Scientology Chooses an Odd Time to Open a "National Affairs" Office in DC
For the last couple of years, Scientology has opened "Ideal Orgs" -- fancy, superfluous new churches in cities around the world in an expensive ploy to make it look like the church is expanding. (It isn't.)
But today's dedication is especially curious.
At a time when Scientology is reeling from several major crises and more negative press attention than ever in its history, the church is officially opening a "National Affairs Office" in the nation's capital, expecting that it can become a player in American politics.
Well, you can't blame them for trying. But their timing? We're wondering if they've been hanging out in the sauna too long.
This is not a good week for Scientology.
It was on Monday that folks outside of New York were finally able to pick up a copy of the October issue of Vanity Fair, which contains a devastating expose of the way Miscavige, with the help of his wife Shelly, helped choose a mate for Tom Cruise in 2004 by auditioning young Scientologist actresses. And Maureen Orth's lengthy article is about much more than that, delving into many of Scientology's serious problems, many of which we've been covering here at the Voice for the last couple of years.
This is also the week that Paul Thomas Anderson's highly anticipated Scientology-inspired film The Master opens in limited release (it opens wide next week). The media interest in this film has been intense, but now the public finally gets a chance to see it, and no doubt many will go online to look for more information about the actual historical figure behind Philip Seymour Hoffman's colorful con man, "Lancaster Dodd."
If this seems an odd time to play for national attention, keep in mind, this is the church which days ago made public a collection of letters sent by its attorneys in an attempt to intimidate Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter. The letters are disastrous PR, and didn't work anyway -- Carter printed Orth's story despite Scientology's ham-fisted threats of legal action.
The building being dedicated today was built in 1890 by George Fraser, a New York businessman. According to DCist, it's had a colorful history as it was repeatedly refurbished and housed various restaurants and nightclubs. In 1994, Scientology bought the place for $2.7 million, rehabbed it again, and then the next year dedicated it as the "Founding Church of Scientology." (Various buildings in DC have carried that moniker, even though the first church of Scientology was not founded there. Go figure. And honestly, deciding whether the "church" of Scientology started in Phoenix in 1952 or Camden, New Jersey in 1953 or Los Angeles in 1954 or in Washington some time later has always been much less important to us than the publication of Dianetics in 1950, the true beginning of all this nuttiness.)
In yet another reshuffle and remodel, in 2009 another building in DC got the "Founding Church" label, and Fraser Mansion was redubbed the church's "National Affairs Office." But it's taken three years, for some reason, for the building to get its official dedication, happening today.
Here's what Scientology says its national affairs office is all about, according to its website:
1. To collaborate with other faith-based and NGOs in order to: Educate and inform policymakers about the importance of supporting religious freedom as a stabilizing component of democracy and civil society, and how it can lead to the reduction and even elimination of religious extremism and terrorism.
2. Affect common sense public policy reforms in the areas of: International Religious Freedom, Human Rights, Criminal Justice, Substance Abuse, Education, Mental Health
For another view, we turned to Mike Rinder, who for many years ran Scientology's Office of Special Affairs, which oversees its public relations and legal efforts. It was Rinder who would have been in charge of today's event, if he hadn't left the church in 2007.
Here's what he says about Scientology's national political ambitions:
It's another bad joke.
Miscavige will be including this in his list of "new" buildings -- "Ideal Orgs" -- recently opened, like Hamburg, Buffalo, Stevens Creek, Los Gatos, all proudly touted by him as being "newly opened" this year!
Fraser Mansion (as it used to be known) was supposed to be the "Div 6" of the "new DC Org" because the other building just wasn't big enough to accommodate their expansion. The fact is, they could not keep two buildings operating, so they had to come up with something "new" to use the Fraser building for.
I have no idea who or what they are going to put in that building. Maybe some animatronic Miscaviges that will spout puffery when you push a button "Fastest growing religion on earth with more than 10,000 churches and 10 million members. Being led into the future under the brilliant, benevolent guidance of the ecclesiastical leader of the religion, Mr. David Miscavige, a man who cares deeply for the well-being of mankind and demonstrates it every day by personally keeping a large number of people employed hand-making his clothes, washing his cars, recording and typing his every word and keeping him tanned and manicured...."
They don't have spokespeople or PR's any more. Karin Pouw is a signature that is used and that's about it. Nobody from the media has seen her in person for years. I don't know anyone who has even spoken to her on the phone.... And of course, Heber [Jentzsch, president of the Church of Scientology and once its public face] only appears when his son dies, and he only had one, so he will never been seen in public again.
Perhaps they plan to fill the building with lawyers? They are the only people who make public utterances on behalf of the church these days....
Bad timing? There's no good timing for Miscavige for anything these days. Except maybe to climb the stairs of his private jet, turn and wave a "victory" salute accompanied with a last "I am not a crook" as he heads into exile in Bolivia.
The Top 25 People Crippling Scientology -- 2012 Edition
Last summer, we put together a little list that took on a life of its own. We counted down the 25 people and groups who had been doing the most to get word out to the wider world about the Church of Scientology's many alleged abuses, and who have contributed to its steep recent decline. A year later, we thought it was time to update our list. This time, we've put a premium on what's happened in the last twelve months, so you might see some of your old favorites drop off the roster. But never fear -- you can always revisit our choices from last year, or the choices of our readers.
#2: Katie Holmes
Don't believe the urban legends about Katie being a beard or participating in a secret time-limited marriage contract. Her relationship with Tom Cruise was genuine, and at first she went along with the idea of joining Scientology. But over time, she would have seen much about the church's culture of interrogation that would have alarmed her, particularly in the case of Cruise's older children, Isabella and Connor. With Suri nearing the age that her Scientology indoctrination would have begun in earnest, Katie decided to make a break for it. She did so with such precision, it's hard to believe she wasn't planning it for many months. And even though Katie has kept quiet about it, the split opened the floodgates for more negative media than Scientology has ever experienced -- all of it at the worst possible time for the church. The TomKat break-up happened the same week as we broke news that church leader David Miscavige's own father had escaped from Int Base, an entire mission in Israel declared its independence, and the son of Scientology's president died mysteriously. But it's Katie's escape from Scientology that opened the floodgates for media attention that is the church's biggest nightmare in years.
#1: David Miscavige
Last year, our readers named church leader David Miscavige as Scientology's biggest problem, and in the last twelve months, he's only made it more apparent that he deserves the top spot. As his flock dwindles, he's only ratcheting up the pressure to get more and more money out of fewer and fewer followers, as the Tampa Bay Times showed with its giant November expose, "The Money Machine." And Miscavige's near total focus on donations for his own pet projects -- Ideal Orgs, IAS funding, the Super Power Building -- means that members have little left over to spend on their own cases, a festering problem that is driving many away from the church. On New Year's Eve, Debbie Cook's infamous e-mail put into words what we've been seeing for years -- high-ranking officials, still loyal to Scientology's philosophies, giving up on Miscavige. How did he react? With a lawsuit that blew up in his face in spectacular fashion. By that point, in February, it was obvious that Miscavige had a serious problem on his hands. But the only reaction on his end was to amp up a hugely expensive television ad campaign and keep the focus on opening unneeded new buildings. Then summer hit, and Miscavige has never run into a bigger set of crises, as we mentioned above. Maybe the biggest of all is hitting this week as the movie The Master opens and begins yet another round of stories, and potentially millions of people searching online for information about Scientology. It didn't help Miscavige that this was the moment Vanity Fair chose to publish its story about his wife Shelly helping "audition" young Scientology actresses to be the next Mrs. Cruise in 2004. How does Miscavige react? By making public several threatening letters he'd had sent to Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, maybe the most boneheaded PR move we've seen in a while. With news organizations (except maybe for ABC) less shy about reporting on Scientology, with government agencies finally starting to raise questions, and with his own most loyal members bailing in droves, Miscavige could hardly seem to be doing more damage.
See also: 25. Xenu, 24. Kate Bornstein, 23. Lisa Marie Presley, 22. Dani and Tami Lemberger, 21. John Brousseau, 20. Jamie DeWolf, 19. Jefferson Hawkins, 18. Amy Scobee, 17. Marc and Claire Headley, 16. Dave Touretzky, 15, Mark Bunker, 14. Tory Christman, 13. Karen de la Carriere, 12. Debbie Cook, 11. Astra Woodcraft, 10. Anonymous, 9. Tom Tobin and Joe Childs, 8. Stacy Dawn Murphy, 7. David Love and Colin Henderson, 6. L. Ron Hubbard, 5. Tom Cruise, 4. Paul Thomas Anderson, 3. Marty Rathbun and Mike Rinder
"Tom Cruise worships David Miscavige like a god"
Scientology's president and the death of his son: our complete coverage
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?
Neil Gaiman, 7, Interviewed About Scientology by the BBC in 1968
The Master Screenplay: Scientology History from Several Different Eras
And a post that pulls together the best of our Scientology reporting
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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. 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 hot subjects we've covered here, you may have heard about Debbie Cook, the former church official who rebelled and was 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.