New religion in Pittsburgh brings controversy, high hopes
In the 1900 block of East Carson Street on the South Side, there’s an unassuming storefront that marked its first anniversary last month.
It’s the Pittsburgh office of the Church of Scientology, the controversial religious movement that recently captured international headlines when celebrity disciple Tom Cruise became increasingly public and, at times, combative, about his beliefs.
Although the office opened here with little fanfare, Scientologists have high hopes for its growth as they try to regain a foothold in the region after a false start in Washington County.
“We feel that Pittsburgh is an important city,” said Beth Akiyama, church spokeswoman for the eastern United States. “It’s centrally located. There are important institutions there. We feel like it’s a city ready for change and to improve.”
Directed by volunteer Joe Kissel, 57, a retired LTV steelworker born and reared on the South Side, it’s a comfortable center with soft leather couches where visitors can take a free personality or IQ test, enroll in basic courses, watch videos or buy books by L. Ron Hubbard, the science fiction writer who founded Scientology in 1954.
The church estimates there are 200 members in the Pittsburgh area, with a total of 11,000 to 12,000 in Pennsylvania, although the exact number is hard to nail down because many members seek services from larger centers in Columbus or Cincinnati; Buffalo, N.Y.; Philadelphia; or Florida and Los Angeles.
Even so, Kissel says, the South Side office is drawing people from Harrisburg, Johnstown, Somerset and Cleveland for the very reason that attracted him to the organization years ago:
“This stuff works,” he said. “You can take these courses and apply them to your life.”
In Scientology, people are considered immortal spiritual beings, known as thetans. Followers work through their past-life memories as a self-help technique to achieve perfect mental health. They eschew psychiatry and the use of drugs to treat psychiatric conditions.
Akiyama estimates there are 10 million members affiliated with more than 5,000 groups and organizations in 156 countries.
One local resident who is not happy to see the new Scientology presence is Carnegie Mellon University computer science researcher David Touretzky.
“It’s a textbook [case] of an abusive cult group,” said Touretzky, who, for 10 years, has waged a battle against the organization on his personal Web pages .
“I think Scientology poses a danger to people. It’s a classic bait-and-switch operation. They promise you one thing and you get something else.”
A free-speech advocate, he first looked into the organization when he heard it was trying to censor critical reports about its operations. The more he learned about Scientology, he said, the more concerned he became.
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He said his research had been instrumental in alerting officials in California about Scientology’s ties to a school anti-drug program called Narconon, as well as in raising awareness about other controversial dealings of the organization. San Francisco and Los Angeles schools are not using the program now, and the state school chief recommended in February that all schools in the state drop the program.
Decades before Touretzky started tracking its activities, Scientology and its tactics had been the focus of law enforcement investigations.
“These guys are basically bad news,” said Touretzky, 46, of West Mifflin. “They need to be exposed, and they need to be stopped.”
Akiyama counters that Touretzky has launched his tirade to advance his own atheist views. He denies this.
“He’s not an expert,” Akiyama said. “He is a vengeful and hateful person. I don’t know how he got so malicious about Scientology. There are millions of people who love Scientology.”
The state of ‘clear’
Scientology, which has been embraced by such high-profile celebs as John Travolta and Kirstie Alley, got a toehold in the region in 1992, when Richard and Sharon Evans, both 51, started a small mission. It began in their Charleroi home, then moved to a center in Belle Vernon.
Sharon Evans, who operates a cleaning business with her husband, became interested in the church after borrowing a book by Hubbard, “Problems of Work,” from a local chiropractor. After she applied its concepts to her cleaning firm, business took off.
The mission at one time had as many as seven staff members, Richard Evans said. But because it didn’t offer advanced programs, members started going elsewhere. He eventually moved the mission back to the couple’s home, where he still sells books, fields phone calls and meets with people interested in learning more.
“It helps you with everyday problems,” he said about Scientology. “I did a communication course. It helped me a lot. I’m not too shy anymore, and I do communicate a whole lot better. My reading level and understanding level has gone way up.”
Such was the case on a package of stories published last Sunday on the Church of Scientology, one of the most unusual new religious movements. But never in our years of experience have we faced so much pressure, resistance and manipulation from an organization as we prepared our reports.
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Many come to Scientology through the management models that Hubbard developed. They’re particularly attractive to dentists and chiropractors, who often need to market their businesses because many of their procedures are not covered by insurance.
Dr. David Petti, 51, said he learned little in dental school about how to promote his Plum dental practice. Since he started applying Hubbard’s principles about 10 years ago, he’s seen a jump in business.
“The rule of thumb is ‘outflow equals inflow,’ ” he said. “It’s excellent business technology. It gets to the truth of what business is all about.”
People who apply these management tools don’t have to be Scientologists, he said, but the more he learned about Hubbard, the more impressed he became. Hubbard “was an accomplished Renaissance man,” Petti said. “He was kind of cool.”
The South Side office of Scientology was started in June 2004 by the much larger Cincinnati organization, which has up to 90 staff members and offers advanced study and training.
The office has limited hours now. Among services at larger centers that Scientologists hope to provide here one day are:
A sauna, a necessary piece of the “purification rundown,” an intense cleansing practice undertaken by many Scientologists. During the rundown, in which people follow a strict regimen of vitamins, exercise and time in the sauna over several days or weeks, toxins, chemicals and radiation that have accumulated over a lifetime are flushed from the body, according to Scientologists.
“You go back to square one, like a baby’s body,” said Phil Campus, 53, a staff member in Cincinnati who is training to be a Scientology minister.
An electropsychometer, or e-meter, a “religious artifact” that detects electrical changes in the skin and is designed to help people work through their problems to reach a state of “clear.”
Sunday services led by a Scientology minister where the church creed is read and other passages are delivered. There is no prayer, but there may be a round of applause for Hubbard.
Legacy of controversy
Scientology has been the focus of controversy almost from the start. In the early 1980s, 11 top Scientologists, including Hubbard’s wife, were imprisoned on charges of infiltrating, burglarizing and wiretapping more than 100 private and government agencies in attempts to block investigations. The group engaged in a nearly 40-year legal fight with the Internal Revenue Service to gain tax-exempt status as a church, which it was granted in 1993.
Officials of the former Cult Awareness Network were quoted in a 1991 Time magazine special report (“The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power”) that no group prompted more telephone pleas for help than did Scientology.
By the late 1990s, a lawsuit had forced the network into bankruptcy. The “new” network is run by the Foundation for Religious Freedom, which is connected to Scientology.
Lately, Scientology members have been setting up tables in New York City, San Francisco and other large cities, offering free stress tests with their e-meters as a way to sell books and promote the organization.
Although Scientology’s leaders claim to have 10 million members, Kristi Wachter, who runs a Scientology watchdog Web site from San Francisco, believes the number is far fewer. She has tracked literature published by Scientology missions and centers for several years and believes there are a little more than 100,000 members worldwide. Akiyama disputes that, saying that, in the former Soviet Union alone, there are 500,000 members.
Wachter and Carnegie Mellon’s Touretzky say they have received legal threats and harassment from the organization over what they have put on their Web sites. Touretzky said he has found Scientology literature dropped at his home.
Carnegie Mellon’s general counsel’s office, which also has been barraged with legal threats, would not comment about Scientology matters.
Kissel, the Pittsburgh Scientology volunteer, has heard many of the complaints before. But he said he’d never been pressured to pay money or to participate in programs. “People don’t have trouble with Scientology, but with Scientologists.”
Campus, the aspiring Scientology minister, added: “There are a lot of people misinformed about Scientology. Once they’re informed, they can see the good.”