Why Irish (Ex-Scientologist) Eyes are Smiling
We have a St. Patrick's Day special report for you today, and we hope it's early enough in the day that half our readers aren't soused already.
Pete Griffiths, driving the snakes out of the Emerald Isle
This week, yet another story about how badly Scientology is faring in Ireland reached us as the Irish Examiner reported that the mission in Dublin is existing on foreign interest-free loans.
After the jump, we have an interview with ex-Scientologist Pete Griffiths, who helps us understand the situation in Ireland. But first, we wanted to point out what a unique situation exists in that country.
Scientology, through its advertising and through spokespeople like Karin Pouw, constantly asserts that the church is growing at an unprecedented rate and that millions of new people are joining each year. The church wants us to accept that idea without showing us any hard data about membership or revenue (and dupes like Nightline repeat those assertions without facts).
However, there is one place where we can get reliable information about Scientology's health. Ireland is the only country in the world that requires the church to open its books, that forces it to show its actual state of affairs. And In Ireland, the only place in the world we have hard, verified financial information, records actually show that Scientology is experiencing a disastrous drop in revenue since the Anonymous movement started in 2008.
Yesterday, by Skype, I had a conversation with Pete Griffiths, who lives on the west coast of Ireland but regularly takes the train to Dublin to protest at Scientology's mission in that city.
We talked about how the newspapers in Ireland have relentlessly focused on the finances of Scientology's mission there in recent years because, well, it's the only place in the world where newspapers can get reliable and regularly disclosed financial information about the church.
Like in the UK, Scientology is not recognized officially as a church in Ireland. But Ireland takes things a step further and requires Scientology's Dublin mission to submit its revenue figures annually to the nation's Companies Registration Office. Members of the public can then search those records and access them for a small fee. (And people have done just that.)
Ireland's biggest dailies, the Irish Times, the Independent, and the Irish Examiner have been keeping a close watch on those records, and each of them have reported how severely the mission's revenue has dropped since 2008. From Gordon Deegan's report in the Examiner...
Financial documents lodged by the Church of Scientology Mission of Dublin Ltd with the Companies Office show revenues fell 14%, from €193,509 to €166,086.
This followed the church's revenues more than halving in 2009 from €484,070 recorded in 2008.
As a result of revenues further decreasing in 2010, the church's operating surplus dropped 98%, from €68,292 to €1,391. This compares to a surplus of €271,804 in 2008. The accounts are for the 12-month period to the end of Apr 2010, but were only signed off by the board on Feb 20 of this year.
Nearly a decade ago, the Dublin mission had to settle out of court with a woman named Mary Johnston who sued the church, saying that its practices had harmed her. To this day, the mission there is still paying off interest-free, foreign loans that it needed to pay that settlement, which was estimated at €2 million.
And today, with such reduced revenue, the balance on those loans has actually gone up: "The outstanding amount on the loans increased during 2010 from €370,304 to €376,383," Deegan writes.
But Griffiths tells me that money woes aren't the Dublin mission's only problem. At this point, he says, the church has hardly anyone left.
Although the Dublin mission's Gerard Ryan told the Examiner that Scientology has a "few hundred adherents," Griffiths says an ex-staff member managed to get a copy of a "call-in list" and shared it with other members of Ireland's anonymous movement. The list contained the phone numbers of all local members, so that they could be called-in on a moment's notice to attend an important event at the mission.
It had 40 names.
"They're sinking fast," Griffiths says.
Griffiths himself got involved in 1987, when his brother told him and his (now ex-) wife about the book Dianetics. They were living in England at the time.
"She bought the book from the local organization, so they called her, asking how she got on with the book. I can remember feeling put out because they'd called her and not me," he says with a laugh.
Pete, without the costume
After taking a personality test -- which revealed, naturally, that he was in dire need of help -- he joined. "I had heard it was kind of culty, but with my brother and my wife involved, it didn't really matter," he says.
Before long, he and his wife joined the staff. "We were promised pay, but it never came. You put up with stuff simply because you think you're doing the right thing."
After three years, however, what little savings they had was gone, and things were getting "unbelievably bad," he says. "We had one child and one on the way...We blew the org, but we still wanted to do what we could to help Scientology. So we opened a mission. But it was impossible to keep it staffed up. Basically, we got kicked out. But we stayed on lines with the local org until we eventually drifted away."
Griffiths had spent most of his time working for Scientology in England, but he had also done a short stint at the Pacific Area Command ("Big Blue") in Los Angeles, and a conference at Flag Land Base in Clearwater, Florida.
"I have no idea how we got by. We had no money at all," he says.
After drifting away from Scientology in 1994, a few years later he moved to Ireland.
Another decade went by until, in 2008, Griffiths says he met someone who said they were on their way to protest at the Scientology mission in Dublin.
"Why would you do that?" he remembers asking, and he was told to look online for an answer to that question.
"It didn't happen instantly, but within three months I kind of realized, oh my God, it's a con, my deepest fears have proved true," he says. "It took another year -- May 2009 is when I just walked along to my first ever protest. Now I'm trying to help others get out. It's almost become a career."
Griffiths says a small but very dedicated network of ex-Scientologists and other members of Anonymous keep the pressure on the Dublin mission.
"In 2008 to 2009, you could really see the effects of Anonymous on a small mission," he says, citing the huge drop in revenue reflected in the mission's financial records.
"Protesting outside, you can see that there's less of them," he says. "We know them all by name. We kind of know exactly what they're doing. They're sinking fast."
Griffiths says he assumes the same thing is happening around the world as more people become aware of Scientology's alleged abuses through the Internet or at protests.
I asked that question of Mike Rinder, Scientology's former top spokesman, who made a trip in October to speak in Ireland.
"When there are actual, independent facts, nothing they say holds water. Everything that they present is exposed as a lie," he says about the church's pronouncements of explosive growth.
"In Ireland, the place is disappearing and being propped up by outside funds. And the only reason they prop that mission up is that it's the only Scientology in all of Ireland," he says.
I asked him if it was the constant protests by Anonymous that he thinks have contributed to the dwindling fortunes of the Dublin mission.
"I believe that. I believe that there are more independent and ex-Scientologists in Ireland than there are current church members -- by a factor of 10," Rinder says. "And I'd love for Karin Pouw to try to prove that statement wrong."
Tony Ortega has been the editor in chief of the Village Voice since March, 2007. He started writing about Scientology in 1995. You can reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, and if you ask nicely he'll put you on his mailing list for notifications of new stories, which tend to come out each and every morning at 8 am, but can suddenly appear at any time of the day. You can also catch his alerts at Twitter (@VoiceTonyO), at his Facebook author page, on Pinterest, a Tumblr, and even this new Google Plus doohickey.
New readers might want to check out our primer, "What is Scientology?" Another good overview is our series from last summer, "Top 25 People Crippling Scientology." At the top of every story, you'll see the "Scientology" category which, if you click on it, will bring up all of our most recent stories. As for our regular features, on Thursdays we do a roundup of world press, on Fridays we visit L. Ron Hubbard on the yacht Apollo circa 1969-1971, on Saturdays we celebrate the week's best comments, and on Sundays we publish Scientology's wacky and tacky advertising mailers that people send us.
As for hot subjects we've covered here, you may have heard about Debbie Cook, the former church official who rebelled and is now being sued by Scientology. You might have also heard about the Super Power Building, Scientology's "Mecca," whose secrets were revealed here. We also reported how Scientology spied on its own most precious object, Tom Cruise. (We wrote Tom an open letter that he has yet to respond to.) Have you seen a Scientology ad on TV lately? We debunked some of the claims in that 2-minute commercial you might have seen while watching Glee or American Idol.
Other stories have looked at Scientology's policy of "disconnection" that is tearing families apart. You may also have heard something about the Sea Org experiences of the Paris sisters, Valeska and Melissa, and their friend Ramana Dienes-Browning. We've also featured Paulette Cooper, who wrote about Scientology back in the day, and Janet Reitman, Hugh Urban, and the team at the Tampa Bay Times, who write about it today. And there's plenty more coming.