The Chronicle today lifts the lid on the controversial Church of Scientology.
We sent a reporter undercover into the North East’s only branch of the religion, made famous by star followers like Tom Cruise and John Travolta.
Our probe comes as the religion prepares to open a new church in Newcastle city centre within weeks.
During his time undercover, our investigator was:
– Told he was depressed, anxious, irresponsible and critical.
– Encouraged to buy books and pay for courses that would improve the flaws in his personality.
– Told his loved ones could be destructive and he could be taught how to tackle them.
– Made to study in silence for hours.
– Told Scientology could solve any of life’s problems, including mending marriages and overcoming dyslexia.
– Told he could be taught to read people’s thoughts.
– Told the more courses he bought, the higher up the ranks he would go.
Our reporter went along to the Church of Scientology, in Fawcett Street, Sunderland, where thousands of people from across the North East go every year.
Here is the diary of his time in the church.
“People say we’re like a sect, but that’s not the case at all. What we want is to make everyone more able and better,” are the words I would hear in a couple of hours time. But for now, I’m on the steps of the Church of Scientology, reading a sandwich board that says: Free Stress Test.
I meet a girl called Anna, who I’ve arranged to see. I tell her I’m interested in finding out more and she leads me to a room, full of books and lectures for sale, written by the religion’s founder, L Ron Hubbard.
My first task is to watch a 45-minute DVD. It shows images of grand churches around the world and tells how Scientology can cure drug addiction and improve literacy rates.
Anna said: “If you have marriage problems, we can offer you a course to tell you what marriage is all about or if you have communication problems we can offer a course to learn how to express yourself better.”
Next is a personality test. Some of the 200 questions are unsettling while others are so ridiculous.
Do you read bus timetables or dictionaries simply for pleasure?
Do you eat slowly?
Do your muscles sometimes twitch for no logical reason?
Would it take a definite effort on your part to consider suicide?
Do you bite your fingernails or chew the end of your pen?
To my left is a huge bust of L Ron Hubbard. A woman enters in the middle of my test to polish the plaque displaying his name.
While I’m waiting for my test results, I’m handed a series of books and leaflets I can buy if I want to learn about Scientology and how it can improve my life.
Anna returns clutching the results. She puts down a graph, with a line going up and down. Along the bottom of the graph are the elements of my personality. My graph shows I have the lowest possible score for depression. It also tells me I am anxious, nervous, irresponsible and critical, as well as having a lack of accord. The only area I score well on is being active.
But the good news is Scientology can work to improve my score on all these points if I sign up to courses on marriage, how to pay bills, do better at work or a complete detox.
She recommends I study Overcoming Ups and Downs in Life. Before I know it, I’ve spent £23 on two books and a DVD and signed up for a course that will cost me £53.
I arrive slightly after 1pm for the first session of my Overcoming Ups and Downs Course. Anna and my tutor, Pauline, share an awkward conversation about if I’ve paid yet.
After handing over my £53, I’m introduced to my course, filling out a series of forms. I am given six months’ free membership to the church but later find out it will cost me £234 a year to be a member once that runs out.
I am led into a study room. I must not talk to anyone and there are to be no random breaks. I must not drink alcohol the night before a session and I must be bang on time.
The first page of my coursebook tells me Scientology is about knowing how to know. Pauline says: “It’s about looking at yourself as a spirit, not a piece of meat.”
She tells me people can react badly when you tell them you are coming to something like this but says: “You are you own person, it’s your right to do what you want and we will teach you how to deal with that.”
As I read through my course book, it tells me there are good and bad people, with nothing in between.
I have been told Scientology will make me a better person and the only way to avoid being influenced by an anti-social person is to stop associating with them.
Later, Pauline tells me I will go on to learn how to deal with destructive people. She says: “And they might be difficult to spot. Quite often, it is someone you are close to, who you feel strongly for and it is difficult to realise they are destructive.”
I feel like I am being trained to cut out of my life anyone who criticises Scientology and what it stands for.
I have to write short essays on when I have come across bad people and they are marked by Pauline.
When I finish my session I am told I am at the bottom of the Bridge to Total Freedom. To get to the top, you need to take more and more courses, all costing money and some of which are in London or America.
Our reporter contacted the Church of Scientology about his time at the Sunderland centre. A Scientology spokesman said: “The Church can train people on workable solutions for anything from how to repair a broken relationship, how to communicate with others, how to build happy relationships, how to improve confidence or how to organise and be more efficient at work.”
Scientology was founded in 1950 by science-fiction writer, L Ron Hubbard.
He wrote that humans are made up of their spirit – or Thetan – their mind and their body.
The Thetans tell the mind what to do and the body is the shell that acts it out.
But the world is full of dark forces called Engrams, which can be cleansed and removed through the work of Dianetics, which was the title of Hubbard’s first book.
Star followers, like Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Isaac Hayes and Kirsty Alley, have given Scientology a high profile.
In America, Scientology enjoys the full rights of a religion but in Europe, it does not have the same status.
There are 10,000 members of 15 churches in the UK.
I ask Anna why she thinks Scientology works and she tells me: “It’s an applied religious philosophy.
“I’ve seen other self-help groups where they say to someone with a problem, take deep breaths or they will tell someone with relationship problems it’s because of their childhood and it’s like `what’s all that about.” She tells me she’s seen someone overcome dyslexia by studying a Scientology course.