It’s cold in Buffalo, and signs of the housing recovery are hard to see. Take the long walk down Main Street and you’ll pass foreclosed homes, a shuttered hospice, and more than a few yellowing FOR SALE signs.
But make it downtown, and you’ll see something different: a pristine, ornate cathedral, glowing against the parking lot gray. As of this June, central Buffalo has been crowned by a newly opened Church of Scientology: a gleaming, 41,000-square-foot temple, rising from the ruins with “glazed white terra cotta,” “limestone trim,” and “elaborately sculpted crown moldings,” as one lyric church press release described the newly erected “Ideal Organization.”
On Jan. 14, a widely read (and now removed) sponsored post that appeared on TheAtlantic.com went further, extolling these churches, or Ideal Orgs, as proof of the religion’s 2012 “renaissance” — a “milestone year” that saw 12 of these lavish buildings open around the world. “The driving force behind this unparalleled era of growth is David Miscavige, ecclesiastical leader of the Scientology religion,” the advertorial read. “This new breed of Church is ideal in location, design, quality of religious services and social betterment programs.”
The Ideal Orgs certainly look great, make headlines, and serve as flashy totems of Scientology’s (literally) unspeakable wealth. The Church of Scientology International (CSI) headquarters in Los Angeles says that it has built 34 of these cathedrals worldwide since 2003, with 60 more underway. Almost all were paid for by local parishioners, who had been lobbied by roving teams of fundraisers.
But inside the church, the Ideal Orgs are sparking insurrection. Across the country, donors and high-ranking executives say that the aggressive fundraising and construction scheme is used to enrich the central church at the expense of the rank and file, helping to grow the Scientology war chest to over a billion dollars. Two former members, Mike Rinder and Mark Elliott, went so far as to call the project a “real estate scam.” To some of these defectors, the structures are metaphors for the religion itself: garish on the outside, empty on the inside. The irony is that the very expansion that Scientology lauds as its renaissance is actually a symbol of internal dissent and decline.
According to ex-executives, the Ideal Org money play is simple: Find beautiful buildings; get local parishioners to foot the bill; keep them closed; keep fundraising; open them; and finally, have the parishioners pay for renovations, buy supplies, and send money to the central church for the right to practice there.
When Bert Schippers forked over hundreds of thousands of dollars to help build an Ideal Org in downtown Seattle, he thought he was helping save the world. “I thought I was in the best religion on the planet,” he says. But as he gave more and more from 2001 to 2008, the new cathedral’s doors remained locked shut: to people, but not to money. Schippers, who had joined the church in 1986 and spent more than a million dollars on donations and courses, started asking questions about what, exactly, he was paying for; church leaders barred him, his wife, and his friends from setting foot inside.
“We gave that money because we wanted our local church to have its own building,” says Schippers, who runs a circuit-board company with his wife. “But when I found out the church had changed the original teachings of L. Ron Hubbard to make so much money… I felt absolute, complete, total betrayal.” Nonprofits often tell you that a donation can change your life, as well as its recipient’s. For Schippers, losing so much for so little was a disturbing wake-up call. “It was around then I realized, I was in a fucking cult.” He pauses, can’t quite find the words. “It’s…a mindfuck. Just a total mindfuck.”
He’s not alone. With donors bled dry, and ex-executives staging new assaults on the church, Scientology is facing its biggest challenge since it fought for (and won) tax-exempt status in the early ’90s. And again, it’s over money.
“Scientology was always in it for cash,” says Tony Ortega, the former editor of The Village Voice, who has spent almost two decades reporting on the religion. “The difference is, before 10 years ago, the money you were being asked to spend was for your own case. Now, it’s all fundraising for the central church. These people are exhausted.”
It’s no secret that Scientology is pay-to-play; the prices for its services and teachings, from books to audits to seminars, seem to know no ceiling. But this moneymaker is different: The building drives ask for straight-up cash donations of fixed amounts — many times larger than traditional Scientology buy-ins — and, according to former executives, go straight to the central church’s kitty. For years, those who’ve long questioned Scientology’s legitimacy mocked the religion’s sci-fi-tinged teachings, called Hubbard a fraud, and lampooned those gullible enough to be taken in by its feel-good myths.
But that didn’t work. Why? All religions have their Xenus, multi-armed elephants, or magic babies, their morally ambiguous prophets, their tall tales and scandals. They even ask for millions of dollars from the faithful.
But the defectors who claim to have been bilked say this scheme is different, manipulating local parishes for the sake of central church finances. And once you talk to them, the stereotypes start to fade. These donors weren’t brainwashed weirdos. They were more average joes than creepy cultists — searching, like the rest of us, for a pew, a community, a how-to guide for life. They’re not familiar with corporate intrigue or mass donation drives.
This increasingly public wave of internal strife comes at the worst possible time. Over the past year, the number of vocal and visible Scientology exiles began to increase at a rate that surprised even the staunchest of church critics. TomKat fever boosted news coverage, while Lawrence Wright’s sprawling 2011 New Yorker profile of filmmaker Paul Haggis, who split acrimoniously and loudly from the church, gave way to a new book. Along with Janet Reitman’s 2011 book, Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion, investigators and defectors have begun to organize like never before, shining uninvited klieg lights into the church’s carefully cultivated shadows. Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master wasn’t the thinly veiled exposé some may have clamored for, but it still sparked conversation about Hubbard and the religion’s history; sophisticated whistleblower news sites like Mark Bunker’s xenutv.com, shared among defectors, did even more.
Back in the ’70s, the famously litigious church had time to fight publicly with the novelist William S. Burroughs, himself a Scientology defector — or, in the ’90s, with Time magazine. Today, going after every Cruise-bashing blog post would be impossible.
And the ranks of the faithful are dropping. In 2008, there were 25,000 self-identifying American Scientologists, down by over a half from 55,000 in 2001, according to the American Religious Identification Survey. (Over the same time period, the number of Wiccans more than doubled from 134,000 to 342,000.) The 2011 British census showed a total of 2,418 Scientologists across England and Wales; about 73 times as many Brits identified themselves as “Jedi.”
Yet the glitz and glamour of the Ideal Org buildings, often erected amid urban squalor, “creates the illusion of growth,” says Mike Rinder, an ex-executive who spent almost three decades on the CSI’s board of directors, and who was the church’s spokesman for several years. The church says the new buildings will “meet the skyrocketing demand for Dianetics and Scientology services” — but by all demographic accounts, demand is plummeting, even as stretched-thin local donors boost supply. In 2005, when Jefferson Hawkins, the church’s former head of marketing, left the fold, he estimated there were only 40,000 Scientologists worldwide — a far cry from the “millions” claimed by the CSI.
The change, he says, stems from a crisis of leadership, emerging from five years of high-profile bad publicity. Rinder argues that church leader David Miscavige is using “empty buildings” to “persuade Scientologists and the public at large that the religion is expanding.” He speaks dispassionately, without nostalgia, about the internal intrigue of years gone by. You wouldn’t know that leaving the church meant leaving his wife of 35 years and his two children, just five years ago.
The church’s traditional business model relies on sales of services: religious texts, classes, and emotional counseling. Under Hubbard, the central church marketed its books and seminars directly to parishioners and converts, charging local Scientology franchises a small fee (about 10%) to do business. They also occasionally asked for goodwill donations — for a charity project or a new center. And if you bought enough services and gave enough goodwill, you could climb the “Operating Thetan” ranks, getting closer to the church’s vital center and deeper into the more obscure Hubbard literature. By using church “technology,” Scientologists believe that they can purge themselves of negative spirits and memories. And selling the tech wasn’t a bad way to start a local business. It was a McDonald’s model: License the name, sell the food, and the brand will grow organically.
The money is made much differently now. The International Association of Scientologists, a central church organ that works to “unite, advance, support and protect the Scientology religion,” has solicited donations of at least $250 million since 2006, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Then there’s “Golden Age of Knowledge,” an initiative to “correct errors” in the millions of L. Ron Hubbard books sold to parishioners worldwide. In 2005, David Miscavige announced that some of Scientology’s sacred texts needed revisions to “recover, verify, and restore the Scripture.” According to Mark Bunker, a San Diego–based journalist who has reported on Scientology for over two decades, the corrections were minor: punctuation errors, a misplaced chapter, or a shortened preface. But never fear — updated copies were now available for sale, but not exchange. In 2007, the church released “fully restored” versions of 18 crucial Hubbard books and 280 lectures, according to a Scientology press release. And why take the time to compare the new and old editions? The church asks that you destroy your old books.
“They’re selling the same stuff over and over,” says Bunker. “Nonstop fundraising from the dwindling pool of parishioners. It’s wearing people down.”
The Ideal Org project is the most visible project of all, more than doubling Scientology’s global real estate portfolio by square footage. But even while raising millions, the scheme is driving what Scientology watchers and defectors describe as a second reformation. Not since the early 1980s — when a young David Miscavige stripped Scientology’s local missionaries of their corporate autonomy — have defectors spoken in such hushed, messianic terms, about promises betrayed, parishioners bilked, and an empire, crumbling.
Defectors say that these buildings, already fundraising magnets, become even more valuable as the central church acts as landlord. According to Nancy Many, who ran the church’s major central celebrity center from 1980 to 1982, Ideal Orgs have to send lease and mortgage payments to the International Landlord Office in order to earn the right to practice in the building. As Marty Rathbun, second-in-command at the CSI until 2004, explains, “We used rent, lease, and mortgage as justifications for payments to management. That’s the philosophy.”
Early in 2012, Debbie Cook — a church icon and former executive — sent an angry email about the Ideal Orgs to hundreds of parishioners, who forwarded it to thousands of others. She was no bad-apple malcontent: Cook ran the church’s spiritual headquarters, the Flag Service Organization in Clearwater, for 17 years. L. Ron Hubbard “never directed the purchase of opulent buildings,” Cook protested in her mass missive. “Scientologists and OTs need to be training, auditing, and disseminating to raw public… not [selling services to] each other or holding internal fundraisers.” She said that those donations had built up central cash reserves that “have grown well in excess of a billion dollars” — a figure confirmed by Mike Rinder.
After her email, Cook was expelled from the church, which then sued her; she and Scientology reached a settlement, which included a gag order, in April. Her attorney Ray Jeffrey told reporters that fighting the church had destroyed Cook and her husband’s business. Two months later, they moved to the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. But more voices have entered the fray: former executives and parishioners, organizing together against the church. “There has been a tipping point reached,” says Bunker. “A large number of people now are not afraid to speak out. And that’s never been the case before.”
Hubbard’s model — local centers selling books, audits, and seminars — was to be “lean, mean, make a lot of money,” says Nancy Many. Now, she says, Miscavige is fighting back with a new approach: “Get a bunch of millionaires, and suck them dry.”
But of course, they’re not all millionaires.
“The money and the time we put in were supposed to help people improve their lives,” said Mark Elliott, a genial Seattle subcontractor who joined in 1980, worked as the local church’s treasurer until 2000 and contributed thousands to the Ideal Org project before leaving the church in 2009. Elliott isn’t a John Travolta figure. Like much of the church rank and file, he’s just a guy who Hubbard’s words helped out in a time of need. “That was the whole idea: not only helping ourselves, but others,” he says. He loved the church, and didn’t want to doubt the purity of its intentions. “I should have seen things a little sooner.”
In 2001, the local Seattle church directors announced a plan to find a new building. The parishioners obliged, and found one they liked. But then, the central church caught wind, and plans changed. According to Elliott and Schippers, a team of CSI fundraising missionaries descended on Seattle, saying they weren’t satisfied with the church’s plans. They told the locals to find a bigger, glitzier structure, and raise far more money.
In Seattle, a landlord sent from the church’s central International Landlord Office began hosting several events. “He wanted to get more rooms here and there,” says Elliott. “He kept asking for more money. They said the building had to have this many square feet, this number of offices. All the space planning was his. And now, the place is basically empty.” Ideal Org fundraisers, many from the central church, get 10 cents commission on every dollar raised. Elliott sighs. Parishioners “were asked to take out second mortgages on their homes,” he said. “The money would come in to my local treasurer’s office, then go straight to the International Landlord Office.”
When the fundraisers found a far bigger building, said Elliott, staffers were asked to give money. One local director took out a million-dollar loan. According to Tony DePhillips, another local Seattle donor and an Operating Thetan VII, the church’s second highest level, “They would have you do anything — sell your house, give away your 401(k) — to raise the money.” DePhillips and his wife ended up giving more than $100,000 over several years, money earned from hard work at the small jewelry business in Seattle they co-own. At the time, he was also paying $30,000 a year to stay at the Thetan VII level.
DePhillips’ close friend, Bert Schippers, and Schippers’ wife, Lynne Hoverson, were some of the biggest donors — they co-owned a successful manufacturing business in Seattle and wanted to give back. Schippers’ donation came on top of the estimated $1.2 million he had paid into Scientology’s hierarchal system of seminars, services, and donations between 1986 and 2008, when he left the church.
“They pump you up when you’re giving money,” DePhillips says. “You feel like a big shot. Ultimately, you find out that the church doesn’t give a rat’s ass about you the minute you’re not on the same page.”
Elliott makes a lot less than Schippers. But he still gave: more than $40,000 since 1980, when he joined as a fresh-faced college recruit. In the 2000s, that included $24,000 to the Ideal Org project in Seattle. More than just a donor, he was a treasurer for the local church, a community icon, and a budding auditor, Scientology’s version of a life counselor. In 2005, when his mother passed away, he gave the local church “about $7,000” of his inheritance.
In February 2005, the Seattle donors finally raised enough to buy the central church’s chosen structure for $3.7 million. But the CSI’s plan for the Seattle congregation wasn’t finished yet. For four more years, “the building sat idle, while more fundraising occurred to raise money for renovations,” says Schippers. The structure stayed unoccupied and unrenovated until 2009. He grew impatient — why the wait for their new holy site? But the fundraising still wasn’t over.
Elliott says that the fundraisers from the central church asked for $2.1 million to beautify the building, and then surprised him by asking for $1.1 million more to buy another one: an affiliated “Scientology Life Improvement Center” in downtown Seattle. The second building was purchased in 2007, but also stayed empty until July 24, 2010.
And the fundraising targets kept rising. “There were many hundreds more fundraising rounds,” says Schippers. “In the last two or three years, it was fundraising more than once a week.”
“They would always seem to miss their [donation] quotas,” says DePhillips. “They would tell you it would be a certain number one month, then as they got closer to it, they’d raise it.”
According to internal emails obtained by BuzzFeed, the money drive officially closed on Feb. 20, 2010: “Across the eight years,” the email says, “we raised a total of $13.9 million with 33 Humanitarians [church jargon for those who make a] (Donation of $100,000 or more).” Both Schippers and DePhillips made the list.
Of that $13.9 million given to the CSI’s central fundraisers, a total of $4.8 million was spent on buying the two properties. Was the remaining $9.1 million spent on local improvements? Due to the religion’s closed books, it’s hard to say. The fundraising goal for renovating the Life Improvement Center was just $1.5 million, say Schippers, Elliott, and DePhillips. And the donors doubt that even that sum was spent. “I thought that was completely bogus,” says Schippers. “I got a tour of the finished building, and it wasn’t $1.5 million of renovations. I would estimate $100,000 … It is possible that renovations were as high as $500,000, but even that seems too high.”
Even if the church did spend $1.5 million on improving the Center, that leaves $7.6 million to renovate the main Ideal Org. Jason Rosauer, a senior vice president and partner at Kidder Matthews, one of Seattle’s largest commercial real estate firms, took a look at the building and estimated that it would cost “between eight and nine million to put up brand new.” If the church spent the remainder of its raised funds on renovating the Ideal Org, he says, “it would not be out of the realm of possibility…but that’s a hell of an improvement.”
“When I look at the building,” DePhillips says, “it’s not an impressive one. The idea that it would cost millions to renovate that seems preposterous.”
As the drives intensified and the requests mounted, it’s hard not to wonder why the guys on the ground agreed to give, give, and keep giving. “When you’re a hardcore member, you believe that the church will help the planet, that it will stop wars, that it will help there be peace for all, that it will help you personally with your life,” Schippers says. “It was a huge part of my life, and most of my friends were involved.”
DePhillips complained to a staff member that the aggressive, post-purchase, empty-building fundraising “went against Hubbard’s financial policy.” The staffer responded by suggesting he report himself to the church’s Ethics department, which would help him “get [his] shit together.” He ultimately resigned and was branded a “suppressive,” a church enemy with whom no Scientologist is allowed to communicate.
Next, the church’s “counselors and security checkers” descended on Schippers, insisting he agree, in writing, to never talk to his friend again. He demurred, tried to reason with the church. “Tony’s a good person,” he urged. That fell on deaf ears. He was later ushered out of the church and branded suppressive as well. His stepson and daughter, still in the church, no longer speak to him. “I moved up the ranks because I wanted the spiritual salvation,” says Schippers. “But I never got it. The spiritual salvation I was looking for turned into spiritual rape.”
DePhillips says that, after leaving, the church began to ostracize him and his wife, also declaring them suppressive. It was a jarring shift. “While donating to the Ideal Org, my wife and I were given a framed certificate [saying] that we were ‘Humanitarians,’” he said. “Then, for speaking our minds and trying to improve the group form within, we were labeled anti-social personalities … It’s an interesting philosophy, developed by L. Ron Hubbard. But it is an insane group that is running the ‘official’ church of Scientology currently.” Other Scientologist friends of his, he said, either cut contact or were forced out of the church as well.
Reached via phone, staffers at the Seattle Church deferred questions to Ann Pearce, listed in government records as Secretary of the Church of Scientology of Washington. (DePhillips says she was a “major player.”) Multiple messages requesting comment were not returned.
When it came to the Seattle Ideal Org grand opening in July 2010, Schippers’ and his wife’s names were not included on a permanent dedication plaque honoring “Excalibur-level” donors. Both were barred from entering the church. Just that February, an internal church missive had lauded them as one of only three couples to reach the “Excalibur” level. “When you’ve devoted 20 years of your life and given a boatload of money, it’s really shocking,” says DePhillips.
“We gave $300,000 to that building and they didn’t even let me inside,” Schippers says. “When somebody behaves like that towards you, it feels like a betrayal. It’s fucked up. I want my money back.”
This scenario is not unique to Seattle. In Orange County, California, the central church’s Ideal Org hopes hinged on one man: Luis Garcia, a two-decade veteran of the church, much-respected among the flock. Garcia had reached Operating Thetan VIII and given thousands to the church’s “charitable works.” He was a familiar face, the owner of a small but successful local printshop. He even helped run the fundraising drive; he can rattle off balance sheets in a pinch.
When the fundraisers first arrived in 2003, he agreed to give $100,000 to remodel the existing building. The central church had found an opening. “They used that initial donation to set up an event,” bringing in around 400 local Scientologists. “A lot of people … got up and started donating.” The combined haul: about $300,000, according to Garcia. But soon, “something changed,” Garcia says. “They now said they needed a new building, with more than 45,000 square feet.” From 2003 to 2006, the drive continued. Garcia gave $50,000 more — but that wasn’t enough. “They came after me three to four times a day,” he says, asking for an additional $350,000. They came directly to his house, called him at work, deluged him with letters — and eventually, threatened his marriage.
In 2006, Garcia said no. Like DePhillips, he was frustrated: When would the church actually break ground? When could he bring friends and converts to the building he had helped buy? Garcia asked too many questions, stalled for too long. The church filed a “Knowledge Report” with the Ethics Department: a letter alleging that Garcia’s wife was stonewalling the purchase. “If they had labeled my wife suppressive,” he says. “I would have had to make a choice: Stay with my wife or stay with the church.” He ended up donating $510,000.
The building, a former Masonic Temple located in Santa Ana, was eventually purchased in April 2006 for $6.2 million, according to Garcia. But, as in Seattle, the building did not immediately open, said Garcia. “When they bought the building, they said the fundraising was over,” says Garcia. “That was a lie. They ended up raising over $5 million more.” The building did not open until June 2, 2012. According to Garcia, $11.4 million was raised for the building’s purchase and renovations. The church also got $3.3 million from the sale of the existing building in Tustin, according to property records. (An internal church letter, dated January 2011, put the fundraising target at a much smaller amount: $5.2 million total.) That makes an estimated total of $14.7 million.
Steve Economos, director of office sales at Jones Lang LaSalle, one of Orange County’s biggest commercial realtors, evaluated the property: a $6.2 million property buy with $8.5 million in renovations on top. “That’s a big, big number,” he tells me. “It’s conceivable … if the building is gutted to four walls and a roof.” And to be sure, the Orange County Ideal Org did undergo extensive renovations, adding “chandeliers,” “interior leaded doors,” and “dry saunas.” As for the $3.3 million from selling the old building, “I don’t know what happened to that money,” says Garcia.
Garcia showed up personally at the office of the Orange County Treasurer-Tax Collector, asking for a copy of all the building’s documents. Ever since that shiny new church took so much of his and his co-parishioners’ money, he’s been trying to hunt down where exactly it went. He’s an obsessive numbers guy. But the books are closed. Scientology is a federally recognized religion, a 501c(3) exempt from corporate disclosure requirements.
“Scientology hierarchy is byzantine,” says Scott Pilutik, a Manhattan attorney who has studied the church’s corporate structure. “It’s meant to look like control is spread out, but it’s not the case at all. All the entities are controlled by a single person … Most of the money goes to Miscavige.” The top CSI’s corporate entity, the Church of Spiritual Technology (CST), has had at least one ex-IRS official on its board since the religion gained tax-exempt status in 1993.
Of course, not all the information is hidden. According to the Orange County treasure-tax collector’s office, the Santa Ana Ideal Org is severely delinquent on its own property taxes and has not gained an exemption. With penalties, the tax amount due now comes to $51,257. “They don’t care about how they spend,” says Garcia. “It’s free money. All they have to do is pressure the people to pay.”
While he was still inside, helping to fundraise, Garcia knew that at least some of $14.7 million money was spent on “construction, lighting, and floors.” But “at least 30%” of the money went to the central church’s Gold Base in Riverside County, California, to pay for emotional testing devices, books, presentational material, and audiovisual supplies, sold by the CSI “at an incredible profit,” says Garcia.
These were brand-new books, auditing machines, CDs, DVDs, audiovisual equipment, manufactured at the central church’s Gold Base and sold at a “substantial mark-up,” according to Hawkins. No supplies from the old Orange County church could be brought to the new one, said Garcia. The church also installed a “look-in system”: hidden-camera video and sound recorders installed in the audit rooms, where Scientologists discuss intimate details from their lives with counselors, while holding two measuring electrodes. The peeping devices “didn’t exist in the old orgs,” says Garcia.
Garcia still believes in Scientology’s worldview, if not its leadership. Less angry than Schippers, he just seems beaten down — disabused of all that made the religion seem so transformative: the self-improvement, going “clear,” mastering your destiny; the loss of so much wisdom, he says, to money. “You see, I had always held the church management in the highest of regard,” he says. “Could they ever make a mistake? Yes, but I always thought them to be beyond ethical reproach. My experience with the Ideal Org was a great factor in my awakening to the reality of the Church of Scientology nowadays: a corrupted, fraudulent, abusive organization, rotten to the core, from top to bottom, that had departed from the principles that once made it attractive to me.”
As elsewhere, after its grand opening, the Orange County building remains empty but for a few staffers, said Garcia. “There’s nothing happening in those orgs,” he says “They’re dead: six people in 65,000 square feet.” Former executive Nancy Many calls churches like Seattle’s and Santa Ana’s “Ideal Morgues.”
The Seattle and Orange County donors lost a lot of money, and worse, faith. And they had little recourse. According to DePhillips, the local churches sign restrictive contractual agreements with the CSI that govern use of the building and lease payments. Schippers, who still had $27,583 in the CSI’s central account to pay for services, tried to sue to get it back; a judge said he couldn’t hear the case, shunting it to internal arbitration. Debbie Cook is leaving the country. DePhillips is weighing his options. Garcia just seems exhausted by it all. To them, the Ideal Org barrage constituted betrayal, hubris, incompetence, or all three.
But to former church leaders, the Ideal Org strategy is part of the church’s broader struggle to survive — and a symptom of its impending decline. More than just internal finances gone awry, more than a few loose lips on a sinking ship, executives allege that the religion has become an outright “pyramid structure,” in the words of Nancy Many.
“It’s a lot of money being generated for nothing,” says Hawkins, a soft-spoken defector who ran the church’s marketing operations during its boom from the early 1980s to 2003; no single person, other than Hubbard himself, was more responsible for filling Scientology’s pews and getting church books on the best-seller list. “Local churches have to send money to the central church, as ‘management’ fees or ‘royalty payments.’” he says. “There’s a considerable amount of money that goes from those entities to the Central Finance Office. It’s a real estate scheme whereby we can take in unlimited amounts of money that has no liability attached to it.”
“That’s one of the most shocking aspects,” says Bunker. “Not only do these parishioners have to buy the building, but as soon as it’s up and running, they have to turn it over to the church and get billed for lease, or rent.”
Combine all the money raised in Buffalo, Seattle, and Orange County, and you won’t even get close to the haul brought in by the most ideal — and emptiest — of the Ideal Orgs: the “Super Power” building in Clearwater. The titanic structure was presented to the IRS as a $24 million project in 1993. Today, it remains unfinished. A St. Petersburg Times analysis, based on public donor commendations, put the amount of funds raised for the massive building at a minimum of $145 million.
Amy Scobee, a former member of Scientology’s central spiritual corps, Sea Org, says the building is a “cash cow,” which has long “sat as a shell, taking in money.” Scobee, who’s also Mark Elliott’s stepdaughter, left the church after alleging physical abuse while working in the church’s top-secret training outpost. “They don’t have the staff to open it [the Super Power Building],” she says, “not even to keep the lights on.”
“Each year,” says Rinder, “we sent [parishioners] repeated promises that vast amounts of money were needed to complete it.” Rinder, who worked at the church’s highest levels for almost all of the Super Power fundraising years, says that the building has taken in “in excess of $200 million dollars” in donations. By adding up public donation commendations, Jefferson Hawkins estimates a “minimum” of $142 million raised.
But in 2009, a Scientology staffer overseeing construction told the Tampa Bay Times that the Super Power building had only cost $40 million so far, and that the church expected to spend another $50 million to finish it. If the fundraisers have netted more than $200 million, as Rinder says, that will leave Scientology with $110 million in raised but unspent funds, sitting in the central church’s reserves.
The massive building recently spent another $1 million to be “repainted a different shade of beige,” says Scobee. She said it was a way for Miscavige to demonstrate his control. “Scientology is not about the person any more,” she says. “It’s about the assets.”
Even if these accounts explain how the CSI extracted funds from its most loyal members, what’s less clear is why. Why would an exceedingly wealthy organization that legendarily thrives on insularity and isolationism risk exposure, just to raise dollars from its most loyal soldiers? Ask the alleged victims and perpetrators of this strategy — former donors and executives — and the short answer is invariably the Two Ds: decline, and David Miscavige.
Last November, Miscavige christened the Middle East’s first Ideal Org in Jaffa, Israel. “It doesn’t belong to anybody in Israel,” Dani Lemberger, the head of a lapsed Scientology center in Haifa and recent defector, told The Independent. “This new Ideal Org is Miscavige’s creation, spending large amounts of donated money for expensive buildings around the world ultimately controlled by him.” Confronted by lagging parishioners and dyspeptic local franchises, centralizing power is one way to batten down the hatches, say Rinder and Bunker. As Garcia puts it, “For parishioners who are isolated from the news … [the Ideal Orgs] create the illusion that we’re growing leaps and bounds.”
(That’s not what the brochure says, of course. “Ideal Orgs…house extensive public information multimedia displays that introduce every facet of Dianetics and Scientology, along with libraries, course and seminar rooms for an introduction to and study of Scientology Scripture,” explains The Atlantic advertorial. “Chapels serve to host Sunday Services and other congregational gatherings. It is from these Ideal Churches that Scientologists extend their humanitarian programs to mitigate intolerance, illiteracy, immorality and drug abuse.”)
Meanwhile, Miscavige lives better than many CEOs. When Hawkins left the church eight years ago, his former boss was “paying himself over $100,000 a year.” Today, “he has a big house at headquarters, a fleet of personal cars and motorcycles, and a personal chef,” says Hawkins. “There’s a tailor that makes all his suits: $5,000 apiece, with $500 Egyptian cotton shirts.”
Since 1993, when it claimed $398 million in assets, Scientology’s finances have been a mystery to anyone outside the fold, and will remain so as long as the religion is exempt from having to open its books. “They’re having their cake and eating it too,” says Hugh Urban, author of The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion. “They’re a multinational corporation that has one aspect that’s religious.” But even without disclosure, the questions surrounding dollars, donations, and buildings are growing louder. Beyond corporate intrigue and construction plans, the central church’s new catechism is highly personal, often devastating.
“We really thought that we were helping others,” says Schippers, who usually isn’t fond of reminiscing. Even after leaving the church, he would have been happy enough to attend the church’s grand opening and then walk away. He sounds wistful — maybe it would have helped to say good-bye, a ceremonial farewell to something that meant so much for so long. Then, his voice hardens.
“But when they treat you like shit, make friends and family cease communication with you over money, you create an enemy,” he says. “And that’s what I am. An enemy. I want it to be dissolved. I want it to stop.”