Powerful church targets fortunes, souls of recruits
MIT student Carlos Covarrubias had signed a contract to serve the Church of Scientology for the next billion years - in effect, pledging his eternal soul.
Now two Scientologists were helping him stuff underwear and socks into a suitcase at his Back Bay fraternity house while others sat outside on Beacon Street in a car with its engine running.
They were preparing to take the 19-year-old to Logan Airport, and from there to the church's Los Angeles headquarters.
"His parents were coming up from Florida to save him, so the Scientologists were rushing to get him out of here," said Marcus Ottaviano, president of the Pi Lambda Phi fraternity, recalling the May 1995 events.
Covarrubias's interest in the church was first piqued by "Dianetics," the Scientology book advertised on late-night TV and at national events like the Boston Marathon.
It wasn't long before Covarrubias began skipping his MIT classes to spend the day studying at the church, Scientology's four-story stone building on Beacon Street, a block from the Charles River and next door to his fraternity.
The church recruiters befriended him, promising that one day he would become "clear" - with a perfect memory and a higher IQ. Covarrubias paid for the Purification Rundown, a $ 1,200 detoxification program that required him to drink vegetable oil, take vitamin megadoses, and sweat in a sauna for several hours a day.
He also took a course that required him to talk to inanimate objects like dolls and ashtrays. "You had an ashtray, and you'd say, 'Stand up.' You'd lift it up and say, 'Thank you.' And then you'd say, 'Sit down,' and 'Thank you.' You'd try to have the intention for it to move on its own," Covarrubias said.
Altogether, he paid about $ 2,000 to the Church of Scientology. But they wanted more.
"They asked me about student loans, bank loans, and they asked me, 'What's the limit on your credit cards? What's your overdraft protection?' "Covarrubias said. "They said, 'There's always a way to get money.' "
It is just such tactics that cause critics to call the church - founded in 1953 - a cult and a money-grabbing machine that separates thousands of ordinary church members like Covarrubias from their free will and their money.
It is also just such tactics that have the church in the midst of an international and highly public feud with the German government - which steadfastly refuses to grant Scientology the tax-exempt status of a religion - a status the church holds in this country.
While high-profile celebrity members, including John Travolta, Tom Cruise, Kirstie Alley, Chick Corea, Lisa Marie Presley and others, earn goodwill for the church, ex-members and critics say there is a dark underside to Scientology.
Some of that underside was allegedly laid bare in the 1995 death in Clearwater, Fla., of church member Lisa McPherson, 36, according to Florida state police, who recommended in December that Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe bring criminal charges against the church. The county medical examiner said she died of a blood clot due to dehydration, after being denied water for at least her last five to 10 days.
The church says McPherson died accidentally of a pulmonary embolism and denies that its members caused the death.
McPherson's family filed a wrongful-death suit against the Church of Scientology last year, saying she wanted to leave the church but was held against her will during a 17-day church "retreat."
Former insiders told the Herald that the Church of Scientology is a wealthy and powerful organization strictly controlled by its reclusive leaders at the Religious Technology Center in California.
In 1993 - the last year the church had to declare its income for federal tax purposes - it had $ 398 million in assets and took in $ 300 million a year. It claims to have 8 million members, though opponents put that number at only 200,000 or so - with about 40,000 in the United States.
In Massachusetts, there are several groups - an Everett drug-rehab office, a Brighton literacy program, private schools in Milton and Somerville and an anti-psychiatry group in Boston - that deny they are controlled by the Church of Scientology.
The groups share a primary goal with all other Scientology organizations, critics say: To recruit for the church and sell its programs.
But the president of the Church of Scientology International, the Rev. Heber Jentzsch, objected in a telephone interview from Los Angeles to allegations of abuse or deception.
Church members are sincerely motivated to bring happiness to mankind, Jentzsch said. They work in prisons and among the poor to eradicate gang violence, teen pregnancy and drug abuse, he said.
Scientology is thriving in 115 countries, Jentzsch said, despite the venom of what he said were only a few critics. It thrives, he said, because "it is the path to total freedom."
And Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard's books and lectures are popular, selling more than 140 million copies - including more than 17 million copies of "Dianetics" - in 34 languages, Jentzsch said.
Long before Hubbard died in 1986, he was accused of creating the Church of Scientology only to make money. His lectures and writings - totaling more than 100,000 pages - still generate millions of dollars in income every year. That stream of money is now controlled by Hubbard's heir, Religious Technology Center board chairman David Miscavige, 37, who has worked for the church since he was a teenager.
Jentzsch said Scientology is attacked - as Mormonism was in its early years - because it is a new religion with a unique and vital message. "A person who is a Scientologist - he wakes up," he said.
Local Scientologists recruit on college campuses in Boston and on the street.
A favorite spot is outside the front door of the Boston Architectural Center at Newbury and Hereford streets, where church recruiters regularly hand out free tickets for "personality and IQ tests" at the "Hubbard Dianetics Foundation." The tickets - "a $ 30 value" - list the address and telephone number but not the name of the Church of Scientology at 448 Beacon St.
And for several months there was an outpost in Watertown's Arsenal Mall where a vendor's cart offered free stress tests on an an "Electropsychometer" or "E-Meter" - a kind of lie detector used for Scientology training.
Potential members are routed to the Beacon Street church where high-pressure "registrars" sell costly church programs.
In the church's vocabulary, the recruiter is a "body router," and potential converts are "wogs" or "raw meat."
An offer of a free personality test enticed Reem Rahim, 31, who said in a Herald interview that she was recruited to Scientology in 1991.
New to Boston, unhappy with her job as an immunology researcher at Children's Hospital, Rahim accepted when a man on the street offered the church's personality test.
Within six weeks she had paid the Boston church $ 82,000 for Scientology courses - money from an insurance settlement she got after nearly losing her legs in a 1987 car accident. Church salespeople promised Scientology would give Rahim happiness and advanced mental powers, including the ability to remove from her legs the scars caused by the auto accident, she said.
Rahim's family helped her leave Scientology. And she later got all her money refunded, but not before she hired lawyers who threatened to sue the church for fraud.
"I used to feel sorry for them, because there were some nice people there. Now I feel angry with the whole organization. What a bunch of creeps - stealing money from people," Rahim recalled.
Another Boston resident, John Wall, was recruited when he found a Yellow Pages "career counseling" listing for the Scientology group Hubbard Dianetics Research Foundation, according to a fraud complaint he filed against the church on Dec. 8, 1992, in Suffolk County Superior Court.
"The personality test is the gimmick routinely used by Scientology missions, orgs (organizations) and front groups . . . (to) identify the emotional sore spots of the targets for recruitment," said the lawyers for Wall, who was recruited soon after graduating from college.
In a little more than two years, Wall claimed, he gave $ 17,000 to the church but never got career counseling.
"He was bombarded with contacts" from Scientologists pressuring him to take more courses, Wall's lawyers said in the court documents. "He was told that Scientology was every bit a scientific discipline as physics or chemistry," they said.
"Defendants continued to utilize mind control techniques which pervade Scientology pursuant to the boast of (L. Ron) Hubbard, the founder of Scientology," Wall's lawyers said in the documents, and then quoted Hubbard as saying: " 'We know more about psychiatry than psychiatrists. We can brainwash faster than the Russians.' "
After buying courses for 18 months from the Beacon Street church, Wall became a full-time Scientologist and moved to Los Angeles in October 1990.
Seven months after moving to California, Wall quit Scientology. He settled his lawsuit in 1993, and could not be reached for comment.
Skillful techniques induce even highly educated people like Wall, Covarrubias and Rahim to join groups like the Church of Scientology, said Steve Hassan of Cambridge, author of the book "Combatting Cult Mind Control." Hassan was hired by Rahim's family to help persuade her to leave Scientology.
Scientology is clearly a destructive cult, said Hassan, who has established a new local resource center to educate people about coercive religions.
"This group is unlike legitimate religions which tell what their beliefs and practices are in the beginning," said Hassan, 43,a one-time member of the Unification Church.
"Scientology systematically deceives, hypnotizes, indoctrinates and exploits people for its own purposes," he said.
First, Scientologists find a new recruit's "ruin" - the thing that bothers him or her the most, according to Hassan, court documents and former members.
Then they promise to fix it, said former members who sued the church for fraud.
Whether the problem is psychosis or cancer, illiteracy or insanity - or legs scarred from an auto accident - Scientology is the answer. That's the enticement offered to new recruits by church salespeople who are paid a 10 percent to 35 percent commission on every course they sell, defectors said.
Covarrubias, Rahim and Wall spent far less than the $ 300,000-plus cost of completing Scientology's "Bridge to Total Freedom."
Former Scientologist Gloria Neumeyer of Glendale, Calif., who owns a solar heating company, told the Herald she spent $ 200,000 for herself and another $300,000 for family members and employees to take Scientology courses.
"I donated $ 500,000 to Scientology. I was the kind (of recruit) who had money and paid for everything," said Neumeyer, a former Lexington resident who left the church in 1991 and then decided to expose what she says are the church's destructive practices.
Scientology counseling can create a feeling of well-being or even ecstasy, and that can become addictive, according to cult experts. It can also be expensive, costing up to $ 520 an hour, they said.
For the money, Scientologists are promised extraordinary powers - like controlling the weather and flying without their bodies, according to critics and former members.
Scientologists "claim with confidence that trillions of years ago they knew each other on other planets, that they had the power to see at submicroscopic levels and leave their bodies at will," said Jim Siegelman and Flo Conway, authors of "Snapping," a book on personality change in cults.
Like all Scientology churches worldwide, the Boston organization is required to send a percentage of its income to top church groups in California, which own all rights to the use of L. Ron Hubbard's name, said Robert Vaughn Young, a former high-ranking Scientology official.
Many of Scientology's more idealistic members sign billion-year contracts with the Sea Organization, the church's quasi-military corps based in Clearwater, Fla.
Dressed in blue mock-Navy uniforms with gold braid and ribbons, it was two Sea Org officers who visited Boston and convinced Covarrubias that he should wear the same nautical garb while learning to save the world.
Even today, the church still considers Covarrubias a member, because his billion-year contract is irrevocable.
His friends and family disagree.
When his Pi Lambda Phi brothers saw Covarrubias become more and more immersed in Scientology, they alerted his parents in North Palm Beach, Fla.
Using the Internet, they found ex-Scientologists who volunteered to meet Covarrubias face-to-face.
The defectors told Covarrubias that he would sink more and more deeply under the mental control of the church, completely cut off from family and non-Scientology friends.
Meanwhile, on that day in May 1995, his parents' plane was approaching Boston. The church had learned - from Covarrubias during a counseling session - of the plot to rescue him. That's when the Scientologists came into the Pi Lambda Phi house to help Covarrubias pack his suitcase, Ottaviano said.
But before the Scientologists could take Covarrubias to Los Angeles, his friends blocked the frat house door, Ottaviano said.
"The only reason they didn't leave that second is that there were 40 of us and two of them," he recalled.
After Covarrubias was safe with his parents, the Pi Lambda Phi wanted to alert other college students. So they picketed the church next door.
"All the neighbors came out to support us. We were joined by a common enemy - we all hated Scientology," Ottaviano said.
After a year with his family in Florida, Covarrubias felt strong enough to come back to Boston, rejoin the fraternity and re-enroll at MIT. He is scheduled to graduate with a philosophy degree this spring. Raised Catholic, he has a deep interest in spiritual matters.
But he said he does not consider Scientology a spiritual group.
"It's an organization. Any other word, like religion, doesn't seem to fit. It's not a religion because they don't ask for faith," he said. "I would actually call it a cult."
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