Scientology Spokeswoman Who Disconnected From Her Father Criticizes Scientology Victim Who Didn't
On Thursdays, we bring you Scientology news from around the globe. And this week, we were planning to note that Australia's television program A Current Affair had done a nice job on a story we brought you earlier, about Ramana Dienes-Browning and her hellish 8 years on Scientology's private cruise ship, the Freewinds.
But then, our plans for a brief item about the Australian program changed, as we learned more about the chatty church spokeswoman who appears in it, Virginia Stewart...
As you may recall, our lengthy interview of Ramana Dienes-Browning was one of three substantial stories we did in November and December about life in the Sea Org and aboard the Freewinds. A shipmate of Ramana's, Valeska Paris, alleged that from 1996 to 2007, she was held against her will aboard the vessel. Her sister, Melissa Paris, recalled her several years -- while underage -- doing menial labor at Scientology's UK headquarters for a total of about $40.
Ramana told us of her own ordeal as a young Australian teenager, pressured at 15 to join the Sea Org and work on the Freewinds. At 16, she felt pressured to marry before she was ready, and then she was hounded by Sea Org executives when her husband admitted under interrogation to masturbating. She spoke of how harrowing it was to be assigned to the engine room as punishment, and how she became so despairing of her fate, she carried a knife with her, considering suicide. Ramana also explained in detail her ill-fated attempt to escape from the ship, which had her just steps from freedom before her complex plan fell apart.
Most of those details didn't find their way into the A Current Affair program, but at nearly 8 minutes, it's still a substantial piece that also brings in Valeska Paris, as well as Don Jason -- who literally had to rappel down a line to escape the ship -- and Marty Rathbun, a former high-ranking church official who witnessed first hand the control measures on the Freewinds.
Then, at the end of the program, Australian church spokeswoman Virginia Stewart appears and calls the testimony of these four independent witnesses "fabrication and lies." She also accuses them of getting together to come up with their stories as a group.
Yesterday morning, I asked Ramana about that.
"It's just ridiculous. She's saying we've made up these stories and talked to each other about what we're going to say. It's just rubbish," she told me. "I haven't seen Valeska since we were on the boat together. I've never spoken to Don Jason. I've never spoken to Marty Rathbun since he was on the ship when I was. It's so ludicrous to say that we talked to each other for our stories. It's such a stab in the dark on their part."
But Stewart wasn't finished stabbing.
The day after A Current Affair's initial program aired, the program came back with a follow-up: Stewart had more specific attacks on the credibility of Dienes-Browning and the others. Please watch carefully...
I found it particularly interesting that Stewart had something to say about the letters between Ramana and her father. In our story, we had described how Ramana had felt pressure from the Sea Org to "disconnect" from her father, David, because he was uneasy with her involvement in Scientology.
"I was under constant pressure to disconnect from him," she says in the A Current Affair program.
But Ramana never disconnected from him, and after leaving the church, she has a great relationship with him.
"Since I left Scientology, he's one of the few people I can talk to about what I've been through. I've had to deal with depression and post-traumatic stress. It's been amazing to reconnect with him. We've really been able to make up for lost time," she told us in December.
As we have reported numerous times here at the Voice, Scientology's policy of "disconnection" is alive and well in the church, despite what Scientology executives might say to the press.
As a matter of fact, we have Virginia Stewart herself denying disconnection, and on the record.
Last July, we broke a story about how Placido Domingo, Jr., son of the famous tenor, had left Scientology after its officials had tried to pressure him into disconnecting from his ex-wife, with whom he was still good friends as they raised three children. When he flatly refused their orders to disconnect, word went out for Scientologists to disconnect from Domingo, and hundreds of them began unfriending him at Facebook. Meanwhile, confidential material from his church confessional files suddenly showed up on websites that he believed were operated by the church itself.
Domingo called Scientology "scary and pathetic" for the way it was treating him. The story got picked up in a big way in Europe and Australia (and less so here in the U.S., where mainstream media still tends to shy away from serious Scientology reporting).
In Australia, the story was so prominent, Independent Senator Nick Xenophon made public statements about it, and Virginia Stewart then denied to television host Kerri-Anne Kennerley that Scientology practices disconnection. Here, watch for yourself, and note her words: "The church actually doesn't have a policy of disconnecting from their friends or family if they follow a different religion."
Again, please watch carefully (the good part is from about 1:00 to 2:00)...
So why am I asking you to watch these videos so carefully? Because I want you to imagine what might have happened if A Current Affair or Kennerley had known what Stewart wasn't telling them.
Virginia Stewart was telling the Australian public that Scientologists do not disconnect when a family member believes in a different religion, but what she wasn't saying was that she had disconnected from her own father for that very reason for the last 23 years of his life.
Well, almost 23 years. But we'll get to that.
Yesterday, I called the Scientology church in Dundas, New South Wales, which is just outside Sydney, and asked to speak with Stewart. I was asked a couple of times to identify myself, and also to explain what the Village Voice was. After a short wait, I was told that Stewart was unavailable, but that I could e-mail her a question. I immediately did so.
While I waited for a response, I worked with the help of several former Australian church members to piece together the Scientology career of Allen Wright, Virginia Stewart's father, who died last February in Switzerland.
According to his friends, Wright was a memorable figure from when Scientology was in its heyday.
"Allen originally hailed from New Zealand. He was an Olympic-level cyclist, a world class audio designer, and a dedicated Scientologist. He was on the Mission Into Time voyage with LRH and acted as ship's photographer, amongst other duties. Some of the well known photographs of LRH used by the church even today were taken by him," one friend wrote about Wright when news of his death reached Australia. ("LRH" is a reference to L. Ron Hubbard, and in 1968, the "Commodore" sailed the Mediterranean looking for treasure that he assumed he had buried during past lives so he could dig it up later -- this voyage he called "Mission Into Time," which became the title for a book he wrote on the subject.)
Michelle Sterling, an Australian who runs the "Ex-Scientologist Message Board" (ESMB) confirmed for me that in recent years, Wright posted at the forum under the screen name "ULRC/S." She helped me track down several of his postings in which he described his career in the church.
"When I say I was a Crse Sup [Course Supervisor] in Sydney 76 to 82, I mean in the CoS [Church of Scientology]. I do know CBR [Captain Bill Robertson] didn't start the R/Os [Ron's Orgs] until mid 80's. I was one of the first to study with him," Wright posted on August 25, 2009.
What Wright meant by that was that he was a trained member of Scientology's church staff from 1976 to 1982, and was trusted with supervising the individual cases of church members and their auditors. But over the course of Scientology's 60-year history, there have been numerous cases of splinter groups breaking away. There's currently a growing movement of "independent Scientologists" who object to the management of the official church, and who practice the ideas of L. Ron Hubbard outside of church leader David Miscavige's authority. Another group that broke away in the 1980s was led by Bill Robertson, a man who had captained Hubbard's yachts during the late 1960s and early 1970s when Hubbard ran Scientology while at sea. Robertson called his independence movement "Ron's Orgs."
Scientology generally reacts to such splinter efforts virulently -- Sterling tells me that anyone who would have been among the first to join Robertson's movement would have immediately been considered a major enemy of the church.
"I was on 'New OT5' when things started to change, going from the most wonderfully ARCish place I had ever experienced into a copy of a nazi concentration camp," Wright posted on January 25, 2010. "ARC" stands for affinity, reality, communication -- a Hubbardism that generally describes positive feeling. By 1982, however, Hubbard had become a recluse, and a struggle for control of the church was underway. A young David Miscavige was taking over, and things were changing. Wright was apparently one of those who didn't like what Scientology was becoming.
He left the church to pursue higher levels of "Operating Thetan" enlightenment with Robertson than were being offered in official Scientology. (Currently, wealthy Scientologists who can afford the hundreds of thousands of dollars in training required can only go as high as "OT VIII.")
"I then studied with Bill Robertson and did Excalibur (OT8), OTs 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 with him before he died. Since then I have slowly worked on levels above OT16," Wright posted at ESMB.
In other words, Allen Wright may have become a pariah to the official church, but he had remained a dedicated Scientologist, still pursuing enlightenment according to the philosophies of L. Ron Hubbard. (Other posts indicate that Wright, an audiophile and expert in equipment, was fashioning his own e-meters.)
To someone like his daughter Virginia Stewart, who joined Scientology's elite "Sea Organization" in 1988, such a defector was someone she could not associate with -- even if it were her own father.
"It wouldn't surprise me if Virginia actually hated him. He represented the worst kind of 'squirrel' to a dedicated Scientologist, and there is nothing lower than a squirrel," Sterling says, using the church's jargon for "heretic."
"She phoned me on the day she was joining the SO [Sea Org], and said she was sorry, but she could no longer communicate with me," Wright posted at ESMB on May 19, 2010. "And she has kept that decision, that was in 1988 and I haven't had any communication from her since - 22 years later! I even sent her a great gift for her 40th birthday, but not even a thank you card."
Sterling and two other ex-Scientologists who are involved at ESMB tell me that in the last year of his life, Wright told his friends that Stewart had dangled the prospect of finally reconnecting with him -- if he had posts at ESMB containing her name removed. Sterling confirms that Wright did request that such posts be removed, and they were taken down.
By then, Wright had moved to Schaffhausen, Switzerland, where he was designing equipment for audiophiles at his business, Vacuum State. Last year, this notice appeared on the company's website:
Allen Wright Passing
With great regret we announce that Allen Wright, founder of Vacuum State and Chief Designer of our products, has died on 23.02.2011.
He devoted a big part of his life to improve the quality of communication, and - loving music - his High End Hi-Fi designs are one outcome of this heartfelt endeavour.
We are thankful for the time he has shared with us, for the love and joy he brought to our lives and for the great inspiration he was and still is. He will fondly stay in our hearts.
Johanna Allgäuer Wright
Allen's wife and Managing Director of Vacuum State
This morning, I called Johanna Wright.
Almost immediately, she understood why I was calling. When I told her that Virginia Stewart had denied the existence of the disconnection policy on a television program in July, she said that Stewart had also done the same thing on an earlier television appearance -- she thinks it was probably in 2009 -- and Allen Wright had caught it.
"Allen had seen that on TV and got very upset," Johanna says. "He was so upset he wanted to go to the media."
By then, Allen had reached out to his other daughter, Virginia's sister Monique, through Facebook. Through Monique, Allen delivered a message to Virginia about her public statements on disconnection.
"He sort of forced her to get back in comm with him by threatening to publish that this was a lie," Johanna says.
Allen was talking to an Australian journalist, who was poised to reveal Virginia's secret. But when she began to answer her father's e-mails, Allen decided not to have a story written.
Virginia told her father that she had not disconnected from him in 1988 because of the church. She had broken away from him because she didn't like his girlfriend at the time. And then had stayed away. For 22 years.
Does that make sense to you? I asked Johanna, who has never been a Scientologist.
"Of course not," she replied, and she said Allen didn't believe it either. "If she's just trying to protect the church, she's able to say anything."
For about the last year of his life, Allen then had some contact with Virginia. "From then on, she did have a little bit of contact with Allen. But he always had the feeling that she did it to protect the church," Johanna says. "He had the feeling that it was not an honest attempt to get back in touch, but just so she could say that they were no longer disconnected if she was asked about it. He was not really happy because he wasn't feeling it as a heartfelt communication. He felt that she was doing it out of a strategy to protect the church."
Still, she says, he did want to hear from his daughters and get more involved in their lives, even as he fought cancer. "He would have loved for the relationship to get better, but he didn't live long enough for it to grow better," she says.
Johanna and Allen were together for 18 years, but they only got married in January, 2010. A little more than a year later, he succumbed to cancer.
"I had contact with the daughters when he died. They wrote back very nicely," she says.
"They were all very shocked. Virginia said they even did the little ceremony to say goodbye to him."
A few months later, in July, 23 years after she had shunned her father because he followed "a different religion" -- Bill Robertson's brand of Scientology rather than her own -- Virginia Stewart told Australians that the Church of Scientology has no policy of disconnection.
That's something to keep that in mind as you watch her question the veracity and credibility of Ramana Dienes-Browning, Valeska Paris, Don Jason, and Marty Rathbun.
Tony Ortega is the editor-in-chief of The Village Voice. Since 1995, he's been writing about Scientology at several publications.
Keep up on all of our New York news coverage at this blog, Runnin' Scared
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[Melissa Paris, Valeska's sister: forced to marry at 16]
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