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John Sweeney Talks The Church of Fear, Which Comes Out Today

Scientology’s “pope” a foul-mouthed, violent bully?

A new book coming out today by BBC newsman John Sweeney makes use of secret electronic communications that portray Scientology’s leader, David Miscavige, berating his underlings in texts with phrases like “You Suck!” and “Counter-Intentional Cock Sucker!” and “You Suck Cock on Hollywood Boulevard!”

Sweeney is famous for blowing up in a temper tantrum while filming his 2007 BBC Panorama special, Scientology and Me, and says he’s wanted for years to write a book about his experiences making that documentary and its followup, 2010’s The Secrets of Scientology.

Now in The Church of Fear: Inside the Weird World of Scientology, Sweeney has done just that, providing a disturbing look at the spying and harassment that he went through making those films, and the electronic communications going on between church operatives as they followed Sweeney and his crew.


Sweeney is careful to point out that the church denies that the communications are genuine, and it has also consistently denied that David Miscavige has ever been violent with his employees or that he swears like a sailor.

But in his book, Sweeney meticulously lays out the evidence that Scientology is run by a dictator who screams at his underlings and worse; about a dozen former church members have now come forward with allegations that they witnessed Miscavige pummel his junior executives, he says.

One of these was Mike Rinder, who appeared in the first film as one of the church’s “zombie-like” PR people, denying every allegation that Sweeney came up with. But after he defected in 2007, Rinder changed his tune and said he’d been lying to the BBC reporter: In fact, he estimated that he’d actually been assaulted by Miscavige about 50 times during his years as a high-level church executive.

In a gripping set of chapters, Sweeney describes what it was like to be spied on in 2007 by Rinder and his fellow church spokesman, Anne Archer’s son Tommy Davis, and reveals that Rinder and Davis were constantly in a three-way electronic conversation with David Miscavige’s “communicator,” Laurisse “Lou” Stuckenbrock. As Rinder and Davis tracked Sweeney around the country, the PR duo were constantly being berated by Stuckenbrock, who Sweeney was told merely acted as a front for Miscavige.

“Ex-members of the Church say that the role of the Communicator is a deliberately constructed cut-out. [The texts] read as if Miscavige says something, his word is recorded and transcribed and put into the third person, so there is always a measure of deniability,” Sweeney writes.

“Taken together,” he adds, the texts “paint an extraordinarily weird picture of the Church.”

There’s no doubt about that. For instance, after Sweeney interviewed actress Anne Archer — who barked at him “Do I look brainwashed to you?” — Rinder reported to his boss that she had “demolished” Sweeney. But that doesn’t seem to satisfy Stuckenbrock/Miscavige, who fires back…

“Were these ass rippings on camera?…Any other details, you Generality infested CSMF?”

Sweeney says CSMF stands for “Cock Sucking Mother Fucker.”

As he points out, it’s a bit hard to imagine the leader of a mainstream church chewing out underlings in quite the same way.

Other choice utterances from Scientology’s pope (through his communicator):

“Now answer my comm, you CICS!” (CICS = Counter-Intentional Cock Sucker, “counter-intention” being church jargon for failing to carry out Miscavige’s orders, or “intention.”)

Another actual quote, with misspellings: “You really are just sp aren’t you? I wqaited to get this crap? I can’t even believe it. You just can’t work or do can you? YS YS YS YS YS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” (YS = You Suck. SP = suppressive person, Scientology’s notion of a hopelessly degraded human being who doesn’t deserve to be in the church.)

“One ex-member of the Church later told me that this kind of potty-mouthed, one-way abusive language was standard from David Miscavige. Another of his favourite sign-offs was YSCOHB. Decoded, it means: ‘You Suck Cock On Hollywood Boulevard’,” Sweeney writes.

But even with all the spying and harassment, Sweeney is still deeply apologetic about the thing that he’s best known for: losing his temper in a blow up that garnered 7 million views on YouTube. Part of his reason for writing the book was to explain fully how that episode occurred, and he does so in fascinating detail.

We talked to him this weekend about that and other statements he makes in the book: for example, his assertion that despite all the places he’s worked, from war zones to the sites of massacres, he’s never felt more fear than when he reported on Scientology.

“I always wanted to write this book about Scientology. I wanted to explain to people that I was wrong to lose my temper. But there’s something different about Scientology. I never behaved like that in a war zone. Scientology is a very dark thing to deal with,” he said to us by telephone from England.

We pointed out to Sweeney something we noticed on Twitter this week: with Lawrence Wright’s highly anticipated book on Scientology, Going Clear, debuting on the 17th, Slate’s Farhad Manjoo wrote that he didn’t understand why someone as talented as Wright wasted his time on something as “picayune” as the subject of Scientology.

“Lawrence has won a Pulitzer for a book on Al Qaeda. I was journalist of the year for coverage of a massacre in Algeria. Neither Lawrence nor I are patsy celebrity reporters. We report on the Church of Scientology for the same reason you do, because some say it’s a totalitarian organization inside the world’s richest and most powerful democracy, and that’s what makes it so frightening and sinister,” Sweeney answered. “Anybody who says it’s a joke is not serious.”

Or, as he puts it in the book…

I used to be a war reporter. From Algeria, Bosnia and Chechnya to Zimbabwe I have been shelled, shot at, bombed, arrested, threatened and a Serb devotee of Slobodan Milosevic once stuck two sticks of dynamite up my nose. But never, ever in all my times in all those wars have I felt under such harrowing psychological pressure as I did inside the brainwashing section of the Church of Scientology’s exhibition, ‘Psychiatry: The Industry of Death’ on Sunset Boulevard in LA in the spring of 2007. I am not a timid man but I was afraid then and am afraid now, afraid of them and afraid of it. I fear that by even attempting to write this book I risk ruin….I have wrestled with those fears for five years.

Sweeney is publishing his book in the United Kingdom at a time when Lawrence Wright’s British publisher, Transworld, pulled out of that project. And while Transworld denies that the church had anything to do with it, we’re not buying it. We have it from an excellent source that Wright’s UK publisher pulled out because of pressure from the Church’s attorneys and because of Britain’s libel laws, which make it so much more favorable for plaintiffs to sue.

Sweeney says he’s determined not to let the same happen to him.

“If anyone sues this book, my publisher and I are determined to fight it. We’ll then call it the book Scientology tried to stop, and there would be no better advertising,” he says.

Sweeney’s book beat Wright’s to the market by just ten days. But in some ways, this book is about another era. In 2007, when he was investigating the church, it was a lot harder to get information out of the church than it is today. In the last five years, a series of high-level defections and several other crises have crippled Scientology. No longer is church leader David Miscavige trying to “handle” the press with the bluster of a Tommy Davis.

“At that time Bruce Hines was the only one talking about David Miscavige’s violence — which the church denies. Now a dozen people are alleging it. I have personally met seven or eight people — people I have met and trust — who say they saw Miscavige being violent. But in 2007 I felt lonely,” Sweeney says. “In 2012 the world is different and it’s in part because of the courage of Scientologists who have left, and it’s also the power of the Internet. Chanology took off the year after the program.”

Sweeney has long accepted, however, that what most people remember about his show was not the hard work he did getting information out of the church, but that he exploded like a tomato — as he puts it — when Tommy Davis got under his skin.

In the book, Sweeney says it very much could have been a career-ending moment, and Rinder and Davis worked hard behind the scenes to make sure that it was. But ultimately, after taking a beating from the British press, Sweeney came out all right.

“Everybody thought I was wrong to lose my temper, but they could see that I was goaded into it. So the church’s approach was not a success. It was a failure. And five years on, it feels even more like that,” he says. “I am proud that BBC and Panorama stuck with me when that happened.”

Sweeney spends a good portion of the book weighing what he learned about Scientology against what experts say define a cult. The BBC man says the evidence for that is quite clear.

“I think it’s important to examine the evidence and weigh it,” he says. “But this organization is not a religion, it is a cult. And that’s what the evidence tells me — the church denies this.”

Increasingly, in places like Europe, governments are becoming less tolerant of Scientology’s business model. But in the United States, there is a different attitude, Sweeney agrees.

“In the 1600s, the American founding fathers, the pilgrims, fled England because they were being persecuted. So, hard wired into the sense of America is religious freedom. And we, at the same time, were burning people for having the right religion. We were wrong and the Americans were right. Two or three centuries on, we have a skepticism and cynicism about religion — in part about new religions — that seems entirely lacking in America,” he says. “The mafia and Dow Chemical could do quite well if they called themselves religions. In America they’d get a free pass. Well, that’s absurd.”

We asked him what the reaction to his shows was in England.

“In Britain, the first show peaked at 4.9 million which is very good numbers. It’s almost one in ten in Britain, and that’s fantastic. The second got something like 5 million again,” he says. “I have done shows exposing child killing. That’s the thing I’m most proud of. However, when I walk into a pub, once a month or whenever, someone who lost a person to Scientology will tell me, you’re the bloke who took on Scientology. Please can I buy you a drink.”

In the book, he shares an anecdote about being arrested by the secret police in Pakistan, who confiscated his passport. When they asked him who he really was, he told them to look him up on YouTube. They then turned him loose.

“I’d like to thank the Church of Scientology for making me instantly recognizable in this galaxy or any other.”

Why are British and Australian television journalists so much better on this subject than shows in America?

“Aussies are just British convicts who left a while ago,” he quips. But then he explains that journalism is at the core of Britain’s democracy, which is why such a small country has 16 national newspapers. And if there’s one thing British journalists hate, it’s deception.

“If Scientology is really fighting a space alien Satan they should tell people,” he says, referring to Xenu, the galactic overlord that Scientologists learn about on the level OT 3, when they have been in the religion for several years and have spent more than $100,000.

For years, we’ve made the point that this essential deception — not telling beginning Scientologists the church’s cosmic “origin story” — is essentially fraudulent. And we like how Sweeney puts it in the book…

Enter a Church — Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox or Coptic — and they will tell you that they believe that ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.’ Enter a mosque and they will tell you: ‘Follow the teachings of the Prophet.’ Enter a synagogue: ‘Marry a nice Jewish girl/boy and don’t eat bacon sandwiches.’ Enter a Church of Scientology Org and no-one will tell you about the space alien Satan they’re fighting. Xenu is a logic bomb inside the Church of Scientology’s claim to be treated just like any other religion. A ‘religion’ that hides its core belief from the world is not a religion because a true religion must be open about itself to all. That is the essence of the British test set by the Charity Commissioners in London, and one the Church of Scientology fails.”

Sweeney recounts how church officials and Scientologist actresses all reacted when he asked them about Xenu. And it’s precious.

But for as funny as those moments in the book are — and Sweeney’s sense of humor is infectious — he repeatedly comes back to the darker side of covering Scientology, and recounts what reporters have gone through since Paulette Cooper was subjected to the worst terror campaign after the publication of her 1971 book, The Scandal of Scientology.

“In my darkest moments with Scientology, I was so afraid. I did not know what was going on,” he says. “Even to you, who has experienced this personally, I find it hard to explain. It really frightened me and I am willing to admit it now. When I lost my temper. It was a humbling moment. At the same time, people relate to me.

“The church tried to destroy me and they almost succeeded. But they didn’t. And I feel enormously stronger as a human being because of it. Because I’ve survived the worst that they could throw at me.”


Posted by Tony Ortega on January 7, 2013 at 00:15


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