When I interviewed Scientology defector Marc Headley for our January issue, I suggested it may be open season on the Church of L Ron Hubbard, with the work of online protest group Anonymous and the testimonies of former members helping to break down the wall that has long surrounded the fiercely litigious cult.
Then a story in the Washington Post last week suggested the Church was fighting back – it has hired a trio of respected investigative journalists to compile a report on the practices of the St Petersburg Times, the Florida newspaper renowned for its fearless coverage of Scientology's activities, the most recent example being last year's "Truth Rundown", a powerful exposé of the endemic violence at the heart of the Church's operations. The investigative trio is headed by Steve Weinberg, who used to run Investigative Reporters and Editors, a body dedicated to “improving the quality of investigative reporting”. Weinberg told the Washington Post he was paid $5,000 to edit the study (“I could certainly use the money these days”) but denied he was compromising his principles by taking it on, saying he “tried to make sure it’s a good piece of journalism criticism, just like I’ve written a gazillion times.” For his part, St Petersburg Times' editor Neil Brown doesn't seem too concerned, saying “I ultimately couldn’t take this request very seriously because it’s a study bought and paid for by the Church of Scientology,” but still, perhaps it isn't time to declare open season just yet.
Having said that, the latest journalistic exposé of the Church's mistreatment of its workers comes right from the top, with Saturday's New York Times featuring a piece on Christie King Collbran and her husband Chris, the latest ex-employees to the blow the whistle on the culture of violence, repression and negligible wages. It also features quotes from Headley, the film director Paul Haggis, who left last year, and former high-ranking official Marty Rathbun, who was at the centre of the St Petersburg Times report.
Interestingly, we learn towards the end of the piece that Christie King Collbran is still a Scientology believer – she just doesn't support the way the Church is run by top boss David Miscavige (who is named by many defectors as tyrant-in-chief). This is an intriguing element emerging from the testimonies of ex-Scientologists, with several claiming that they stand by the teachings of L Ron Hubbard, beleiving it has been corrupted by Miscavige. That's the position of Rathbun, who provided the foreword to Headley's book. It's incredible, given the experiences they simultaneously recall in their testimonies, and something I'd be fascinated to read more about.