In the days following the Grenfell Tower fire, when its blackened shell first stood out like a rebuke to the London sky, many victims took refuge at the Westway Sports Centre. Nearby, Scientologists dressed in yellow T-shirts pitched trestle tables and a huge yellow tent bearing the slogan of the Scientology Volunteer Ministers, ‘Something can be done about it’. They were offering massages to survivors.
‘I tweeted it because I was appalled,’ recalls The Guardian columnist, Dawn Foster, whose photograph of the scene went viral. ‘They had a lot of leaflets and were offering personality tests. People were shouting, “Why are you here? You’re parasites.” And, “Get out — pack up your tent”. I was there for about 10 minutes and saw about 20 people come up, all of whom told them to leave or shouted at them to f*** off. They were trying to defend themselves saying there are lots of Christians and people from the mosque, why shouldn’t we be here?’
But while other organisations offered food, cups of tea and clothes, at the Scientology tent victims were given not just water but leaflets, facemasks and a massage — delivered with one finger. Sarah Harvey, senior research officer for the Information Network on Religious Movements at the LSE, explains: ‘Part of what they were doing with the “massage” is what’s called an “assist”.’ This, she says, is ‘about their understanding of the human spirit’, which is at the core of the belief system developed by science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard in 1952. The Scientology Volunteer Ministers’ website, scientologyhandbook.org, claims these ‘assists’ can ‘help a person confront physical difficulties’.
Turning up in this way may sound like a desperate attempt to recruit new members — but the church’s involvement at Grenfell is something the media relations department for the UK church is proud of. It says that a team of 50 Scientologists were on the scene for more than two weeks. ‘We sorted many mounds of donated clothes, toys, etc, boxed them up and transported several tonnes of such boxes to storage facilities for distribution later,’ writes a Church of Scientology spokesperson, going on to add: ‘We gave out gallons upon gallons of water. We sourced hundreds of facemasks… Leaflets were on display describing free online courses on tools for helping others and specifically giving disaster relief training.’ A list of individuals who were ‘helped’ with ‘assists’ (including a Catholic nun) was also provided.
In fact, says Harvey, this is ‘something they’ve done for a long time’. In the wake of the 7 /7 bombings, for example, Scientologists offered police constables tea and biscuits outside Aldgate Tube station. But the headlines caused by their sudden appearance at Grenfell are not the first that the church has attracted recently.
Earlier this year, the Evening Standard revealed that 35,000 schoolchildren had been exposed to lectures inspired by Scientology, in the form of anti-drugs talks by an organisation called Narconon. At the time, hosts — including Camden School for Girls and Brecknock Primary School in Camden — said that they were unaware of the link to Scientology and that teachers supervised the talks, which focused entirely on drug awareness. Noel Nile, president of Narconon UK, rejected criticism, saying, ‘We’re in the business of saving lives. The lectures are not concerned with religion. They’re popular and successful because they communicate a clear message which is easily understood by young people.’
But Narconon is not the only Scientology front group apparently targeting young people. In July, The Underground Bunker, the website run by American investigative journalist Tony Ortega, published an article claiming Scientology is shifting its strategy to make it all about ‘kids, kids, kids’. It pointed to a new website and social media platform allegedly set up by the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, an organisation affiliated with the church whose website describes its purpose as ‘providing information that a multi-billion dollar psycho/pharmaceutical industry does not want people to have’. Called fightforkids.org, the new platform promises to ‘use innovative technology to create a global movement of advocacy and engagement for the love and protection of our children’. A spokesman for the church said he was not familiar with the platform.
Last year, the head of the church, David Miscavige, 57, unveiled Scientology Media Productions, an ‘advanced, multi-platform, totally reinvented and restored motion picture and television studio’ in Hollywood. The church’s website describes SMP as ‘the nerve center spreading the church’s message to the world’. And according to The Times, in 2015, he also promised to make Scientology texts readable by more than five billion people.
Meanwhile, the church is investing heavily in real estate. This year alone, its website documents four ‘grand openings’ of vast Scientology buildings in Copenhagen, Miami, Auckland and the San Fernando Valley. According to the Emmy-winning HBO documentary Going Clear, between 2006 and 2011 the church bought 62 properties in locations across the globe. In London, outposts include an enormous church in the City established in 2006; the former office of its founder in Fitzrovia; and a shop on Tottenham Court Road, which could be mistaken for a palm reader’s from the outside but looks like a sleek airport store on the inside. It also has a luxury compound HQ at Saint Hill Manor in East Grinstead, West Sussex — once L Ron Hubbard’s personal home.
All this activity is notable since it hints at a revival after almost a decade of apparent crisis. In the UK, the church used to claim it had 118,000 followers. But during the last census in 2011, only 2,418 people described themselves as Scientologists — a figure dwarfed by the number who designated themselves Druids (4,189), Wiccans (11,766) and Jedi Knights (176,632). The church insists this number is misleading, saying: ‘Many Scientologists are also Muslims and Christians… Well over one hundred thousand UK residents happily receive our church magazines. So the census figure does not tell you very much — particularly when Scientologist was not even listed as an option. In the past year we have had more people attending our UK churches for services than at any time in our history.’
Yet, despite a starry following that reportedly includes Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Elisabeth Moss, star of The Handmaid’s Tale and Top of the Lake, recent years have brought a number of high-profile scandals involving allegations made about the church. In 2011, The New Yorker cited claims made to Florida’s St Petersburg Times about physical abuse allegedly carried out by Miscavige. At the church’s Gold Base compound in California, it has been claimed that senior members of staff were sent to ‘The Hole’ — a pair of trailers where they were made to confess day and night and fight over the right to remain. Previous claims of abuse had reportedly so concerned the US authorities that the FBI is said to have started an investigation into Scientology on grounds of human trafficking. Since religions and their practices are protected under the First Amendment, the investigation has since been dropped. The church has repeatedly denied both that any abuse has taken place and that ‘The Hole’ exists, insisting such allegations are unsubstantiated.
Then, in 2015, two films — Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie and Going Clear — shone an unflattering spotlight on the organisation. The latter concentrated on the origins of the movement and the alleged experience of those, such as Oscar-winning director Paul Haggis, who have since left the church. It also focused attention on the mysterious creation myth at the heart of Scientology, which it broadly characterised as: 75 million years ago an evil extraterrestrial overlord called Xenu lured his subjects in for tax inspections, froze them, shipped them to Earth, stacked them up near volcanoes and dropped hydrogen bombs on them, transforming them into ‘thetan’ souls which now get into our bodies at birth. Only L Ron Hubbard’s teachings can help us master these. And that can be a costly business, as the money needed to buy his books and invest in expensive courses can rapidly mount up. Steve Mango, an actor, told Theroux that he had spent $50,000 on Scientology instruction between 2009-2012.
This last point makes the church’s appearance near the Westway Sports Centre all the more curious. The survivors were left so destitute they made unlikely marks for a religion associated with recruiting celebrities and raising money. The church insists its purpose there was ‘helping in any way possible to somehow alleviate the suffering by those affected and their friends and families’. Others suspect more cynical motives. ‘My view is it’s not something that they would want to do, other than the fact that it’s public relations and gives them a bit of kudos,’ says Graham Baldwin, a counsellor who has been observing the activities of Scientologists for the past 25 years. ‘It’s hard to see why they would do it for any other reason.’ For their part, the church stresses that ‘the only purpose of the Church of Scientology… is to help people.’
Certainly, if its aim was to generate positive PR, it failed. West Londoners were having none of it. ‘It’s actually a disgusting way to treat vulnerable human beings on that day,’ says Yvette Williams MBE, of the Justice4Grenfell campaign group. ‘It’s not the time and place for that.’