The Church of Scientology is preparing to expand its creed to the north of England by opening a centre in Manchester next year. The church, which has been criticised as a cult, has paid £3.6m for a disused distillery in the city. It plans to turn the five-storey building, near Old Trafford, into “a place of worship and religious instruction”.
The move is part of a world-wide expansion strategy by the American organisation, which was founded by L Ron Hubbard, a science fiction writer, in 1952. According to Graeme Wilson, Scientology’s head of communications, its aim is to establish “large new centres in major cities around the world, and Manchester is one of the priority cities for having such a centre”.
Designs for the development show that a large yellow Scientology logo will be erected across the facade of the Victorian building. The move is creating tensions in the city. Beverley Hughes, the local MP and minister for children, said she was “extremely concerned”.
“In principle, I do not believe this organisation has anything positive to offer young people in our area,” she said.
The organisation has a drop-in centre in Manchester city centre, where it offers free personality tests to passers-by as well as facilities for “singing and lecturing”. It bought the distillery from property developer Maghull Group, which had purchased it to convert into flats. “The price they [the Scientologists] offered was so good, we sold it the day after buying it,” said Maghull.
Much of the organisation’s money comes from fees for its courses, which can cost up to £30,000. According to records filed at Companies House, its main corporate body in Britain is worth about £18m.
However, it has built up a property portfolio that is estimated at £38m. It owns nine other “religious buildings” in Britain, mostly in southern England, and operates more than 20 “missions”.
The organisation opened its London branch near St Paul’s Cathedral in October last year, after buying the six-storey building from BP for £10m. It is now worth £18m.
The movement refuses to say how many members it has in Britain, although organisations monitoring its activities believe there may be about 10,000. Scientology does not have charitable status and is not classified as a religion. But it may soon be entitled to multi-million-pound tax breaks after recent changes to the legal definition of religion.
Scientology has already won a series of tax victories. In 2000 it persuaded HM Revenue & Customs that it should be exempt from Vat on received payments because its services were nonprofitable and educational. A tribunal awarded the Scientologists £8m in overpaid Vat.
Scientology’s expansion in Britain has been accompanied by increased lobbying of politicians, police officers and businesses. Earlier this year, City of London police ordered records to be compiled of hospitality to officers, after an initial review found some had accepted tickets to a charity dinner hosted by the Hollywood actor Tom Cruise, a Scientologist, and to the London premiere of Cruise’s film, Mission: Impossible III.
– Justice Anderson, Supreme Court of Victoria, Australia, quoted atWhat judges have to say about Scientology
Chief Superintendent Kevin Hurley further embarrassed the force by describing Scientology as a “force for good” at the launch of its London centre. Its followers believe the radioactive souls of aliens, or thetans, have attached themselves to humans and are at the root of our problems. Celebrity adherents include Cruise and John Travolta.
The organisation denies that it is a cult and claims its subsidiary groups have done successful work with schools and in prisons to combat drug abuse and crime.
Charities, however, say its recruits are often emotionally vulnerable. Tom Sackville, a former Home Office minister and now chairman of the charity FAIR, which cares for families affected by cults, said: “There is no support under law, since mental kidnapping is not recognised as an offence in the UK.”
Bridget Martin, head of the charity’s Manchester branch, said: “Most of the people in the area that I know were sucked in via their drop-in centre in Manchester. Once they are in, that’s it. Nothing you can say or do will be able to prise your child out. I fear this new centre will draw many more people in.”
Additional reporting: Daisy Collins, Philip Cardy