It was an idea whose time had come. That's how Priscilla Coates describes the humble beginnings of the Cult Awareness Network, founded two decades ago in the wake of the murders and mass suicides in Guyana that claimed the lives of hundreds of the late Jim Jones' followers. The concept was simple enough: set up a nonprofit, national organization to assist the often desperate loved ones of people caught up in the ever-proliferating cult scene. On paper, at least, the group known by the acronym CAN endures. But nearly a quarter-century later, neither Coates, who ran the Los Angeles chapter during the organization's hey day, nor anyone else who once helped nurture the network has anything to do with it. That's because whenever people call CAN's hotline these days, more likely than not someone from the Church of Scientology answers the phone. Instead of warning people about suspected cults, opponents say, the new group promotes them. As one Scientology critic puts it, "It's like Operation Rescue taking over Planned Parenthood."
The story of how the controversial L.A.-based church -- which Time magazine once termed "the cult of greed" -- commandeered the anti-cult group that was its nemesis is as bizarre as some of late church founder L. Ron Hubbard's science fiction. It is also a cautionary tale for anyone who goes up against Scientology, with its penchant for harassing enemies in the courts, and its rough-and-tumble reputation for retaliating against "suppressives," those deemed as having ridiculed Scientology's teachings.Those teachings include Hubbard's decree that humans are made of clusters of spirits, called "thetans," who were banished to Earth about 75 million years ago by an evil galactic ruler named Xenu. A pulp fiction writer who had served a troubled stint in the Navy, Hubbard hit it big in 1950 by coming up with the concept of Dianetics, which he dubbed a modern science of mental health. It remains at the core of Scientology practice. One of its staples is a simplified lie detector called an E-meter, which is supposed to measure electrical changes in the skin while subjects discuss intimate details of their lives. Hubbard claimed that unhappiness sprang from mental aberrations, called "engrams," and that counseling sessions with the E-meter could help get rid of them.
Scientologists refer to the extensive (and expensive) process of "clearing" the mind in order for this to occur as "auditing." But during the 1970s, the Internal Revenue Service conducted some auditing sessions of its own and accused Hubbard of skimming millions of dollars from the church, laundering it through dummy corporations, and stashing it in Swissbank accounts. And although he died before the case was adjudicated, his wife and 10 other former church leaders went to prison in the early 1980s for infiltrating, burglarizing, and wiretapping dozens of private and government agencies in an attempt to block their investigations.
With its sprawling headquarters on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, the church has assembled a star-studded roster of followers that includes actors John Travolta, Tom Cruise, and Kirstie Alley; jazz musician Chick Corea; and soul singer Isaac Hayes. To help shed its fringe-group image, it has retained public relations powerhouse Hill and Knowlton, runs a plethora of ads on television and in top-drawer news and business journals, and recruits academics and other professionals through a network of consultants whose ties to the church are typically hidden. Its members also include high-profile media types. Greta Van Susteren, the CNN legal correspondent, and her husband, influential Washington Beltway attorney John Coale, are Scientologists. They even played a minor role inScientology's assault on the Cult Awareness Network by representing an Ohio woman who sued a cult-[recovery rehabilitation retreat] named Wellspring, whose executive director also sat on the CAN board.
In hindsight, officials of the former CAN -- whose alleged involvement with kidnapping and deprogramming individuals from suspected cults created its own controversy -- say they should have seen Scientology's assault coming.
Especially after an L.A. lawyer prominent in Scientology attached himself to a civil lawsuit against CAN in suburban Seattle several years ago. Noone could have imagined that the suit, brought on behalf of a young man named Jason Scott -- who had been kidnapped and deprogrammed from [a church affiliated with the United Pentecostal Church International]-- would produce judgments totaling $5.2 million and hasten the anti-cult group's financial ruin. Nor could they have guessed that on the day in 1996 that its logo, furniture, and phone number were auctioned off at the order of a bankruptcy judge, a Scientologist would appear out of no where to place the winning bid.
But the ultimate indignity for the anti-cult crusaders occurred earlier this year in a Chicago courtroom. Already having vanquished CAN, appropriated its name, and moved its offices from Illinois to within blocks of Scientology headquarters in Hollywood, lawyers with ties to the church moved to take possession of 20 years' worth of CAN's highly sensitive case files. Filling more than 150 boxes, the materials contained names, addresses, and detailed information on thousands of people who had turned to CAN for help in rescuing their friends and relatives. The list of organizations targeted by the old CAN read like a who's who of fringe culture. Among them were the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nations, dozens of obscure fundamentalist and evangelical Christian groups, the Church ofSatan, the Unification Church of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, followers of political extremist Lyndon LaRouche, and, of course, the Church of Scientology.
A judge had earlier excluded the materials from the bankruptcy liquidation, ordering that they be held in storage while the former CAN's officers sought court protection to keep them out of the hands of its enemies. Bankruptcy judges are often leery of turning over the assets of one group to another, especially where rivalries exist. But Scientology lawyers appear to have devised a strategy to get around the problem. By purchasing the judgments against the penniless CAN, a Los Angeles man named Gary Beeny had become the bankrupt organization's chief unsecured creditor. And so it was to Beeny that a judge in May awarded ownership of the files, the last vestige of CAN's once-abundant resources. Beeny is a Scientologist, according to sources and The American Lawyer magazine. And in short order he transferred custodianship of the files to a Scientology-backed group, the Foundation for Religious Freedom [which is listed in an agreement with IRS as a Scientology entity]. The foundation had already become the entity officially licensed to operate the new CAN after another Scientologist, Steven L. Hayes, of Los Angeles, bought the logo and other appurtenances. In fact, the lawyer who represented Beeny was none other than Scientology attorney and high-profile spokesman Kendrick L. Moxon [an unindicted co-conspirator mentioned in a federal indictment that sent 11 Scientologists to prison]. He is the same lawyer who represented Jason Scott in the case that led to CAN's bankruptcy. (Scott now says he was used as a pawn of Scientology and has disavowed Moxon.)
Incredibly, the foundation's chairman, who is also the chairman of the new CAN, is the old CAN's most indefatigable enemy, a self-described Baptist minister named George Robertson. And in yet another piece of perverse symmetry, the new CAN's executive director, Andy Bagley -- who was once L.Ron Hubbard's secretary -- was a chief antagonist of the old CAN's last executive director, Cynthia Kisser. Bagley had turned his attention to Kisser while heading a branch of Scientology's Office of Special Operations, the church's CIA-like intelligence unit, in Kansas City. "We're talking about a strategic conspiracy of grand proportions, an unabashed tragedy," says Ed Lottick, a Pennsylvania physician and a director of the old CAN.
"And now that they've got the files, God only knows the havoc they'll wreak." Lottick shouldn't have to wait long to find out.
Since transporting the files to L.A. barely two months ago, the new Scientology-backed CAN has begun the arduous task of organizing and archiving them. It intends to hand over to each of the many groups targeted by the old CAN copies of all the documents that pertain to those groups, says Nancy O'Meara, the new CAN's treasurer and office manager. A 25-year veteran of Scientology, O'Meara sees the old CAN as made up of hate-mongers bent on persecuting any group they didn't like. Citing the old CAN's "reign of terror," she scarcely conceals her glee at the prospect that some of the formerly targeted groups may want to use the newly obtained materials to pursue lawsuits or even criminal prosecutions. Already, the top lieutenant to once-jailed cult leader Tony Alamo -- the flamboyant one-time L.A. street preacher who combined his messianic pronouncements with a lucrative business in sequined leather jackets -- has flown in from Arkansas to obtain copies of the files pertaining to Alamo. "The documents are amazing," O'Meara says. "They're really going to open some eyes, and we think they will -- or should -- generate a lot of media interest." Understandably, where they are being held is a carefully guarded secret. As for specifics, she referred questions about the files to Moxon, the Scientology lawyer who was a key figure in the old CAN's demise and the person whom she says is responsible for overseeing the files. But when approached for an interview, Moxon expressed more interest in asking questions about this article than in discussing the Cult Awareness Network. "I've seen a lot of shitty things [about Scientology] in New Times," he said, before hanging up on a reporter. "And I don't trust you."
For the old Cult Awareness Network, the end was swift. Ben Hyink, who represented CAN in the bankruptcy, recalls the somber mood on that day in1996 when he escorted Cynthia Kisser into a Chicago courtroom on what proved to be a fool's errand. Kisser had spent nine years at the helm of the organization, and, like the captain of a sinking ship, desperately wanted to cling to it for as long as possible. She had arrived naively hoping to buy the group's assets. Even more naively, she hoped that they wouldn't cost much. Even if successful, hers would have been a sad mission.
The aim was to scoop up the trade name, post office box, help-linenumber, and service mark merely to retire them and thus put the beleaguered CAN out of its misery. But there was another suitor in the courtroom that day -- Steven Hayes, the Scientologist, who had come all the way from L.A. with different ideas. The bidding started at $10,000, and a nervous Kisser quickly offered $11,000. Hayes raised her $1,000. "I will bid $13,000," she said. "Fourteen," snapped Hayes. Kisser kept going -- to $19,000. But when Hayes upped her again, Kisser responded: "No more." The trustee conducting the sale asked if she'd like to take a break, and she said that would be fine. He told her that if she wanted to make another offer to come back within three minutes. But as Hyink recalls, the pause was pointless. Kisser could go no higher. "I will accept the offer of Mr.Hayes for $20,000," court records show the trustee proclaimed.
And it was over.
But Scientology's takeover of CAN had been years in the making. Starting in 1991, CAN had been forced to fend off at least 50 lawsuits filed by Scientologists in state and federal courts around the country. Coates, the former L.A. chapter head, recalls being hit with a half-dozen suits in the span of just two weeks in 1992. "It became so routine that you felt like you knew the process servers," she says. At the same time, Scientologists filed dozens of discrimination complaints against CAN with state human rights commissions nationwide, requiring the services of a battery of lawyers.
Although individual Scientologists had filed the suits, many of them contained almost identical language. And there was another common denominator: Many of the lawsuits were drafted by Moxon's law firm. The plaintiffs' claims fell into one of two categories. Either they had been denied membership in one of CAN's local affiliate groups, or they had been refused admission to CAN's annual conference. "You'd have to be an imbecile not to see that it was part of an orchestrated effort," says Dan Liepold, a Santa Ana attorney who defended CAN in three dozen of the lawsuits and who has often butted heads with Scientology. His files contain scores of letters written by Scientologists to CAN, requesting to join it. In many of them, the language is virtually identical as if they were churned out using a common model. The extent of the orchestration became clear, he says, when he began to depose individual plaintiffs and discovered that some hadn't even applied for membership in CAN before they sued. Others, he says, didn't know who was paying for their lawyers or how the lawyers had been selected. For Coates, the letter-writing campaign held no mystery. "There was nothing spontaneous about it," she says. "The letters started arriving in huge numbers, all of them saying pretty much the same thing. It didn't take a rocket scientist to see that [the church] was getting ready to come after us." Bagley, the former Hubbard secretary, confirms as much. After being rebuffed numerous times by Kisser in an effort to discuss with her "the lies [the old] CAN was fomenting" about Scientology, he says, he informed Kisser in a phone call that he wanted to join CAN "in order to reform [her] organization from within."
Exactly what prompted Scientology to turn its considerable resources against the tiny anti-cult group when it did -- beyond Scientologists' long-time hatred of CAN -- is a matter of speculation. But that it did so is hardly surprising. According to Scientology policy, opponents are viewed as fair game for retaliation. Hubbard's own teachings spell out the importance of waging legal war against perceived enemies, even when the purpose is to intimidate and discourage rather than to win. As a consequence, lawyers hired by the church have filed hundreds of lawsuits over the years. (Among the high-profile attorneys who've represented the church is L.A. Police Commission President Gerald Chaleff.)
As for the attack on CAN, a May 1991 issue of Time, headlined "Scientology: The Cult of Greed," couldn't have helped. In it, Kisser offered some particularly disparaging remarks about the church. In any event, Scientologists made no secret of their contempt for her. For example, a 1995 issue of Freedom magazine, a church publication, bore the cover title: "CAN: The Serpent of Hatred, Intolerance, Violence and Death." Inside, it likened CAN to "a hate group in the tradition of the KKK and neo-Nazis" and referred to Kisser as the "mother of the serpent." The same issue contained the accusation that before she became the group's executive director in 1987, Kisser had been a topless dancer in a Tucson, Arizona, nightclub -- an accusation Kisser has publicly dismissed as"ludicrous." (Kisser declined numerous requests for an interview with NewTimes. Friends and former colleagues describe her as personally devastated by the demise of CAN and by what she perceives as the church's continued harassment of her. They say she is trying to begin a new life and is attending law school in Chicago.)
Despite the Scientology onslaught, CAN managed for a time to go about its business. Coates says the group fielded roughly 20,000 requests for information in a given year and that the rate didn't diminish much after the legal barrage began. But the litigation took its toll. "It wasn't that there was any great [legal] scholarship on the other side to overcome," says Hyink, the former CAN attorney. "It was more a war of attrition." By 1993, CAN was paying out $10,000 a month in legal bills, and Coates says the figure would have been higher had it not been for pro bono work. As it was, even some of the lawyers who billed CAN did so with the expectation that they would never be paid. But there was a deeper problem. After getting cut off by liability insurers, CAN's donor base began to dry up. Coates says that would-be contributors were reluctant to fund a group that was spending so much of its money on lawyers, adding, "it wasn't difficult to understand their rationale." The Scientologists had put the Cult Awareness Network in a vulnerable spot -- teetering at the brink of collapse, where a body blow could topple it. The crucial push proved to be a 1994 lawsuit that was very different from all the others. Jason Scott was not a Scientologist but a member of an evangelical church when, at age18, he became the victim of a failed cult deprogramming. The basic circumstances of the case weren't disputed. Katherine Tonkin, a mother of seven who had twice remarried after Jason was born, had in 1989 joined theLife Tabernacle Church, a small United Pentecostal [Church International] congregation in Bellevue, Washington. But she soon grew disillusioned with the church's teachings, which declared TV and movies off-limits and discouraged women from wearing pants or jewelry. She quit the church, but Jason and his two younger brothers, aged 16 and 13, chose to stay. She later testified that she was worried church leaders were trying to turn the boys against her.
Her concerns increased in 1990 after the two oldest boys moved in with the families of two of the church's leaders, and her youngest son left to live with his grandmother. Not sure where to turn, Tonkin called a crisis hotline and was given the number for Shirley Landa, a CAN volunteer in Seattle.
After listening to Tonkin's story, Landa gave Tonkin another number -- that of Rick Ross, a Phoenix-based expert on cults who had been involved in scores of deprogrammings. In December 1990, Ross flew to Seattle. He subsequently deprogrammed each of the boys. But Jason, who was already 18 when his mother hired Ross, would prove to be problematic. As he would later testify, on the day that the three men assisting Ross grabbed him, handcuffed him, and forced him into a van, he screamed that they had no legal right to abduct him. According to court testimony, his abductors slapped duct tape on his mouth, held him down on the floor of the van, and drove him four hours away to a secluded beach house on the Washington coast.
For five days, Ross and others forced Scott to watch videos on religious cults and tried to get him to renounce the church, until he finally told them what they wanted to hear. But when the entire group, including Jason's mother, went out for what seemed to be a celebratory dinner, Scott bolted from the restaurant and called the cops.
Coates and others associated with the old CAN continue to say what they said then: that the group only supported legal means for getting people out of cults and would have never knowingly made a referral for a forcible deprogramming. It's an assertion greeted with considerable skepticism in some quarters. "I think [the old CAN] did a tremendous amount of harm to the extent that they cooperated or linked people up with these deprogrammers," says Newton Maloney of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. Maloney, a clinical psychologist who is also a United Methodist minister, sees the new CAN as doing positive work in trying to reconcile family members with people who've joined groups their relatives don't approve of. He acknowledges that his nonjudgmental view toward the Scientology-backed new CAN has caused him to be regarded as a cult apologist within the anti-cult movement. (The Church of Scientology, partly owing to Maloney's influence, financed a conference on religious tolerance at Fuller earlier this year that was attended by church president Heber C. Jentzsch.) Others with a sympathetic view of the new CAN go even farther. In an affidavit that the Church of Scientology ballyhoos, Lowell Streiker, a family counselor and United Church of Christ minister from Northern California, asserts that 80 percent of all deprogrammings he was aware of were set up by the old CAN's national headquarters or its chapters. His claim was reprinted in a Scientology booklet entitled: "The Cult Awareness Network: Anatomy of a Hate Group."
The critical factor in determining the legality of Jason Scott's abduction and deprogramming was his age. Had he been a minor, like his brothers, the incident would have scarcely attracted attention. And while to some the connection may have appeared tenuous, it was a CAN volunteer who had helped put Scott's mother in touch with Ross. Indeed, Ross went to trial on criminal charges [for unlawful imprisonment], but when Tonkin [who was never charged] took the stand to accept responsibility for hiring Ross, [but] there would be no conviction . [The jury simply recognized the case as] a mother desperate to rescue her teenaged children from a suspected cult, even if one of them is of legal age. But while the criminal trial was in progress, something ominous happened with respect to the Cult Awareness Network.
A lawyer from distant L.A. called Jason Scott and began to argue that he had a civil case against CAN. The lawyer, Marcello Di Mauro, was a colleague of Kendrick Moxon's. Soon, according to Scott's later assertions, Di Mauro flew to Seattle, took Scott to dinner, and began talking to him about the potential millions of dollars that a successful civil suit might bring.
Scott wouldn't meet Moxon, who would actually try the case, until months later. But his decision was made. The day after Rick Ross' acquittal on the charge [of unlawful imprisonment], a Scientology lawyer filed the lawsuit that would prove to be the old CAN's undoing.
CAN's defense lawyer in the civil trial, Mary Steele, quickly became convinced that Scientology was behind the Scott case and concluded that it would be crucial for a jury to learn about the long-standing enmity between Scientology and CAN. But on the eve of trial, U.S. District Court Judge John Coughenour stunned the defense team by ruling that she could not introduce anything about Scientology as evidence. He then denied her motion to dismiss the case on summary judgment. In tactical terms, it was a royal mismatch.
CAN couldn't afford to hire an expert witness, or even fly more than a couple of its board members in to testify, Coates says. Moxon and his team, meanwhile, brought in cult apologist Anson Shupe from Indiana University, a frequent expert witness on behalf of Scientology, who told the jury he had spent years studying CAN and that it had a history of attacking unconventional religious groups. CAN was so broke it couldn't even afford to pay its defense lawyer and never did. Asked if she felt outgunned in terms of resources, Steele responds, "I don't think I could come up with any words to describe the extent to which that was true."
In the end, a jury assessed judgments of $1.8 million against CAN and $3.4million against Ross. But Scott would see only a smidgen of the money. After all, there was nothing more to squeeze out of CAN. Once he and Moxon had parted company, Scott ended up selling his judgment against CAN to Beeny for $25,000. Within hours after the sale, Scott's new lawyer, self-styled L.A. anti-cult attorney Graham Berry, says he received a call from Moxon on behalf of Moxon's new client -- Beeny. "Moxon's interest was in taking Jason's judgment, not in negotiating a compromise and payment," asserts Berry. "[Moxon's] real interest was in forcing CAN into bankruptcy and seizing the assets for Scientology." When approached by New Times a second time and asked specifically to comment on Berry's allegation, Moxon criticized Berry as a Scientology basher, pointing out that an L.A.Superior Court judge last month found Berry to be a "vexatious litigant" in another matter related to the church. "The old Cult Awareness Network was a hate group," Moxon says. "It engaged in kidnappings. It engaged in denigration of minority religious beliefs. The new group is not like that.The new group is endeavoring to promote interdenominational dialogue."
Meanwhile, Scott settled his judgment against Ross for a reported $5,000 [and 200 hours of his consultation time].
According to Scott's mother, Tonkin, the two men are now friends. Living in Northern Arizona, Scott, now 27, sees himself as having been used by Scientology as an instrument to destroy CAN. "Jason was double-brainwashed," says his mother. "First, by the cult we became involved in, and second, by Moxon and the Scientologists who used him as away of bringing down the Cult Awareness Network." Explaining her son's refusal to be interviewed, she adds, "He just wants to forget the whole thing and go on with his life."
Even if George Robertson had never heard of the Church of Scientology, there's ample reason for him to be resentful of the original CAN. As an associate of the Reverend Carl H. Stevens Jr., founder of a now-defunct religious ministry called The Bible Speaks, the 58-year-old Robertson had been affiliated with a group that CAN had persistently decried as a dangerous cult. Stevens, a one-time bakery truck driver who claimed that his every utterance was inspired of God, had moved the headquarters of The Bible Speaks from Maine to Lenox, Massachusetts, in the late '70s.
Robertson set up a ministry affiliated with Stevens in his native Florida."He was always kind of sucking around Pastor, as we used to say,"recalls an ex-Bible Speaks cleric who observed Robertson during stints in Lenox. "He was constantly around Carl. He was one of those guys who felt the need to get close to the king, to feel the sensory aroma of royalty."
The Bible Speaks' troubles erupted with Betsy Dovydenas, heiress to the Dayton-Hudson department store fortune (which includes Target stores). Dovydenas joined Stevens' church in 1982 and was soon persuaded to leave her husband and two children and to turn over to The Bible Speaks $6.6 million of an estate then estimated to be worth $20 million. Flush with cash, Stevens' operation expanded to a wooded 85-acre campus on the outskirts of town, complete with state-of-the-art radio and television studios, an assembly center, and a new home for the Stevens College of the Bible. But in 1986, Dovydenas' husband and parents pried her away from the group long enough to have a cult deprogrammer convince her that she had been mesmerized. The next year she sued the church to get her money back,claiming undue influence. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and, although she eventually won, the victory was largely empty.The Bible Speaks had declared bankruptcy. Among other things, court records show that Stevens had used some of the money to buy a fancy Florida condo. The heiress ended up with a white elephant -- the former church's headquarters campus. "I got brainwashed," recalls Dovydenas, 47, of the experience. She refers to Stevens as a "bogus, sleazy preacher,"adding, "I find it incomprehensible that anyone in the hierarchy of his organization could be sincerely motivated."
Yet, the controversy didn't end Stevens' career or Robertson's affiliation with him. Stevens shuttered the Lenox operation and moved to Baltimore.
Robertson had gone ahead to open a church there that would play a key role in his mentor's survival as a religious figure. Using Robertson's church as a beachhead, Stevens established a new ministry called the Greater Grace World Outreach. In 1987, the church bought an abandoned shopping center in Baltimore for use as its headquarters and as the campus for the church-affiliated Maryland College of the Bible and Seminary. Robertson is the school's vice president. Scores of The Bible Speaks' adherents had followed Stevens to Baltimore, and former students at the bible college in Lenox transferred to the unaccredited Maryland school. "[Stevens] just setup shop in a new place and pretended that The Bible Speaks never existed," says Doris Quelet, who was active with the original CAN's Baltimore chapter.
"The new entity enabled them to protect their assets from the [Dovydenas] judgment." Although it may not have attracted any rich heiresses, Stevens' ministry has made inroads among wealthy athletes. For example, the Reverend John Love, a Stevens subordinate, has done much to burnish the image of the NBA's New York Knicks as the "god squad" by leading post game prayer huddles at center court.
For its part, the old CAN and its supporters continued to torment Stevens and Robertson after the men moved to Maryland. They accused Stevens of obtaining his doctor of divinity degree from a diploma mill in Tennessee.
"His credentials aren't worth the paper they're written on," contends David Clark, the exit counselor who deprogrammed Dovydenas. Clark says a colleague applied for one of the now-defunct school's sheepskins by mail and was able to obtain one -- for his dog. Meanwhile, Clark says, a private investigator sent to Georgia to locate the seminary where Robertson reputedly earned his theology degree found an abandoned storefront "that looked like it hadn't been used in years." Asked about his credentials, Robertson describes the bible college he attended as small -- "it had only about 50 students" -- and said that it was no longer in operation, having been "swallowed up by another seminary which was later swallowed up by yet another seminary."
Although describing himself as Baptist, Robertson was not ordained by, nor has he ever been associated with, any Baptist organization, he says. "I'm independent. I don't believe in denominations." He describes Greater Grace, where he is a minister, as having an "independent evangelical orientation that recognizes Baptist teachings." Against that backdrop, Robertson seems perfectly suited to have done Scientology's bidding as an anti-CAN propagandist.
For a dozen years, until the original Cult Awareness Network ceased to exist, he crisscrossed the country railing against the organization. He popped up at seminars on college campuses, crashed CAN conventions, shadowed its officials at speaking engagements, and protested alongside Scientologists outside members' homes and elsewhere. Claiming that CAN's membership was made up largely of Jews and psychiatric professionals opposed to organized Christianity, he was once quoted in a New Jersey newspaper as saying that "All Christians are cults to the Jews." Another time he lashed out at the group as the "KKK of religion." Patricia Ryan, the daughter of the late Congressman Leo Ryan, who was murdered by Jim Jones' minions in Guyana, and who herself is a past president of CAN, recalls Robertson in a crowd of Scientologists who picketed her home in suburban Maryland in the 1980s. Others say he led a ruckus at a hotel near Los Angeles International Airport in 1992 in which a group ofScientologists tried to force their way into a CAN gathering. "It got really ridiculous," says Ryan. "They actually tried to shove their way into the elevators and follow some of our guest speakers up to their rooms to intimidate them." Another time, in Oklahoma City, he arrived along with a contingent of Scientologists who, Coates contends, rented rooms at the group's hotel convention site and used electronic surveillance equipment to eavesdrop on participants. Once, during a visit by Kisser and other CAN officials to Florida, Robertson even turned up at a newspaper office where they were being interviewed. His role that day was to escort a prominent local Scientologist who demanded to be heard.
At a Hollywood ceremony presided over by Scientology leader Jentzsch and cohosted by soul singer Hayes in 1993, the church bestowed one of its Freedom Human Rights Leadership awards on Robertson. It cited his "accomplishments in promoting religious freedom, tolerance, and working against the violent act of deprogramming and other religious hate crimes."
Robertson bristles at the suggestion from Coates and others in the anti-cult movement that he is merely a lackey of the Scientologists. "My issue is freedom of religion," he says. "CAN is totally independent of the Church of Scientology."
Yet the new CAN appears to be run by Scientologists, for Scientology. Its two most visible representatives and those responsible for its day-to-day operation, O'Meara and Bagley, are members of the church. Robertson says the five-member board of directors meets quarterly via a conference call and holds at least one face-to-face meeting each year. But when asked who the board members are besides him and O'Meara, he referred the question to her.
During an interview, she provided a stack of materials pertaining to CAN in which she said the directors' names could be found. But they weren't there. Instead, most of the information consisted of news clippings and other materials denigrating the old Cult Awareness Network. Although neither O'Meara nor Bagley would confirm it, the man who holds the title of CAN's president, or at least did as recently as 1997, according to the Washington Times, is another Scientologist: Westside businessman Isadore Chait. In a separate interview, Bagley, the executive director, claimed not to know who the board members were, other than Robertson and O'Meara. He said he believed the board also included a Scientologist from Minnesota and a Buddhist from New York, neither of whom he was able to name. Incredibly, when approached a second time, Robertson professed that he wasn't even aware that Bagley was CAN's executive director. "Who told you that?" he asked.
Informed that Bagley, as well as O'Meara, had identified Bagley as holding the position, an agitated Robertson responded, "Well, we'll see about that."
An energetic woman in her 40s, O'Meara explains the new CAN's mission as helping to dispel fear and misunderstanding about unconventional religious groups. "When someone calls about Scientology -- and they do -- the first thing I tell them is, 'Oh, listen, don't get upset but I'm a Scientologist.
We need to talk.' " She presides over a cramped one-room office on the fourth floor of the Taft Building, rising at the southeast corner of L.A.'s most legendary intersection, Hollywood and Vine. The room is almost bare, except for some folding tables, a few phones, a computer, and a fax machine.
On a wall is a map of the United States that shows the locations of academics and other experts to which O'Meara and others who answer CAN's phones link callers needing more information. The list is a who's who of what the anti-cult movement would describe as cult apologists: Maloney, Shupe, J. Gordon Melton at UC Santa Barbara, and a dozen others, including CAN's very own Robertson. Listening to her, one gets the impression O'Meara has never met a cult she didn't like. The new CAN takes pains to avoid even the use of the word "cult." "It's a pejorative that's lost its meaning," she explains.
Such a view appears incongruous for a group whose name, after all, is the Cult Awareness Network. But there's a strategic reason for it. "The name is a service mark," O'Meara says. "We only use it to keep it from going back into the public domain." (Or, as Priscilla Coates suggests, to prevent anyone associated with the vanquished CAN from getting dibs on it.) Surprisingly, among those who see the current CAN's name as a misnomer is none other than Robertson. He acknowledges that upon becoming (ostensibly, at least) the top official of the new CAN, he moved to dump the moniker and pressed to have the group use the name of the parent entity, the Foundation for Religious Freedom. "I was overruled," he says. He declines to say by whom.
For the Cult Awareness Network's new handlers, no detail has seemed too small in making life miserable for the church's critics. After Coates and her husband sold their home in Glendale and moved to upstate New York, she says "swarms of private investigators," whom she is convinced were hired by the church, descended on her community, asking neighbors about her and her husband, staking out their farm house, and, for a time, tailing her wherever she went. More eerily still, back in L.A. the new CAN called the phone company to request Coates' abandoned home telephone number. When NewTimes called the number recently, Bagley, the Scientologist, answered,"Cult Awareness Network." Although incensed at the idea of Scientologists fielding calls from unsuspecting clients, Coates says she has accepted that there's nothing she can do about it.
"It's a tragedy," she says, "but we take comfort in our belief that the word is spreading about what [the new] CAN really is."
O'Meara steadfastly insists that the church played no role in the predecessor group's downfall. "[Scientology] didn't destroy the [original] Cult Awareness Network," she says. "The Cult Awareness Network destroyed itself by its flagrant disregard for the rights of others." Stacy Brooks, the ex-wife of former Hubbard right-hand man Robert Vaughn Young, scoffs at such declarations. As a former operative in the church's Guardian Office, which later became the Office of Special Operations, Brooks says she personally headed a mission to disrupt the anti-cult group's activities and those of Coates in particular. "We used to sit around and review what we were doing to CAN on a weekly basis," she says. "We harassed Priscilla in any way that we could." Now friends with Coates, she and Young abandoned Scientology in the early '90s, becoming some of the highest-ranking insiders ever to do so.
Still, to the victor belong the spoils. As the embodiment of Scientology's triumph over its nemesis, today's Cult Awareness Network doesn't shy away from promoting Hubbard's teachings. Among the first publications bearing its imprimatur was a pamphlet that had nothing whatsoever to do with cultawareness. Or did it? Its title: Fact vs. Fiction, Scientology: the Inside Story at Last. Scientology's Revenge
For More Information About the Scientology click here.