husband to the restrooms to make sure they didn't leave a fundraising event. On the Scientology cruise ship Freewinds, staffers stood side by side and locked arms to block the stairway leading back to the guest rooms.

In Santa Barbara, Calif., Scientology workers arranged meeting rooms so anybody leaving would have to walk conspicuously past the speaker's podium.

"You don't want multiple avenues of escape," said Linda McCarthy, former executive director of the Santa Barbara church.

Do not let them think it over. Get parishioners to donate now. A fundraiser on the Freewinds told a young parishioner — newly married and struggling financially — not to consult her husband before she put a $10,000 donation on her credit card. She listened, and still regrets it.

When they give, make them give more. At a banquet in Chicago, a parishioner announced that she was giving $100,000 to a Scientology cause, drawing a big ovation. When she returned to her table, she was set upon by somebody raising money for something else.

If they don't give enough, threaten them. In Orange County, Calif., a Scientology fundraiser filed a Knowledge Report about a parishioner who refused to donate $350,000 to a church building campaign. It worked. He gave in.

The Church of Scientology said the former parishioners are mischaracterizing its fundraising practices.

"The Times has no business intruding on the personal choice of Scientology parishioners to support their religion," spokeswoman Karin Pouw wrote.

Scientology's leader chose a day of infamy to announce his grand vision for the future.

In a letter to parishioners dated Sept. 11, 2001, David Miscavige called the terrorist attacks a "wake-up call" for a world gone mad. He said he had a cure for the planet's ills: Scientology.

"Bluntly, we are the only people of Earth who can reverse the decline," he told followers.

Miscavige called for a rapid and massive expansion of Scientology, which at the time had only a few hundred churches and missions. He wanted thousands more, larger and with more staff.

He appealed for parishioners' "unprecedented help" — their money.

"The way to do better is to get big," he said.

For the next decade, two priorities propelled the church.

One aimed to build handsomely appointed local churches called "Ideal Orgs," such as the $13 million project in Seattle. The other supported the International Association of Scientologists, which has a broad mandate to fund the church's social betterment programs, promote its expansion and defend it from legal and political threats.

The two campaigns were intertwined, with large sums of IAS money applied to Ideal Orgs.

The Ideal Orgs drive has more than doubled the church's real estate holdings worldwide in terms of square footage. And the IAS has collected at least $250 million just since 2006, according to a Times analysis of the organization's published membership rosters.

As a tax-exempt church, Scientology doesn't have to disclose how much it pulls in through its various revenue sources. Exactly how much it takes in is unknown.

Parishioners wore down under the constant pressure for money. Hoverson and her husband ended up giving nearly $600,000 to Ideal Orgs and the IAS.

"There were times when I was tempted to say: 'Well, why don't you just reach in my pocket and write the check, like you own my wallet or something?' " Hoverson said. "That was how I felt about the pushiness."

In December 2000, Suzanne Working paid $2,500 to attend a 10-day conference aboard the Freewinds. One day, she was summoned out of a seminar and led to a small room.

Ted Bragin closed the door. He insisted she give to the IAS. Her eternal life hung in the balance, he said. So did the futures of her loved ones.

"I specifically remember him saying basically the soul of my mom could end up stuck in a piece of furniture in the future and I needed to do something about it," Working said.

He pressed for a large donation. No way, she told him. She made $22,000 a year selling flooring. She had already put the cost of the cruise on her credit cards.

She was 29 years old, far from her home in Minneapolis, a Scientologist for only five months. Bragin was a church registrar, an important staffer with years of experience making sales.

When she stood up to leave, he moved toward the door, leaving her no easy way out.

"Even though you're not manhandled, there's a psychological restraint," she said.

Bragin kept her for 90 minutes, praising her as a "big being" while also making her feel selfish for refusing to give. She reluctantly agreed to donate $10,000, but said she needed to run it past her husband back home. They'd been married for two years.

Bragin told her not to tell her husband. A non-Scientologist wouldn't understand the importance of the donation.

Working kept her husband in the dark and put the $10,000 on plastic. "I had no business doing that," she said. The marriage later ended, though not because of the donation. She never told him about it.

The church denied that Working was blocked from leaving the room. It said that would have violated the IAS's fundraising policy.

Fundraisers are understanding when parishioners say they can't afford to donate, the church said. Church policy and guidelines call for "the use of good manners."

The church disputed that Bragin rushed Working into a decision. "There is always time to reflect on making donations," Pouw said.

Working later married a Scientologist, staying in the church through 2009. She enjoyed some of the counseling and the fellowship but dreaded the constant demands for money.

Working and her husband tried to sneak out of "briefings" at the church that touted Scientology's influence on society and boasted of victories against the evils of psychiatry. The briefings inevitably turned into hourslong fundraising sessions for the IAS and Ideal Orgs campaigns.

She recalled an Ideal Orgs fundraiser at the Minneapolis Convention Center in 2007. About 100 people attended. Up front, a staffer kept track of amounts on an easel as the audience cheered each donation.

After 10 p.m., Working and her husband stood up to go home to their two young sons.

They were followed into the restrooms by church ethics officers, who are charged with enforcing good behavior among Scientologists. One told Working: "You absolutely can't leave."

When the couple returned to the fundraiser, staffers secured the room.

"They pushed tables in front of the door to keep us from leaving," Working said. "I'm not kidding."

In nine years in Scientology, Working, 40, racked up $70,000 in church-related debt.

"I would borrow from one card to cover payments for another and it wasn't working," she said. "I was extremely stressed out."

Her fellow Scientologists kept saying life would get better if she donated more. Working said her life improved after she drastically cut expenses and walked away from the church.

Two Los Angeles actors, two separate cruises on the Freewinds, same jarring experience: Each went into a fundraising event and couldn't get out.

Jamie Sorrentini has acted since childhood, appearing in commercials, movies and such TV dramas as Desperate Housewives, The Sopranos and NYPD Blue.

Her cruise was in 2006. She got up to leave an IAS event and found members of the Sea Org blocking the way.

"They lock arms in front of the stairs which lead to the rooms," Sorrentini said. "I was like, 'Excuse me, I have to go to my room.' And they were like, 'No, sorry. You can't.' "

She was stuck inside for five more hours.

Later, Sorrentini went with her sister to the ship's hot tub. A prominent Scientologist approached them on the verge of tears. The woman said the IAS was trying to save the planet. She begged them to return to the fundraiser.

"We're like, 'Okay. God. I guess we'll come down,' " Sorrentini said.

When they got there, they were pressured to increase their IAS membership status. Sorrentini put $4,000 on a credit card.

"You end up saying 'yes' just because you want to get them out of your hair," she said.

Karla Zamudio, who has acted in numerous commercials and in TV dramas ER, Days of Our Lives and 24, attended an artists convention aboard the Freewinds in 2007. When she tried to leave a mandatory IAS fundraiser that night in the ship's ballroom, she saw a line of Sea Org members at the door.

I'm going to the bathroom, she told them.

"They're like, 'Okay, we'll go with you. You need to come back to the event.' "

Church spokeswoman Pouw denied the actors' accounts.

"There has never been an event where Sea Org members — or any church members — stood 'shoulder to shoulder' so as to block the exit to doors. This is absurd."

The local Scientology church in Santa Barbara, Calif., had a different take on how to keep parishioners in a room.

IAS staffers set up events so parishioners trying to leave early would have to walk past the speaker's podium, said Linda McCarthy, the former executive director in Santa Barbara. They positioned staffers in front of any remaining doors. Anyone who stood up was singled out and asked to stay.

"It was very, very, very uncomfortable to just get up and leave," said McCarthy, 58, who acknowledged she helped set up the room. She left Scientology in 2007 after 31 years with the Sea Org, including six years in the IAS's Los Angeles office.

McCarthy said fundraisers from Scientology's hub in Los Angeles paraded through every two to three weeks, wanting time with her parishioners. She was focused on helping members move forward in Scientology, "but every time I looked up they were being asked for money," she said.

The IAS was the most forceful church entity, staging hard-sell sessions about four times a year. An IAS staffer always arrived three days early and gathered a list of "prospects."

McCarthy recalled one parishioner who had maxed out her credit cards to pay for a trip to Clearwater. Surely she couldn't give to the IAS, McCarthy thought.

"I know I can get 10 G's out of her," she remembers the IAS representative saying. "No matter what happens, you make sure she's at the event." McCarthy complied.

Typically, about 25 parishioners said they would attend but only 15 showed. The Santa Barbara church had a small congregation, maybe 70 people.

The IAS speakers told the audience about trouble spots — how its enemies in France and Germany were working to shut down Scientology, how the church could crumble in Europe if those forces prevailed.

They discussed new campaigns to fight psychiatric abuses. Efforts to distribute Scientology books in Third World countries. Plans for TV ads to promote the church.

After the preliminaries, the speakers announced the fundraising target for the night, she said. A typical goal in Santa Barbara was $20,000. The speaker got down to business.

Who's first?

"The audience lets out an anxious sigh because they know it's going to be brutal," McCarthy said.

She said speakers often stopped to take calls from impatient IAS supervisors in Los Angeles.

How much have you raised?

Sometimes the fundraisers used the break as a tool, returning with news "just in" that heightened the need for donations — an urgent legal development, a new report of someone ruined by psychiatric treatment.

Sometimes, staffers told McCarthy to stall a good "prospect" after the event ended. That gave them time to move in and pressure the parishioner one on one.

"I marveled at their ability to squeeze money out of people," McCarthy said. "I just went, 'My God, these guys are good.' "

One late winter evening, about 200 Scientologists gathered in the ballroom of a Chicago hotel to celebrate one of the biggest occasions on the church calendar — March 13, founder L. Ron Hubbard's birthday.

Beneath the din, church staffers quietly scrambled to meet huge fundraising quotas for the IAS and Ideal Orgs campaigns.

The room erupted when a woman and her husband announced on stage they were donating $100,000 toward Chicago's new Ideal Org.

"Everyone's clapping," said former Chicago staffer Synthia Fagen. She recalled it was 2008 or 2009.

The woman took a seat near several IAS fundraisers, and one of them started in: We need you to make a donation.

Fagen watched, cringing.

"This lady, who's just trying to catch her breath, goes, 'Oh, my gosh, we just made a donation of $100,000 to the building.' And she was all excited, and she was expecting this person to say, 'Oh, my God, that's awesome.' "

But the fundraiser kept pushing.

Yes, I know you gave to the building. But you still need to donate to the IAS.

Fagen shooed the person away and smoothed things over.

"It was like vultures," she said.

A Scientologist since 1985, Fagen, now 50, was an IAS membership officer, a local staffer who helped out when IAS teams swept through Chicago.

Troubled as a teen, she credits Scientology with getting her off drugs in her mid 20s. Over the years, she gave the IAS $26,000.

But by 2009 she had secretly begun to question the emphasis on money.

Church members were getting multiple calls each day — a dozen, two dozen, sometimes many more, Fagen said, echoing numerous others interviewed for this story. Workers from various church entities called, each with their own quotas, cajoling and pestering.

IAS teams came through Chicago about every six weeks. Fagen drove them to as many as 15 parishioners' homes. Most of the time they did not call ahead, she said. "Because if you do they would say, 'Don't come.' "

Many parishioners said up front they wouldn't give any money. The IAS staffers ignored that and went on about the IAS's good works and the importance of saving the planet.

They asked about the prospects' stock holdings, their debt-to-income ratios, their credit scores and family money.

They pushed as hard as they could, expecting to hear a yes.

They knew if they let prospects off the hook, another Scientology fundraiser would get money out of them. Fagen recalled times when she couldn't get a few hundred dollars from local parishioners, only to find out they laid out thousands in donations at Scientology's spiritual headquarters in Clearwater.

The fundraisers didn't want to ruin people financially, Fagen said. They were trying to save the planet.

Still, Fagen began to question whether she and her IAS colleagues were qualified to delve into people's financial lives. Many of the visiting fundraisers had grown up in Scientology and were young, having never worked in the outside world.

One day, scanning a list of former parishioners, Fagen spotted the name of a man who had been out of Scientology for 15 years. She drove to his home in the cornfields of northern Indiana, brought him back into the fold and got him to donate $5,000 that day. He gave another $30,000 when Fagen came back with an IAS representative.

Later, she saw him at an event in Chicago and the man seemed spent. He said he had gone to Clearwater and to the Freewinds, where he was pressed to give money every day.

That day in Chicago, the speaker on stage singled the man out for not giving.

You haven't raised your hand. Come on, step up to the plate.

She was embarrassed. She asked herself: Who was responsible if someone gave more than he should? The church? The parishioner?

She found herself wishing people would say 'no' more often.

"They let every last dime get taken and then some," Fagen said. "I've just seen it so many times."

Again and again, former parishioners told the Times that church fundraisers do not accept the word no.

One night about 9, in the spring of 2007, Carisa Marion was at home in a suburb north of Los Angeles. The doorbell rang. She recognized the man outside as Anthony, an assistant to IAS fundraiser Ted Bragin.

Marion opened the door and told Anthony she could not donate any money. She had given the IAS $98,000 the previous July after Bragin pressed her for five hours at a church facility in Hollywood. In September he followed her to her car and got her to give another $1,000.

Anthony told her the IAS needed more. It was an emergency.

"I'm sorry," she told him. There was no way.

According to Marion, Anthony tried to push his way in, but she slammed the door and locked it.

She said he banged on the door and rang the bell.

He called her land line and her cellphone.

She heard him outside, repeating that it was an emergency.

She heard him say that Bragin was going to come over.

"I actually felt scared," Marion said. "I know it sounds really stupid. … But when you have somebody pounding on your door and you're alone in this house and they just won't stop, you feel like somebody's chasing you and you can't get away."

Even so, she hoped her neighbors wouldn't call the police. She'd be blamed for causing a PR "flap" for the church.

She called a friend, who told her to turn off her porch light and go upstairs. After 45 minutes, Anthony left, Marion said.

The church said it could not verify this and other allegations of coercion by its staff, but said the allegations were "false and denied."

Lynne Hoverson joined Scientology in 1973 and says it temporarily saved the marriage she was in at the time.

She met Bert Schippers at a Seattle company owned by a Scientologist. They married in 1989 and started an electronics company that assembles circuit boards. Hoverson says Scientology counseling gave her the confidence to help launch the business.

Over the years they advanced to the church's upper levels of spiritual awareness. Their business helped them afford the expensive counseling, but Hoverson maintains: "We're not rich." Much of the money they spent came from her mother's estate and refinancing their home.

Not much came of the Knowledge Report Kelly Brown wrote about their refusal to give $90,000 to the Seattle org in 2005. It surfaced once when Schippers went to the church in Los Angeles, but an ethics officer didn't make an issue of it because the couple had given more money by then.

In February 2008, Hoverson and Schippers were at Scientology's Pacific Base in Hollywood, having almost finished 10 months of services. A church page stopped them.

Could they stop by Bridget Yavaraski's office?

The couple knew what was coming. Yavaraski was an IAS fundraiser. Hoverson and Schippers had seen her in action many times in Seattle.

They found her waiting in her office. Later, fellow fundraiser Ted Bragin joined them. Yavaraski said there were 100,000 child pornography sites on the Internet and the IAS had to do something about it. How much could the couple give?

Nothing, said Schippers. He found the claim about the porn sites outlandish. It isn't true, he told them.

Yes it is, they said. David Miscavige, the leader of Scientology, had announced it at a briefing.

That didn't change the couple's minds. During their long stay at the Pac Base, they had spent $290,000 on services and donations.

Yavaraski and Bragin kept pushing. They imposed on the couple for two hours, asking for thousands of dollars.

"Pressure, presressure, pressure,'' recalled Schippers, 45, a Scientologist since 1985. "You just get to the point where you want to get out of there. And one of the ways to get out of there, I'm ashamed to say, is to capitulate and give the money."

They put $7,000 on a Visa card, their last major gift to the IAS.

The church said the IAS "has never had a project to 'handle child pornography on the Internet' and any allegation that such a project was used to raise donations is false."

Hoverson and Schippers said they gave the IAS $285,000 over their decades as church members. They estimate they spent at least $700,000 on church counseling. They ended up giving $300,000 to the Seattle Ideal Org, $74,000 to the church's "Super Power" building in Clearwater, and $120,000 to settle a family member's account with the church.

Grand total: about $1.5 million.

"Ouch," Schippers said.

Hoverson and Schippers left Scientology in 2009 for a number of reasons, including the incessant demands for money. Their house is mortgaged for $300,000, much of which they spent on Scientology.

"I'm 68," Hoverson said, "and there's no way I can retire until this debt's paid off."

Scientologists in Orange County, Calif., had been raising money for years to build an Ideal Org. But in the spring of 2006, church managers in Los Angeles ramped up the urgency.

They ordered the Orange County staff to raise $2.4 million — in a few days.

Ed Dearborn, the org's executive director, turned to Luis Garcia, a longtime parishioner. Garcia already had donated $150,000 to the project.

Dearborn told him how valuable he was, how the church could always depend on him. He needed Garcia to kick in another $350,000.

Garcia, 52, had just made an advance payment of thousands of dollars for church services. He had donated $350,000 more to the Super Power building.

"I'm like, 'Give me a break. Go to the rest of the people, have them do their part.' ''

Garcia's wife, Rocio, supported the decision. The couple had sold their printing business and were semiretired. "We had to be conservative with the way we spent our money,'' he said.

For Garcia, that meant repeatedly saying "no." The church staged nightly meetings to get parishioners to donate. After each session two staffers pulled Garcia into a room to pressure him.

"That's when the grinding would start," he said.

Ideal Org fundraisers knew exactly how to grind. They worked from a how-to manual created by the church. It urged them to work in twos so the prospect "succumbs faster and easier."

The manual advised fundraising teams to go in with "prearranged signals" and push back if the prospect offered less than the expected amount. It cited statistics about millionaires in the United States, concluding: "There is plenty of money out there."

The fundraisers suggested Garcia sell his $250,000 airplane and give the proceeds to the Ideal Org. He didn't go for that. Instead, he left a meeting early one evening, handing $400 to a support staffer on his way out.

Days later, Dearborn wrote a Knowledge Report that suggested to Garcia that his 24-year spiritual rise in Scientology could be halted if he didn't donate more.

Garcia was working to complete a level of spiritual enlightenment known as Operating Thetan VII. His dream of ascending to the highest level was just over the horizon.

Those who reach OT VIII are at the pinnacle of Scientology, said to be free from the constraints of their bodies, able to control the world around them and endowed with special powers of perception. They also are seen as role models to other Scientologists.

Dearborn's report said Garcia's gifts to the Orange County Ideal Org were appreciated — but "hardly the Correct orders of Magnitude."

It said he couldn't "handle the wife." It said he might be an enemy of the church.

At a minimum, Garcia showed signs of "PTSness to the middle class," church jargon meaning he considered material things to be more important than Scientology.

Dearborn mailed the report to Garcia and sent a copy to the ethics department in Clearwater, where Garcia was working toward his OT VII status.

"These people were now playing for real. They were playing nasty," Garcia said.

He quickly understood the meaning of Dearborn's words: His wife was seen as "suppressive" because she was preventing him from giving.

"That means I cannot stay married to her," Garcia said. "That means they will take me out of OT VII. That means a lot of bad things."

A couple of days later, his wife found the Knowledge Report in his desk. She immediately suggested they give the $350,000 to the Orange County Ideal Org.

"This was her solution to our marriage," Garcia said. "This was her way of fending off the danger."

Mission accomplished, for Dearborn. The church declined to make any of its staffers available for interviews.

The couple's donation sparked more giving and the org met its $2.4 million target. But five years later the project is still not done. Garcia recently visited the site and found an unfinished building. He said the church conned him.

"That's the part that hurts," he said. "That's the part that wakes one up.''

About Ideal Orgs

Local Scientology churches, large and small, are charged with raising millions to turn their buildings into "Ideal Orgs." But church management in California dictates the details.

The buildings are to be architectural gems with at least 40,000 square feet of space. Each is impeccably renovated and outfitted with counseling rooms, a library, a bookstore, a chapel and seminar rooms.

Video displays condense Scientology's complicated framework in ways that potential new members might grasp more easily. The buildings also house exercise equipment and saunas for the "Purification Rundown," a regimen that, according to the church, rids the body of toxins.

In an Ideal Orgs fundraising video circulating on YouTube, voice artist Nancy Cartwright tells fellow Scientologists there are two words on her kitchen chalkboard:

"Give more."

About the IAS

The International Association of Scientologists was founded in 1984 to protect the church from threats, assure its expansion and provide aid to individual Scientology churches and groups. It is "the glue that holds everything together," says one church publication, "part of the most dauntless, defiant and resolute group the world has ever known."

Last year, the organization said someone was helped every 60 seconds in an IAS-sponsored drug rehabilitation center. It said its human rights campaign reached 223 million people. It took credit for broad social improvements — a drop in crime in Colombia, a drop in drug use among teens in Toronto.

Scientology amped up donation requests to save the Earth starting in 2001 11/19/11 [Last modified: Monday, November 21, 2011 4:31pm]

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