Scientology Gets a Smooch from the L.A. Times
In 1990, just before he and his colleague Joel Sappell were about to publish a landmark series exposing Scientology's secrets in the Los Angeles Times, Robert Welkos found that someone had placed in a manila envelope against his home's front door a brochure from a mortuary, encouraging him to plan his own funeral.
Welkos, left, and Sappell
He checked with the funeral home, but it said it would never solicit in that way. Then another brochure showed up two days later, left by a man spotted scurrying away by Welkos's wife.
I would never know if the deliveries were just a mix-up or a sinister prank. Just as I have never known who made the dozens of hang-up telephone calls to my house; what caused my partner's dog to go into seizures on the day the Times published the secret teachings of Scientology; why a bogus assault complaint was filed with the Los Angeles Police Department against Sappell by a man whose address and name proved to be phony, or why car dealers we had never dealt with were making inquiries into our personal credit reports...
Whenever journalists ask critical questions about Scientology they can expect to endure intense personal scrutiny. Over the years, various reporters have been sued, harassed, spied on, and even been subjected to dirty tricks.
The 1990 series by Sappell and Welkos proved to be one of the most significant journalistic projects ever done on Scientology, and was especially brave for the proximity of the newspaper to Scientology's Los Angeles administrative headquarters.
Which makes it all the more disappointing that yesterday, the sloppiest wet kiss I've seen Scientology receive from the mainstream press in a very long time showed up on the website of the Los Angeles Times, which long ago lost the services of Welkos and Sappell.
The article was titled "What is Scientology? A Scientologist offers her point of view," and it showed up in the "Nation Now" section of the Times website.
Its author, Rene Lynch, begins with the obligatory nod to Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes for sparking widespread interest in the subject before asking, just what is Scientology?
Hey, no problem with that. We've asked it ourselves, knowing that readers appreciate a primer to such a complex body of knowledge.
Lynch proposes to ask a Scientologist this question, which is, again, a good notion. We've often spoken to current church members, although usually not for the record. This is in part why Debbie Cook's infamous New Year's Eve e-mail was so stunning -- a former church executive, she insisted that she was still a member in good standing when she gave the world a glimpse into the crisis that is convincing more and more longtime members to break away.
The Times, however, chose to interview a woman who calls herself Laurie Hamilton, and who, for about a decade, has listed herself as an authority on Scientology at AllExperts.com. (This last detail was not mentioned in the Times piece.) Lynch's description of the woman sounds like Hamilton's AllExperts.com page: "a second-generation Scientologist and ordained Scientology minister who does consulting work."
There is no contact information for Hamilton at her AllExperts.com site. You can send her questions, and she may choose to answer them. There's no indication of who she really is or where she lives. In extensive online databases of Scientology "completions" -- successes listed in official church publications -- there is no record of any Laurie Hamilton. And over the years, Scientology experts have found that she gives extremely unusual answers for someone who claims to be a second-generation church member born in 1968 to parents who had fallen in with L. Ron Hubbard from the very beginning, the 1950 publication of his book, Dianetics.
In 2006, the researchers at Operation Clambake noticed that Hamilton, for example, spoke freely about something that is assumed to be taboo among actual church members: the condition of L. Ron Hubbard in the days before his death. As can be seen in this video, a few days after Hubbard's death in January, 1986, it was announced to church members at the Hollywood Palladium that Hubbard had been as healthy as an ox, and had simply chosen to leave behind his body as he moved on to another plane of existence to pursue further spiritual research.
Hamilton, however, wrote at her AllExperts.com page what offiicial records actually indicate, that Hubbard was debilitated by a series of strokes (calling into question the validity of his final will, which he signed the day before his death), and that his physician, Gene Denk, had been injecting him with Vistaril, a psychiatric drug.
Hamilton makes other statements about Hubbard and his foibles being less important than the works he left behind, and also that some of the more outlandish space opera stories in Scientology's upper-level teachings (which cost members hundreds of thousands of dollars to discover) are simply metaphors which Scientologists can pick and choose from.
Hamilton, in other words, sounds like just about no Scientologist you will encounter in the official church (in some ways, she sounds like an "independent Scientologist," who are heretics as far as David Miscavige's church is concerned). She has long been suspected to be working on behalf of Scientology's Office of Special Affairs, which would normally vet any communication to the public of the church's official policies. Various experts have pointed out that her answers appear to be intentionally more pragmatic than the dogmatic answers church members give each other, and are written for a skeptical public. (Mike Rinder, OSA's former executive director who left in 2007, told me that he's never heard of her. But he said he is certain that such public statements would be gone over by church officials carefully before publication.)
Laurie Hamilton, in other words, is a problematic figure, especially for a journalist who wants a straight answer about Scientology.
But the Times compounded problems in a couple of ways. First, it agreed to all of Hamilton's ground rules, which were extensive...
She declined to reveal specifics about where she lives or works for fear that some clients might hold her beliefs against her.
What follows is an edited transcript of an interview conducted via e-mail at Hamilton's request because she wanted black-and-white clarity to her answers.
This seems rather surprising. After 50 years of ex-members and journalists and government officials who dared to investigate or speak out about Scientology being -- how was it Welkos put it? -- "sued, harassed, spied on, and even subjected to dirty tricks," it's Hamilton who needs protection for expressing her views.
The format allows Hamilton to prepare skillful answers to Lynch's questions that, like her utterances at AllExperts.com, are more pragmatic than what we hear from other church members.
But even granting Hamilton this much power in the conversation, Lynch still could have salvaged things if she'd just asked the woman (or committee, or whatever) a few decent questions.
After looking at what she asked, however, I have to wonder, have the editors down at the Times completely forgotten Welkos and Sappell? (And I want to stress editors. While Lynch's name is on the piece, she appears to have been somewhat unfamiliar with the subject of Scientology. I sent her an e-mail asking if this was her first Scientology piece, and also if she had asked harder questions that "Hamilton" refused to answer. Still waiting for a response.)
Here's a sample of what the Times asked:
-- Does Scientology consider itself a religion?
-- You take issue with the portrayal of Scientologists as blind followers or believers.
-- What is ARC?
-- Do you think Scientology is secretive?
Hamilton is also lobbed softballs about Scientology and drugs, about what its members believe, and about what they pay.
Lynch does get around to Scientology's more unusual beliefs: "Critics of Scientology bring up unusual topics such as Xenu and thetans and aliens."
Note that it's critics that "bring up" these topics, when actually, it was court documents, in protracted litigation started by the church, that revealed to the world what Scientologists today pay about $300,000 to learn -- but are kept from knowing until they have turned over that money.
At the end of Lynch's story, there's an impression that Scientologists are spiritually sophisticated people who are unjustly considered "weird" by people who just can't appreciate their advanced ways of thinking.
The thing is, I've talked to hundreds of ex-Scientologists, and while many of them do praise the spiritual aspects of L. Ron Hubbard's creation, they have many real concerns that Lynch didn't bring up in the least (or, that Hamilton didn't answer and so they were left out of the conversation).
Shouldn't a conversation in the Los Angeles Times at least bring up some of the disturbing abuses in Scientology that its own legendary investigative reporters helped expose to the world?
Where is the question about the single most damaging policy in the church, "disconnection," which rips families apart? How do you not ask about the Sea Org, the elite hardcore of Scientology that asks its members to sign billion-year contracts and to work insane hours for a few dollars a week and with almost no chance for school or kids or family? And where is there a question about the RPF, the Sea Org's prison detail, which now takes years for members to complete?
How does the Los Angeles Times not ask a question about "fair game" -- Scientology's legendary retaliation campaigns against perceived enemies -- after what Welkos and Sappell went through?
And after Debbie Cook's e-mail and subsequent lawsuit, how can a three-page chat with a so-called expert not raise Cook's accusations about "extreme fundraising" which is causing so many longtime members to leave?
As I pointed out in a story last summer, the L.A. Times long ago ceded any claim it had to Scientology journalism primacy to the Tampa Bay Times. On occasion, the L.A. Times can still uncork a beauty -- like a great 2005 investigation of the Int Base, Scientology's secretive headquarters east of Los Angeles. But we can only hope that it will work a little harder to overcome yesterday's unfortunate misstep.
(P.S.: I just noticed that Robert Welkos has a book out. Give it a look.)
What Katie is saving Suri from: Scientology interrogation of kids
Scientology's new defections: Hubbard's granddaughter and Miscavige's dad
Scientology's disgrace: our open letter to Tom Cruise
Scientology crumbling: An entire mission defects as a group
Scientology leader David Miscavige's vanished wife: Where's Shelly?
On the next page: Our regular Friday feature, Scientology on the High Seas...