Depending on how long they participate and how far they advance, Scientologists can spend from a few thousand dollars to sums well into six figures. Much of the money pays for training and for counseling sessions called "auditing." Smaller sums are paid for books, recorded lectures and a counseling device called the "e-meter." Many parishioners travel to Scientology's Clearwater mecca and stay in church hotels. Scientologists also are urged to donate to the International Association of Scientologists and other groups. Many Scientologists put money on account to pay in advance for services on a spiritual ladder called "The Bridge."
The IRS granted Scientology tax-exempt status in 1993. Parishioners can deduct the amounts they pay for church counseling and training, which the IRS treats as charitable contributions. Parishioners cannot deduct the amounts paid for books, e-meters, accommodations and other items for which their money buys something of tangible value.
Getting it back
The church considers anyone who asks for his money back or sues to get a refund an enemy, a "suppressive person." Church policy is to refund money to those who ask for it within 90 days of receiving a service. The parishioner signs a waiver stating that he can never again receive church services.
"I have always promptly and immediately caused to be refunded every penny of the money paid by any person who was dissatisfied with his or her processing," Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard wrote in a 1963 policy letter.
A "repayment'' is different, and has no time limit. It's for those who want back the unused money they paid in advance.
Scientology told the IRS in 1993 that its policy for returning money "is exceedingly fair. If someone isn't happy with Scientology — which is a very small minority of people — he simply has to make a proper request for his donations back, agree to forgo further services and his donations will be returned."
The church has a "routing form'' for parishioners seeking a refund or a repayment. It lays out more than a dozen steps of documentation and approval for the parishioner to follow. The request goes to the "Claims Verification Board," which approves or denies it.
The Times spoke with several former parishioners who said they received repayments. Aida Thomas of Los Angeles was one of them.
She was repaid $21,900 last year, $16,000 of it from the church's international spiritual headquarters in Clearwater. In March she asked for her money back. The church faxed her a form, which she signed and faxed back. Her check arrived within a week.
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It took about two months for her to get back $5,900 she had on accounts at a church and at a specialized training center in Los Angeles. She repeatedly e-mailed church executives to check on her requests and urge action. "The secret is not to lose patience,'' she said.
A native of Mexico, Thomas was in the church 21 years and rose to the high rank of Class VIII auditor. She left in 1997, disagreeing with alterations to Scientology's applied technology.
She still considers herself a Scientologist. She didn't request repayment for a decade — until the church notified her that she had been declared a "suppressive person.''