VICE: Inside The Church Of Scientology’s New $14 Million Compound
This month the Australian Church of Scientology opened their renovated headquarters. It’s located at a heritage building in downtown Sydney which dates back to 1908. The $14 million project has birthed an array of new and exorbitant facilities, with its sole purpose being to lure new acolytes.
Historically, Scientology spread fairly quickly in the land down under. After officially starting in America in 1952, there was enough of a following to hold a Scientology Congress in Melbourne by 1954. The Australian branch of the Church even became the regional headquarters of the entire Asia-Pacific region. But like in America, reports of the macabre have long overshadowed the church, and it now seems these are starting to catch up.
The group has always been optimistic when expressing their numbers. They claim to have150,000 members in Australia, despite census numbers putting the figure at fewer than 3,000. To put that in perspective, its less than the number of Aussie Satanists and witches. What’s more, it was shown in 2011 that these numbers are dwindling. Jim Lippard believes we can credit this to the internet, which has robbed the church’s power to sweep things under the rug.
The former chief spokesperson for Scientology in Australia Mike Rinder was candid in his explanation of why the Australian brand of Scientology is potentially at risk: “Australians tend to be pretty down-to-earth, and bullshit don’t fly.” Case in point: the church’s recently rejected rehab center.
The optimistic membership figures are consistent with the decision to pimp out the headquarters. But as Mark Rinder goes on to explain, the money spent on construction could be doing more harm than good. “Too much money goes to international management, and they’re buying buildings, so they can’t use that money for staff.” Hence why they might be forced to spend truckloads of money on employee back payments.
In order to make my own mind up, I decided to see the headquarters for myself. I called the church’s head office, and after several days of deliberation, they agreed to give me a tour. I suspect it wasn’t a coincidence that this was arranged for a peak period of business, the 5 PM rush hour.
The outside of the building melds surprisingly well with its surroundings. However, this all changes when you walk inside. As soon as you step through the entrance, the vibrant lighting and futuristic decor make you feel like you’re on the set of the latest terrible sci-fi dystopian flick. It’s prompt validation that this is not your average church.
I was soon acquainted with my guides, Carolyn and Colin. Both were dressed in Navy-esque uniforms, which are intended to honor Hubbard’s time spent in the Navy. The first stop of the tour was in a similarly honorary vein: the L Ron Hubbard memorial office, fitted with a library of his very own books. I was told this was “a mark of thanks to Hubbard.” I suppose the $600 million he acquired through the church wasn’t enough.
After this, they led me upstairs to see the new chapel and café. I should note at this stage how bizarrely flaccid the tour was—if these were their peak hours, it’s safe to say that business ain’t booming.
Inside the chapel, there were tiled murals and a bronze bust of the big homie Hubbard (the dude is never farther than arm’s reach in any part of the church).
I was informed that the time had come for me to discharge my emotional baggage, so we got in an elevator and made our way up to the auditing section. Auditing is the central process of Scientology, where subjects are purportedly cleared of negative influences in order to reach a state of Zen. It involves a practitioner and a divisive machine known as an e-meter. Author Paulette Cooper believes that in the eyes of church members, auditing puts the science in scientology.
We passed a reception desk manned by some brain-dead employees and made our way down a long corridor of identically vacant offices.
“These are all new rooms. In here, this one has the best view.”
I stepped inside with great reluctance. In the center of the room was a desk and chairs, both adorned with scientology symbols. It was my first encounter with an e-meter (electro-psychometer for those who prefer redundancies).
The machine, which scientologist’s claim will diagnose emotional ills, looks like a prop from the original season of Star Trek. It “works” by sending a small electrical current through wires that are attached to dual cans held by the user. The cans measure resistance, i.e., to what degree a body opposes the passage of the electric current.
According to the church, when subjects using an e-meter recall traumatic memories, their mind produces a charge that triggers the dial on the machine to move around. And in 1971, it was ruled in a US District Court that e-meters had to present the following warning label:
“The e-meter is not medically or scientifically useful for the diagnosis, treatment, or prevention of any disease. It is not medically or scientifically capable of improving the health or bodily functions of anyone.”
It’s been argued that the belief in an e-meter’s ability to read one’s soul, despite the lack of any serious science to vouch for this at all, is the greatest testament to scientology being a religion.
“Go ahead; hold on to these.”
My guides watched with flashing eyes as I grasped the cans. It was a profoundly unnerving scenario.
“Think of a time that was very stressful for you,” said Carolyn. “The e-meter helps to identify trauma.”
Having prepared for this all beforehand, I decided to do the reverse and focus on a deeply relaxing memory instead—namely, getting high on a beach in Barcelona. I had also read that the movements in the dial can also be attributed to hand moisture, which was thick in my palms.
“There it goes! There it goes again!” exclaimed my guides.
Sure enough, the dial was faintly stirring up and down, the alleged response to a distressing memory. Meanwhile, I was just reflecting on Catalonian chronic.
I sure as hell wasn’t going to tell this to my wide-eyed tour guides, though, who were staring at me, apparently free from any instinctual need to blink.
Having supposedly been cured of my supposed trauma, I was escorted to what appeared to be a classroom. Colin told me this was where members learned to become auditors. According toAlternativeReligions.com, this costs approximately $50,000. It was therefore no surprise that these rooms were also empty.
My guides explained that the church is primarily kept afloat from the study fees, which go for up to $1,400 per subject. Anyone is free to take up the studies, which involve working through the prolific content of Hubbard under a supervisor’s guidance. They range from introductory courses to advanced ones. The broader study sections were stocked with a myriad of material.
One student was slumbering on a desk. When we drew near, he spotted our trio, shot upright, and apologized frantically. I don’t blame him—I’ve never been a fan of science fiction books myself.
When I left, around 7 PM, the multimillion-dollar compound was still open for business—with no actual members present save for the staff and the lone student desperately trying to stay awake.