Yesterday, we began telling you about Paul Burkhart, the newest defector from Scientology’s international management to go public with what he experienced after joining the church in 1980, joining the Sea Org in 1985, and then leaving a little over two years ago, in August 2013.
For ten of those years, from 1999 to 2009, Burkhart worked at Scientology’s secretive International Base near Hemet, California. His job was to make space plans for the renovations that were constantly going on at Scientology facilities around the world. That put him at the center of what Scientology leader David Miscavige was doing, but at the same time gave him a measure of protection from the increasingly contentious atmosphere at Int Base. As former Scientology spokesman Mike Rinder put it, Burkhart was both in the “center of the shitstorm” at the same time that he inhabited “his own bubble.”
Burkhart was so insulated, for example, he didn’t really know who Mark “Marty” Rathbun was, even though Rathbun, as Inspector General of Ethics for the Religious Technology Center, was essentially the second-highest ranking member of the church and Miscavige’s right hand man and chief enforcer.
At one point, Burkhart says, Rathbun was sent to his office to look into a problem involving architectural plans for Building 50, the lavish structure at Int Base that Miscavige was having built for the RTC and for his own wing of offices.
“Marty was sent down to investigate. I knew he was a big executive, but I didn’t really know who he was. I didn’t even stand up when he came in and asked me questions at my desk. He seemed a little concerned about that,” Burkhart says with a laugh.
There was another executive at the base whose stature Burkhart had no misunderstanding of. That was Shelly Miscavige, wife to the church leader and, as “COB assistant,” a formidable executive in her own right.
“She had a hard social veneer,” Burkhart says, “but she was immediately very warm to me. She never yelled at me for anything.” And her loyalty to COB — her husband Dave — was unwavering.
At one point, he says, when they were discussing the personal spaces to be designed for the Miscaviges to live in at Int Base, Burkhart remembers her telling him, “I wish I could build a palace for COB.”
He worked closely with her as they planned Building 50 and its sumptuous interiors. But no matter how lavish it was, there was no pleasing Miscavige. Burkhart tells us about an incident that happened after the building had been completed. He and others were called to the building and were told to wait for Miscavige to address them.
“We were called to Building 50, and we were sitting around in desks that had never been used. We waited all afternoon and evening. Finally, around midnight, we were marched out front to the circular drive there. Miscavige was haranguing us for messing up whatever it was. And then he handed a water bottle to a young woman who was an RTC estates worker under John Brousseau, Maggie Truax. Miscavige told her to open it up and throw the water on us. ‘Sir?’ she asked. ‘Wrong answer,’ he yelled at her. ‘OK,’ she said, and then she flung the water back and forth on the guys in the front row. They couldn’t move. They had to stand still and take it,” Burkhart remembers.
“I got the impression that Miscavige just needed something to complain about. He didn’t really want things to get fixed,” Burkhart says.
“So then Shelly had to patch things up afterwards,” he adds, saying that it was her typical role. He remembers her telling them, “Come on, guys, you have to realize, if we can just get behind him, we can accomplish our goals.”
Burkhart tells us that our timeline of what happened between Shelly and David Miscavige, which we reported based on things told to us by Mike Rinder, John Brousseau, and other eyewitnesses at Int Base, was the way he remembers, too. In 2005, Miscavige had gone to Los Angeles to work on a publishing project, “The Basics,” and Shelly had stayed behind at Int Base. While her husband was gone, Shelly took care of some tasks that Miscavige griped were never getting accomplished. She filled out an “org board,” for example, placing people in open job slots. And Miscavige had complained that he needed to have his personal items moved out of a building in “The Villas” so the space could be renovated. Shelly had the Household Unit crate up Miscavige’s things so the renovation could begin.
“They did a beautiful job storing his stuff, and set up temporary berthing for him in another set of buildings called the G’s,” he says — which is exactly what we had been told. When Miscavige returned, he blew a gasket when he saw what his wife had done in his absence. About a week later, around late August or early September in 2005, Shelly vanished. Except for a sighting of her at her father’s funeral in the summer of 2007, Shelly has not been seen in public or at Int Base or at a Scientology event in the decade since. It’s believed that she’s being held at a small, even more secret compound that Scientology maintains in the mountains near Lake Arrowhead, California.
Burkhart didn’t know where she was sent. He didn’t really think about her disappearance until about a year later when his boss Laurence Guenat referred to Shelly missing while speaking in hushed tones.
By 2009, some of the Int Base executives being held by Miscavige in “The Hole” had been in the bizarre office-prison for five years, ever since it had first been created in 2004. Burkhart had managed to keep from being a prisoner at the request of his boss, Guenat. But not only were many of the other top international managers being held in the Hole, most of the other people Guenat and Burkhart worked with for space planning and renovations were working 90 miles away, at a Sea Org facility in Hollywood.
So, that year, the two of them transferred to Los Angeles. Guenat told him she was happy to get out of the “prison camp atmosphere” of Int Base.
They then worked out of the HGB Annex, a building across Ivar Avenue from the Hollywood Guaranty Building, an 11-story Beaux Arts office building owned by Scientology that houses on its first floor a museum to the life of L. Ron Hubbard. At night, Burkhart was berthed at an apartment complex on Bronson Avenue across from the Hollywood Celebrity Centre.
And now, Burkhart was presented with another startling discovery: Outside of Int Base, Scientology had been through a demoralizing two years of intense pressure to sell “The Basics.”
Released in 2007, The Basics were Miscavige’s effort to re-release more than a dozen of L. Ron Hubbard’s early books on Dianetics and Scientology, as well as hundreds of lectures, re-released as packages of CDs. A complete set of The Basics cost about $3,000, and every Scientologist was not only expected to buy at least one if not more sets, but every staff member and Sea Org employee was expected to spend multiple hours a day cold-calling church members to get them to order their sets. (Many Scientologists already had copies of previous editions of the books and lectures, and some of them couldn’t help wondering if Miscavige wasn’t just subjecting them to a naked cash grab. We’ve talked to numerous former church members who date their disillusion with the organization to the Basics push.)
At Int Base, Burkhart had been shielded from it, but now that he was at the HGB, he could see what everyone else had been put through as they spent day after day trying to sell the books and lectures.
“This church has become nothing but a money machine,” Burkhart says he remembers thinking. “All forty people in the Landlord Office had been part of it. They were used to marching from their posts to selling Basics for hours every day.” At musters, they were harangued about their sales, or they were presented with games to get them to sell more. Burkhart says he considered himself very fortunate that the nature of his job meant that he only had to spend time selling the books for about 12 days. “I was one of the very few who managed that,” he says.
For the people around him, the Basics effort went on and on. Meanwhile, in the world outside, all hell was breaking loose. We asked Burkhart what kind of reaction there was inside Scientology as, in the rest of the world, a series of upheavals was making Scientology the subject of press attention like never before. The Tom Cruise interview video and the rise of Anonymous in 2008, the “Truth Rundown” in the Tampa Bay Times in 2009, and subsequent interviews with Rathbun, Rinder, and other former top officials in many venues for the next several years. In 2011, there was Lawrence Wright’s lengthy story about Paul Haggis in the New Yorker, which then turned into his book Going Clear at the beginning of 2013.
How aware was he and the Sea Org officials he worked with, we asked Burkhart, that this storm of media attention was going on?
Not really at all, he told us. “I wasn’t really aware of those guys out there doing what they were doing. OSA [Scientology’s intelligence wing, the Office of Special Affairs] would have known, and some of the upper echelon guys at Int Base would. But everybody else, your general staff member, not a clue,” he says. Scientologists, particularly those in the Sea Org, were skilled at ignoring negative press about the church.
Instead of media, what took up most everyone’s time was the selling of books, he says. “At that time what was being pushed was Basics. That was made such a big part of every person’s life. You were either with the program and willing to sit on the phone for three hours a day and put up with the false enthusiasm about it. Or if you weren’t, you were out.”
And a substantial number were doing just that, he says. Just before he transferred to the HGB in 2009, he was told that 75 workers were “routing out” there at the same time. (Before a Scientologist can leave the Sea Org, they are required to go through a series of intense interrogations, a routing out process that seems designed to route a person back in.)
During his four years at the HGB and its annex, Burkhart was busy making space plans and architectural drawings for Scientology’s “Ideal Org” program, David Miscavige’s ambitious plan to replace ordinary churches — called “orgs” in Scientology parlance — with much fancier, updated facilities, often in historic downtown buildings. But Burkhart says he also spent considerable time on another project taking shape in Los Angeles — the renovation of KCET’s television studios, which Scientology had purchased in 2011. As the Basics program began to deepen his disillusion, Burkhart spent much of his last couple of years working out the reworking of the media center.
“I was doing space plans for it. I was already kind of withdrawing and trying to do less and less. There must have been a hundred different space plans for all the units going there — even RTC. Everyone was going to have an office there,” he says. Two years ago, we started to see fliers urging public Scientologists to donate money to the building of the “Scientology Media Productions” (SMP) project. Burkhart says Miscavige’s plans for it were elaborate — and unrealistically so.
“There were endless space plans about what to do with it. Part of the purchase was that they got to keep lots of broadcast equipment that was already there. And it has two big sound stages. The space plans I was doing, they were ridiculous. You had plans for 30 people doing editing, and then six more studios for radio shows. There would be hundreds of people with all kinds of equipment. But, what are they going to do with all this? You can broadcast your own radio show, I guess, but they’re never going to do what they are planning. It was just a pipe dream,” he says.
We told Burkhart that what confused us about the KCET renovation was that Scientology already had state-of-the-art studios at Golden Era Productions (“Gold”), the studios at Int Base. Why build another set of them?
“I think the biggest factor, deep within Miscavige’s mind, was that the people at Gold, he had done so much shit to these people, it was all just an antagonistic relationship. He just wanted to get rid of those people. At HGB, they were talking openly about how the SMP was going to be staffed up with all young, eager people. And they were saying this to Sea Org people who had been in for 30 years or more. Yeah, sure, we’d say, get more young people in — like that was going to happen,” he says.
“Even the Gold staff members who didn’t go in the Hole, they saw the people who were in the Hole, they heard communications about it, they were in meetings when Miscavige was going off like an asshole. It was becoming intolerable. It was just a super antagonistic relationship, for years — people being thrown in the lake, the beatings — how do you move forward with those people? I know that Miscavige just wanted to take everyone at Int Base and just vaporize them.”
So the development of the KCET studios is just a way to turn away from Gold and its association with the Hole, and to pretend that a whole new crew of enthusiastic young Sea Org workers is going to flood in and staff the place? That’s it, Burkhart tells us.
“I was doing the space plans. The organizational structure was being planned. But there were no people for it. They were gearing up for the renovations, they had the equipment. But no people.”
And what about broadcasting licenses? When Miscavige puts out fliers saying that Scientology will be putting out television, is he talking about actual broadcasting and not just YouTube?
“That was the plan, to apply for licenses,” he tells us. (And if anyone can help us with how to look up whether Scientology has applied for broadcasting licenses, we’d appreciate it.)
We were most anxious to ask Burkhart about what he saw in the last couple of years that he was in the Sea Org — 2012 and 2013 — which was much later than any of the other Sea Org managers who defected and went public.
Was he aware, for example, that not far from where he was berthing, in another apartment complex owned by the church, Ann Tidman was living out her last days?
He was, he says. Known better by the name Annie Broeker, Tidman had been among the last people to spend time with Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, and had become his primary caretaker in the last years of his life. She had then spent nearly the rest of her life at Int Base, and was dragged back when she made one dramatic dash for freedom. Burkhart says he knew Tidman when he was working at Int Base, and that she was becoming erratic in her final years. “She was kind of losing it at the end,” he says. And after she was diagnosed with cancer, she was moved to an apartment near the Hollywood Celebrity Centre. Burkhart says he was aware of it, and that she was dying in a Scientology apartment not far from his own. Afterwards, Tidman’s death was kept from her own family, and news of her passing didn’t reach the public for more than six months.
After asking him about Tidman, we compared notes with Burkhart about various other figures in Scientology that he had known or known about. And then, Burkhart told us about another woman in the Sea Org.
“I don’t think you know this name. But you should,” he said. “She’s literally the key person in Scientology now.”
Kerry Ibert’s title is typically Scientological. She’s the “CO CMO IXU.” That stands for the “Commanding Officer of the Commodore’s Messengers Organization, Internal Extension Unit.”
“Since all the other top managers have been sent up to the Hole, Kerry is running things. She is the person who runs every muster at the HGB, and Miscavige dictates to a woman named Tracye Danilovich who in turn gives those instructions to Kerry Ibert, and she gives them to the people actually running the orgs around the world,” Burkhart says.
“The reason that she is significant is that all of the other people have been sent to the Hole. She has hung in there despite all that, and if she was sent to the Hole, I don’t know that there’s anyone there who could run all those people,” he adds.
“She’s a real piece of work,” Mike Rinder says when we tell him what Burkhart has said about Kerry Ibert. “She’s one of those people who will, in order to protect her own position, do anything to others around her so that the blame can be shifted. Which is quite a good trait to have in order to survive in the world of David Miscavige.” Rinder says he isn’t surprised that Ibert is the one wielding the authority and not Danilovich, who he says was less effective.
Burkhart says Ibert has become so powerful because she’s been able to weather the Basics push better than anyone else. “It will take you a hundred hours of work just to make one sale. I added it up once,” he says. “It’s so non-viable. So how do you get up in front of people and keep them excited and make this activity worth doing? And somehow, Kerry puts in just enough humor and charisma to do it, and she hasn’t gone sour,” he says. “If she ever got busted, the place would fall apart. Nobody at Int Base is managing anything. There really isn’t any management going on there at all. All the management of Scientology is happening at HGB under Kerry Ibert.”
And how were things going when you left in August 2013? we asked.
“They know the Ideal Orgs aren’t working,” Burkhart says. Although David Miscavige gets up on stage at Scientology’s big annual events several times a year and claims that the organization is expanding at greater rates than ever, real information on how the new churches are doing comes into the HGB every day.
On the eighth floor of the building, there’s an area known as the Control Information Center, or CIC. “Occasionally, the entire HGB would be ordered to go there to read the reports that are posted on the walls. Per policy, you’re supposed to go in there every day and look at them, but it was too depressing. So every once in a while they’d call us in there.”
And on one shelf, Burkhart says, there are special booklets stacked up that are put together weekly by all the new Ideal Orgs. Started in 2002 or 2003, Miscavige’s push to make every org “Ideal” has pressured local church members to raise huge funds to pay for historic buildings and then millions more to have them renovated. Miscavige claims that Ideal Orgs bring in a rush of new business, and more than 40 have opened up around the world.
“The people at each Ideal Org put together a special booklet that has information about what happened that week. There are even photographs of new people on courses, and lots of statistics,” Burkhart says. And these were not made-up numbers for public consumption at the big events. These were the actual hard data collected at each facility.
Sitting there on the shelf in the CIC, weekly booklets from every Ideal Org in the world tell the real story of what’s going on, Burkhart says. “It was a totally clear picture that nothing was going on there. In fact, most of them are worse off than they were before they spent all the money renovating. All of the people in management know that the Ideal Orgs are empty. It’s the public Scientologists who don’t know it.”
So what does it all mean, we asked Burkhart. How many Scientologists are left?
We reviewed with him the numbers we’ve collected up to this point. Marty Rathbun, who had access to enrollment documents, told us that Scientology’s greatest extent occurred around the year 1990, with about 100,000 worldwide active members. (Scientology has never had the “millions” it has claimed to have since the 1960s. In a 1999 deposition, Church of Scientology International president Heber Jentzsch admitted that when a claim of 6 or 8 million was made, it was based on the total number of people who had ever bought even a single book or taken a class since L. Ron Hubbard first published Dianetics in 1950, and even then it was no doubt a wild exaggeration.)
Another former high ranking official, Jefferson Hawkins, who as Scientology’s top marketer also had access to enrollment documents, estimated in 2009 that Scientology had shrunk to about 40,000 worldwide membership. (We place less stock in the American Religious Identification Survey done in 2008, which found 25,000 Scientologists in the US, because it was not designed to measure such small organizations and its margin of error is too large to be useful.)
Recently, former Scientology spokesman Mike Rinder, basing his calculations on numbers of “Super Power” graduates published in Scientology mailers, came up with an estimate of only 20,000 active current church members.
We asked Burkhart, based on the documents he had access to when he left the Sea Org in the summer of 2013, how many active members did he believe there were at that time?
“Well, I have a piece of evidence I don’t think you’d get anywhere else,” he told us. We told him we were listening very carefully.
“The Basics. Every person was supposed to go through that program, and buy those sets of books, right? Those sales numbers were gone over at every muster. And there was massive work to get information to the public members, to try and contact people to sell them those books,” he says.
“When they started selling The Basics, in 2006 or 2007, management put together a database of 180,000 names. This was the ‘contactable’ list. These were people who had any kind of history with Scientology and that they had some information for. An address, a phone number. And they started working that list, with people making calls for hours every day,” he says.
“We’re talking 100,000 man-hours a week across the entire organization, from 2006 to 2013 — seven years of calling and calling and calling.”
And, the result?
“Tony, my memory is that after all that, only 8,000 Scientologists had purchased sets of the Basics after all those years.”
Sea Org members can’t afford to buy sets, but they can check them out of a library. Even so, Burkhart says the total of members of any type who had actually completed the Basics course itself was only 5,000.
And as for overall membership? Burkhart estimates that four or five thousand Scientologists are on staff, with about 2,500 of that in the Sea Org. Including non-staff “publics,” he would estimate Scientology’s worldwide total active membership between 10 and 20 thousand.
As Nancy Cartwright might say, Ay carumba.
By the time 2013 began, Burkhart says he had “about 60 percent” decided to leave the Sea Org.
Depressed by what he was seeing in the management reports, Burkhart says he decided to make a new assessment of Scientology.
“I had embarked on my own to read all of the L. Ron Hubbard writings that I’d read before. To reevaluate it. I was studying stuff in a totally new light, not automatically accepting things. And I wasn’t supposed to, but I had a phone with Internet access. I wasn’t looking at anti-Scientology stuff, but I would compare Hubbard to other things. Over the next six months, I decided this was a dead end. The church was not going anywhere. Hubbard had certainly not discovered a ‘Bridge’ or the total answer. This thing is so over-promoted,” he concluded.
And then, he got a jury summons.
“It was perfect timing. I didn’t blow [Scientology lingo for “escaping”], I routed out. I was routing out because I didn’t think all the work had been done to bring all the answers. I figured I’d go out and try to find those answers on my own.”
We asked him if, after all the work he had done in such a specialized role, someone at a high level hadn’t tried to talk him out of it.
“One woman came down from Int to make an effort keep me around. ‘You haven’t done the OT levels yet, Paul. They’re really incredible,’ she said. But somehow I knew they were way more bullshit than anything I’d already read,” he says with a laugh.
Routing out had its own hassles, he found out, as he got stuck in line behind about six other people who were also trying to leave. But after going away on a scheduled camping trip and then coming back for some interrogations, he managed to get through the process. He was even given a severance check of $1,200. (Like other Sea Org workers, throughout his career he’d taken home only 40 or 50 dollars a week, when he was paid at all.) He was also hit with a small “freeloader debt” — $2,300 — but he didn’t pay any of it.
Burkhart acknowledges that he was more fortunate than most other people who leave the Sea Org after 28 years. None of his family members had ever joined Scientology, so he didn’t have to worry about “disconnection.”
“I must have had one of the easiest departures of anyone. I just called my mom — my father had passed away several years earlier — and she was so thrilled,” he says. He returned to the Seattle area and for the next seven months, he stayed with his younger sister, Ann. An older sister was nearby as well.
“That time to just stay at my sister’s house, that was so helpful. Whenever you’re part of a group and its culture, it’s hard to get out of that, and I really just wanted to be on my own for a while,” Burkhart says.
He reached out to Mike Rinder, who put him in touch with another former church member who lived in Seattle, Tony DePhillips. And then, Burkhart began renovating houses.
“I started a remodeling business. It spread through word of mouth, I didn’t do any advertising. I did that for a couple of years, and got my own place, a car, and tools,” he says. Then, through a Craigslist ad, he applied for a space planning job, and now he’s back to doing what he did in the Sea Org, drawing the interiors of buildings.
He’s also reunited with other people he knew in the Sea Org, like his friend Camilla Andersson, someone we’ve written about before.
“We have long conversations about Scientology. It was part of my process of unpeeling the onion,” Camilla tells us. “Paul tremendously helped me with that by just being someone I could speak to without judgment.”
We asked Burkhart if he was concerned about blowback from the notoriously litigious Church of Scientology after these stories ran, but he didn’t sound concerned. He didn’t think Scientology wanted to mess with him.
“I think they tried to stay on my good side because I know so much about COB’s private spaces and the Hole,” he says.
When he had left, and with a Scientology attorney watching, Burkhart signed non-disclosure agreements promising not to, for example, talk to a reporter about his time in the Sea org.
“I talked to Mike Rinder. I asked him, do we have to worry about these agreements? No, they aren’t going to sue anybody, he said.”
What, we asked him, would David Miscavige be unhappy to see you tell us about his personal spaces?
Burkhart thought about it. “When we designed his berthing, we had a daybed put in Shelly’s dressing room. We were told the reason was that if one of them had a cold, they could sleep separately. But you couldn’t help noticing that it was Shelly who was going to have to sleep in her dressing room, not COB.”
That doesn’t sound very ecclesiastical.
PS: We meant to add that we sent a message to Scientology spokeswoman Karin Pouw, asking for a church response to Paul Burkhart’s estimations of Basics sales and membership numbers. We’ll let you know if she gets back to us.
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Learn about Scientology with our numerous series with experts…
BLOGGING DIANETICS: We read Scientology’s founding text cover to cover with the help of L.A. attorney and former church member Vance Woodward
UP THE BRIDGE: Claire Headley and Bruce Hines train us as Scientologists
GETTING OUR ETHICS IN: Jefferson Hawkins explains Scientology’s system of justice
SCIENTOLOGY MYTHBUSTING: Historian Jon Atack discusses key Scientology concepts
Other links: Shelly Miscavige, ten years gone | The Lisa McPherson story told in real time | The Cathriona White stories | The Leah Remini ‘Knowledge Reports’ | Hear audio of a Scientology excommunication | Scientology’s little day care of horrors | Whatever happened to Steve Fishman? | Felony charges for Scientology’s drug rehab scam | Why Scientology digs bomb-proof vaults in the desert | PZ Myers reads L. Ron Hubbard’s “A History of Man” | Scientology’s Master Spies | Scientology’s Private Dancer | The mystery of the richest Scientologist and his wayward sons | Scientology’s shocking mistreatment of the mentally ill | Scientology boasts about assistance from Google | The Underground Bunker’s Official Theme Song | The Underground Bunker FAQ
Our Guide to Alex Gibney’s film ‘Going Clear,’ and our pages about its principal figures…
Jason Beghe | Tom DeVocht | Sara Goldberg | Paul Haggis | Mark “Marty” Rathbun | Mike Rinder | Spanky Taylor | Hana Whitfield