An expanding universe
Tom Cruise’s leap of faith into Scientology is a visible example of the religion’s hold on its followers – but the Church of Scientology already has a multimillion-dollar grip on Manhattan. The controversial group, now blitzing the media after Cruise became its most outspoken advocate, has a massive city empire used by tens of thousands of devotees.
And New York’s church president the Rev. John Carmichael said, “Interest is increasing markedly.”
Its huge seven-story city headquarters was opened last year at W.46th St. and Eighth Ave. More than 10,700 supporters marked the event.
They also have a Harlem church in a Third Ave. storefront, which will soon to move to a six-story building on E. 125th St., now undergoing major renovation.
In addition, the group has a seven-story townhouse on W. 48th St., houses offices that control Scientology’s reach across the Northeast.
And on E. 82nd St., a plush six-story townhouse off Park Ave. is used as a Celebrity Center, catering specifically for wealthy, famous Scientologists.
The church is reportedly eying new premises for its celebrity home, now that a deal for a $12.4 million, 16,000-square-foot E. 69th St. townhouse recently fell apart – apparently because it was too small.
The property portfolio is worth tens of millions of dollars – and is tax exempt because of the church’s status as a religious institution.
Scientology, called by some a persecuted religion and by others a dangerous cult, was devised in the early 1950s by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard.
It teaches that individuals are spiritual beings that have picked up trauma over years of reincarnation. This trauma affects their behavior.
People can live happier, more fulfilled lives, Hubbard claimed, by ridding themselves of those traumas through a process called auditing – a kind of counseling. It relies on a crude lie detector machine and a series of personal questions – some of which are published in the summer edition of Radar magazine.
Scientologists at more advanced stages also are introduced to a belief that the souls of aliens brought to Earth millions of years ago are attached to humans, and must be shed. “I am, by my religion, not permitted to talk about it,” said Carmichael about the alien story. “But it’s not a core teaching of the church.”
Accurate estimates of the number of practicing Scientologists in New York are difficult to make, Carmichael said.
But he noted that about 35,000 people had taken courses in the city since the church established a presence here in the 1950s. Weekly services in the W. 46th St. building are attended by about 80 Scientologists.
“Scientology provides practical answers for people to use in their lives and, because they find they work, they tell their friends,” he said.
“That’s why we expand.”
Scientology’s reach expanded after high-profile work following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Carmichael said, “We got some good press, but it was the interaction we had, the fact we were there trying to make things better, that people noticed.
“The renovation of the 46th St. building was funded largely by friends around the world who heard about what was going on here after 9/11.”
Hundreds of volunteer ministers passed out food and supplies and offered counseling during the first days following the tragedy.
About 120 firefighters took part in a detoxification program at a Fulton St. clinic called Downtown Medical, bankrolled by Cruise and, though not officially part of the church, dedicated to Scientology’s teachings.
The church’s help was praised by many, including New York Police Chief Joseph Esposito and Dr. Stephan Hittman, CEO of the 9/11 Foundation.
But others voiced suspicion assistance was given as part of a church recruitment drive. “It was a promotional ploy, in my opinion,” said Rick Ross, founder of the New Jersey-based Ross Institute which monitors fringe religious groups.
The church has long been subject to accusations that it is a dangerous group that uses brainwashing techniques and extortion.
Ross said, “I get weekly calls from people concerned about Scientology. “[Auditing] paralyzes critical thinking and replaces it with a type of group mind-set, which can be likened to brainwashing.”
Carmichael countered: “Scientology frees people. It helps them see things for themselves. It wakes people up, unhypnotizes people. That’s what it’s designed to do.”
Ross said he also gets complaints about the church’s constant demands for money – courses taken by members eager to “clear” their souls cost up to $12,000.
“We have to pay the rent,” Carmichael said.
“We do have things that cost substantial amounts of money. If you want to receive all the counseling, it might cost as much as a college education.
“I would say it is worth far more than that.”