The Cult Awareness Network used to receive more calls about Scientology than any other group.
That was before a hail of lawsuits helped Scientologists take over the network.
Now when people call the hotline, chances are a Scientologist is on the other end.
That’s according to several news organization and Cynthia Kisser, the group’s former executive director, now an attorney in Chicago.
“It’s as if the (Ku Klux) Klan had taken over the Anti-Defamation League,” she said.
The Church of Scientology attacks outspoken ex-members, journalists, government officials and others it regards as threats.
It has spent tens of millions of dollars on lawsuits and private investigators to do so, according to the St. Petersburg Times, which has long been at odds with the church.
And its tactics work.
Several former Scientologists, academicians and others contacted for this series declined to be interviewed, citing a fear of retaliation.
The Church of Scientology claims it has to protect itself – and does so legally – because powerful enemies target it for destruction.
The church names among its enemies the U.S. government, including the FBI and IRS; the press; and the medical establishment.
“We’re up against people who don’t want us to succeed,” said Teresa Reger, president of the Buffalo church. “There are people out there with vested interests in drugging people and keeping people down.”
The Cult Awareness Network was the nation’s largest repository of information on cult-like organizations between 1978 and 1994.
But Scientologists had long considered it a “hate group” that practiced religious bigotry and illegal deprogrammings.
So members filed 50 lawsuits against the network, according to Kisser, who was named in 15 of them. Defense costs for the anti-cult group were nearly $2 million.
The network was finally driven into bankruptcy after a $1.8 million judgment was awarded in a civil suit to a plaintiff represented by a leading Scientology lawyer in 1994. The group was found liable when a network volunteer referred a Pentecostal church member to a deprogrammer, who kidnapped him.
Individual Scientologists then bought the network – and its 5,000 files, including information on people who lodged complaints against the church – from bankruptcy court, according to other news sources.
Now, the network no longer considers Scientology a cult, according to a woman who answered the hotline but wouldn’t give her name.
Founder L. Ron Hubbard advocated a policy he called “Fair Game.”
“The purpose of the (law)suit is to harass and discourage rather than to win,” Hubbard wrote in 1955. “The law can be used very easily to harass, and enough harassment on somebody who is simply on the thin edge anyway . . . will generally be sufficient to cause his professional decease. If possible, of course, ruin him utterly.”
Stephen Kent, a professor of sociology at the University of Alberta who has written extensively about Scientology, said Fair Game sanctions Scientologists to crush its enemies.
“It’s a very effective program, in part, because at least according to older policies, if the organization can’t find dirt, then it manufactures it,” Kent said.
Suggestion of that policy was found in 1977, when the FBI raided Scientology centers in Los Angeles and Washington. They found Scientologists had infiltrated, burglarized and wiretapped government agencies, including the IRS and FBI, according to news accounts.
Eleven top church officials, including Hubbard’s third wife, were given five-year prison sentences. Hubbard was named an unindicted co-conspirator.
The IRS was a target of the church, following the revocation of its tax-exempt status in 1967 for operating as a commercial business.
Some 2,200 lawsuits were filed by the church and individual members against the IRS over the years, and investigators were hired to look into the private lives of agency officials, according to the New York Times.
In 1993, the IRS restored the Church of Scientology’s tax-exempt status.
Richard Behar wrote about being followed by six private investigators while writing a Time Magazine cover story, “Scientology: The Cult of Greed.” Courtroom battles cost the victorious magazine $7 million and Behar believes chilled further media investigations.
Still, the church has said the Fair Game doctrine was rescinded shortly after being issued.
“Fair Game no longer exists, and it hasn’t for years and years and years,” Reger said.
What about the church’s practice of hiring investigators to look at critics?
“Why not?” Reger said. “You’re going to attack us, we’re going to attack you.”
Hubbard also wrote that anyone opposing Scientology had a criminal past.
Reger seconded that view.
“People that are critical (of Scientology) have something to hide,” Reger said. “There is going to be some kind of crime, rape, child pornography. There has to be something.
“What do you have?” she asked a reporter.