Scientology dissent from within

Published Jan. 3, 2012

The Church of Scientology will have a hard time dismissing the source of the latest criticism of its high-pressure fundraising tactics. Debra J. Cook was the longtime face of the church's spiritual headquarters in Clearwater, and her unflattering critique of the Scientology money machine should draw the attention of fellow Scientologists throughout the world. If the federal government won't demand reforms, perhaps church members will themselves.

Over the weekend, Cook emailed thousands of current and former Scientologists and wrote that church managers pressure staffers to conduct "extreme" fundraising campaigns. "The truth is,'' she wrote, "that this is being driven from the very highest echelons within the Scientology structure and clearly there is a lot of pressure to make targets that are being set.'' Cook said the money is earmarked for "opulent buildings" or "posh renovations" and the church's membership group, the International Association of Scientologists. She claimed the church is sitting on more than $1 billion in donations to the association and wrote that such hoarding of money violates policies established by the late church founder L. Ron Hubbard.

A recent Times series, "The Money Machine,'' included accounts from former Scientology fundraisers who described the coercive methods they used to meet weekly sales targets of $200,000 and higher. Former church members described how they were pressured in multiple calls or intimidating visits to tap out credit cards, home equity lines of credit and other sources of money. The Times found seven members of Scientology's religious order took money from the church accounts of parishioners for materials they had not ordered — unauthorized transactions that the church acknowledged but dismissed as "isolated instances.''

Cook describes in her email a culture of high-pressure fundraising throughout the organization. She details how the church returns again and again for money from dedicated members, often by changing the rules for advancing through various levels of Scientology. She contends that a church structure left by Hubbard that would provide checks and balances has been dismantled, and she says church leader David Miscavige has consolidated power and punishes his critics.

While the church has berated former staffers who have spoken out as disgruntled and disloyal, Cook cannot be so summarily discounted. She acted as the church's local CEO in Clearwater from 1989 to 2006 and only left the church staff in 2008. She says in her letter that she remains in good standing with the church, and she describes herself as a devoted Scientologist appealing to other church members to embrace Hubbard's teachings, stand up to the aggressive fundraising and force positive change.

Cook's credible critique of the Church of Scientology is further evidence of the need for the Internal Revenue Service to review the church's practices. It also should trigger more interest in Congress about requiring more openness about the finances of religious organizations. But Cook's account also offers an opportunity for reflection by Scientologists, who as church insiders may be more effective in bringing change than any outside forces.