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Scientology's Revenge
For years, the Cult Awareness Network was the Church of Scientology's biggest enemy. But the late L. Ron Hubbard's L.A.-based religion cured that -- by taking it over
BY RON RUSSELL

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It was an idea whose time had come. That's how Priscilla Coates describes the humble beginnings of the Cult Awareness Network, founded two decades ago in the wake of the murders and mass suicides in Guyana that claimed the lives of hundreds of the late Jim Jones' followers. The concept was simple enough: set up a nonprofit, national organization to assist the often desperate loved ones of people caught up in the ever-proliferating cult scene. On paper, at least, the group known by the acronym CAN endures. But nearly a quarter-century later, neither Coates, who ran the Los Angeles chapter during the organization's heyday, nor anyone else who once helped nurture the network has anything to do with it. That's because whenever people call CAN's hotline these days, more likely than not someone from the Church of Scientology answers the phone. Instead of warning people about suspected cults, opponents say, the new group promotes them. As one Scientology critic puts it, "It's like Operation Rescue taking over Planned Parenthood."

The story of how the controversial L.A.-based church -- which Time magazine once termed "the cult of greed" -- commandeered the anti-cult group that was its nemesis is as bizarre as some of late church founder L. Ron Hubbard's science fiction. It is also a cautionary tale for anyone who goes up against Scientology, with its penchant for harassing enemies in the courts, and its rough-and-tumble reputation for retaliating against "suppressives," those deemed as having ridiculed Scientology's teachings. Those teachings include Hubbard's decree that humans are made of clusters of spirits, called "thetans," who were banished to Earth about 75 million years ago by an evil galactic ruler named Xenu. A pulp fiction writer who had served a troubled stint in the Navy, Hubbard hit it big in 1950 by coming up with the concept of Dianetics, which he dubbed a modern science of mental health. It remains at the core of Scientology practice. One of its staples is a simplified lie detector called an E-meter, which is supposed to measure electrical changes in the skin while subjects discuss intimate details of their lives. Hubbard claimed that unhappiness sprang from mental aberrations, called "engrams," and that counseling sessions with the E-meter could help get rid of them. Scientologists refer to the extensive (and expensive) process of "clearing" the mind in order for this to occur as "auditing." But during the 1970s, the Internal Revenue Service conducted some auditing sessions of its own and accused Hubbard of skimming millions of dollars from the church, laundering it through dummy corporations, and stashing it in Swiss bank accounts. And although he died before the case was adjudicated, his wife and 10 other former church leaders went to prison in the early 1980s for infiltrating, burglarizing, and wiretapping dozens of private and government agencies in an attempt to block their investigations.

With its sprawling headquarters on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, the church has assembled a star-studded roster of followers that includes actors John Travolta, Tom Cruise, and Kirstie Alley; jazz musician Chick Corea; and soul singer Isaac Hayes. To help shed its fringe-group image, it has retained public relations powerhouse Hill and Knowlton, runs a plethora of ads on television and in top-drawer news and business journals, and recruits academics and other professionals through a network of consultants whose ties to the church are typically hidden. Its members also include high-profile media types. Greta Van Susteren, the CNN legal correspondent, and her husband, influential Washington Beltway attorney John Coale, are Scientologists. They even played a minor role in Scientology's assault on the Cult Awareness Network by representing an Ohio woman who sued a cult-deprogramming organization named Wellspring, whose executive director also sat on the CAN board.

In hindsight, officials of the former CAN -- whose alleged involvement with kidnapping and deprogramming individuals from suspected cults created its own controversy -- say they should have seen Scientology's assault coming. Especially after an L.A. lawyer prominent in Scientology attached himself to a civil lawsuit against CAN in suburban Seattle several years ago. No one could have imagined that the suit, brought on behalf of a young man named Jason Scott -- who had been kidnapped and deprogrammed from an evangelical Christian sect -- would produce judgments totaling $5.2 million and hasten the anti-cult group's financial ruin. Nor could they have guessed that on the day in 1996 that its logo, furniture, and phone number were auctioned off at the order of a bankruptcy judge, a Scientologist would appear out of nowhere to place the winning bid.

But the ultimate indignity for the anti-cult crusaders occurred earlier this year in a Chicago courtroom. Already having vanquished CAN, appropriated its name, and moved its offices from Illinois to within blocks of Scientology headquarters in Hollywood, lawyers with ties to the church moved to take possession of 20 years' worth of CAN's highly sensitive case files. Filling more than 150 boxes, the materials contained names, addresses, and detailed information on thousands of people who had turned to CAN for help in rescuing their friends and relatives. The list of organizations targeted by the old CAN read like a who's who of fringe culture. Among them were the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nations, dozens of obscure fundamentalist and evangelical Christian groups, the Church of Satan, the Unification Church of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, followers of political extremist Lyndon LaRouche, and, of course, the Church of Scientology.

A judge had earlier excluded the materials from the bankruptcy liquidation, ordering that they be held in storage while the former CAN's officers sought court protection to keep them out of the hands of its enemies. Bankruptcy judges are often leery of turning over the assets of one group to another, especially where rivalries exist. But Scientology lawyers appear to have devised a strategy to get around the problem. By purchasing the judgments against the penniless CAN, a Los Angeles man named Gary Beeny had become the bankrupt organization's chief unsecured creditor. And so it was to Beeny that a judge in May awarded ownership of the files, the last vestige of CAN's once-abundant resources. Beeny is a Scientologist, according to sources and The American Lawyer magazine. And in short order he transferred custodianship of the files to a Scientology-backed group, the Foundation for Religious Freedom. The foundation had already become the entity officially licensed to operate the new CAN after another Scientologist, Steven L. Hayes, of Los Angeles, bought the logo and other appurtenances. In fact, the lawyer who represented Beeny was none other than Scientology attorney and high-profile spokesman Kendrick L. Moxon. He is the same lawyer who represented Jason Scott in the case that led to CAN's bankruptcy. (Scott now says he was used as a pawn of Scientology and has disavowed Moxon.)

Incredibly, the foundation's chairman, who is also the chairman of the new CAN, is the old CAN's most indefatigable enemy, a self-described Baptist minister named George Robertson. And in yet another piece of perverse symmetry, the new CAN's executive director, Andy Bagley -- who was once L. Ron Hubbard's secretary -- was a chief antagonist of the old CAN's last executive director, Cynthia Kisser. Bagley had turned his attention to Kisser while heading a branch of Scientology's Office of Special Operations, the church's CIA-like intelligence unit, in Kansas City. "We're talking about a strategic conspiracy of grand proportions, an unabashed tragedy," says Ed Lottick, a Pennsylvania physician and a director of the old CAN. "And now that they've got the files, God only knows the havoc they'll wreak."  NEXT »


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newtimesla.com | originally published: September 9, 1999

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