SCIENTOLOGY CRUMBLING: An Entire Church Mission Defects as David Miscavige Faces Leadership Crisis
For several years, we've been reporting about a crisis in Scientology as key members of the church -- including some of its highest-ranking former executives -- have left the organization and spoken out about its abuses. One by one, longtime, loyal Scientologists have announced that they are fed up and are leaving the church.
David Miscavige with his friend Tom, in better times
But now, for the first time in memory, an entire mission has announced that it is defecting from the church en masse.
Israel's Dror Center, in Haifa, announced in a lengthy statement that it is rejecting the leadership of David Miscavige and the official church. It now plans to become a part of the burgeoning "independent Scientology" movement. (We sent a request for comment to the Church of Scientology's media office Wednesday evening, but our message has not been answered.)
Dani Lemberger and his wife Tami founded the Dror Center in 1992 -- twice, Tami has been recognized by the church as the world's best auditor, in 2000 and 2002. The Lembergers were in the US this week to meet other members of the independence movement. The church used that opportunity to serve them in Tampa's airport with notices that they had been "declared suppressive persons" (the church's jargon for excommunication). On their way home to Israel, we sat down with Dani during a layover at Newark Airport.
"Our mission is one of the few on the planet that's actually expanding," he told me. But now, his group has notified Miscavige that it will no longer answer to him. "We have left the church."
Let Freedom Ring
Scientology makes much of its network of missions and field groups, which are smaller than its "orgs" -- short for organizations -- but more numerous.
In Israel, there is one org in Tel Aviv, the Lemberger's mission in Haifa, and then two smaller missions and, Lemberger estimates, four or five additional field auditors. The Dror Center, with about 50 people associated with it, is a healthy size for a mission, and it's a significant part of Scientology's modest presence in the country.
On January 2, Lemberger received a copy of Debbie Cook's infamous New Year's Eve e-mail. Cook, a well-known former executive in the church, stunned her fellow Scientologists by putting out a lengthy message detailing how Miscavige has turned the church over to "extreme fundraising" and is getting away from the precepts of Scientology founder, L. Ron Hubbard. The church sued Cook for sending the e-mail, then it later reached a settlement with her in return for her promising to say no more publicly about her experiences.
But Cook's New Year's Eve message continues to do major damage, as other longtime, loyal Scientologists announce that they are leaving the organization because of the same concerns with David Miscavige's leadership.
Lemberger reacted to Debbie Cook's e-mail by forwarding it to church officials, asking them to comment on it. Instead, the church's Office of Special Affairs put him "in ethics" -- under a kind of interrogation program -- and asked him to read a copy of the church's propaganda magazine, Freedom, which contained attacks on the credibility of numerous former church officials who spoke up for a 2009 Tampa Bay Times expose, including Marty Rathbun, Amy Scobee, and Tom DeVocht.
"The magazine is disgusting. It's evil," Lemberger says. "It has a photo of Tom DeVocht scratching his balls, like every man doesn't do that. It had a photo of Amy Scobee that made her look bad. And the writing, it's gross and ugly. So gross, you know they're lying. It's just hatred, and a Scientologist never hates."
As we've seen in the past, OSA's use of Freedom backfired badly.
"The Freedom magazine had referred to Marty Rathbun having a blog. So I went to the Internet, finally," he says. A loyal (if often complaining) member of Scientology for more than 30 years, Lemberger had never explored the 'Net to see what people were saying about his church -- and he knew nothing about the crisis it was in.
But now he absorbed as much he could stand.
"I found out that the world has changed," he says.
Besides the controversies, he also realized that there was a burgeoning independence movement that takes several different forms in Europe and the US. And these groups are using the same materials as the official church, but without the layers of control and constant demands for large donations.
"Everything now is on the Internet. All the Bridge, all the training Bridge, the auditing Bridge. There's no more monopoly," Lemberger says. He was stunned to realize that L. Ron Hubbard's entire "Bridge to Total Freedom" is now available to anyone with a computer and Internet access.
Dani said he came to the realization that his entire mission could continue to honor Hubbard's ideas, but break away from the church itself.
"My people in the mission know Tami, they know me. All of our staff are well paid. All of our customers get great service. I manage it my way," he says. "I took my staff together and told them about Debbie Cook. I encouraged them all to do their own research."
He even cited a Hubbard policy to justify their research project.
"As the church says, 'Think for yourself'," his wife Tami adds.
So the people at his mission began reading stories about Scientology on the Internet.
"Everyone came to the same conclusion -- the church is fucked. The orgs are useless. Miscavige is a lunatic," Dani says. "We decided we wanted to leave the church."
The Lembergers own the mission, and under a franchise license send ten percent of their income to the church. In a letter, Lemberger notified David Miscavige that they now consider themselves independent from the church and will no longer be sending money.
Last month, the Lembergers flew to south Texas to meet with Marty Rathbun, formerly the second-highest ranking official in the church who now is the most visible member of the independence movement because of his blog, which is harshly critical of Miscavige.
"It is unprecedented, as far as I can recall...no mission, certainly no group of this size and productivity, has told management to shove off," Rathbun says. The only thing like it he can remember were some mission holders refusing to sign new charters in the early 1980s. But there's never been a mission that simply defected because of its problems with how the church itself is being run. Rathbun calls it a tectonic shift in the world of Scientology.
But he also wanted the Lembergers to understand that they shouldn't go looking for anyone else to be their new leader.
"I really tried to emphasize that independents have got to get over the idea that they need a leader or any type of management. They were sort of looking for me to supervise or direct them," he says.
After a week with Rathbun, they then flew to Tampa to visit other independents in the area. But when they arrived and went to pick up their luggage, a woman approached them.
Inside were letters from the church notifying Dani and Tami that they have been declared suppressive persons. They said they could only come to one conclusion: church operatives had spotted them visiting Rathbun, which today is considered grounds for immediate excommunication.
Dani is still surprised not only that Rathbun's house was under surveillance, but he wonders how the church was able to get his flight information. (Former OSA operative Frank Oliver explained to us how, in the early 1990s, the church gained flight info using frequent flyer programs.)
"I inform anyone wishing to visit that they must assume their visit is being recorded from a distance," Rathbun says. (For five months last year, his south Texas home was besieged by a very overt surveillance program, a group of Scientologists who called themselves "Squirrel Busters.")
"I told Dani and Tami that, but I think they only half believed me until they were served with suppressive person declares at baggage claim," he says.
When they got home, however, the Lembergers found that church letters were the least of their worries.