Devotees of the Church of Scientology have gained access to thousands of British children through a charity that visits schools to lecture on the dangers of drugs. A Sunday Times investigation has found that Marlborough College is one of more than 500 schools across Britain where the charity has taught.
Critics of the charity, Narconon, say it is a front to promote the teaching of Scientology — the controversial “religion” founded by L Ron Hubbard, the science fiction writer.
Schools contacted last week said they knew nothing about the charity’s links with Scientology. There is no apparent reference to the church in its drugs education literature.
Narconon’s UK website states that its work is based on Hubbard’s “drug rehabilitation technology” and displays his photograph; but it refers to him as an author rather than the founder of Scientology.
Narconon promotes a number of unorthodox theories and treatments — based on Hubbard’s work — which experts say are not backed by scientific evidence. In California, where Narconon has its international headquarters, the state department of education has advised schools against using the charity.
The UK prisons ombudsman has warned governors to ban it from jails because of its Scientology association. Narconon’s international website claims: “The ministry of health in England (sic) has also directly funded Narconon residential rehabilitation.” But the Department of Health denies any knowledge of this.
Last week, during a conversation with an undercover reporter, the charity named eight of the schools it has visited. They included Coombe Girls, a state school in New Malden, Surrey, Golden Hillock, a secondary school in Birmingham, the Arts Educational London Schools (AELS), a private school in Chiswick, west London, and Ricards Lodge, a high school in Wimbledon, southwest London.
A number of the schools, including Marlborough, refused to comment on their use of the charity. Those that did said they were unaware of its Scientology background.
Parents, a senior MP and a mainstream drug advisory group expressed concern that it was being allowed to teach children.
John Gummer, the former cabinet minister, said: “Scientology is a dangerous organisation. It doesn’t stand up intellectually and scientifically. It is rather bad science fiction. If Scientologists have been getting into schools under the guise of a drug charity it is very worrying. Schools must know exactly who they are letting in and should not have anything to do with Scientologists.”
An undercover reporter approached Narconon last week posing as a businessman interested in hiring the charity to work in a number of schools. Lucy Skirrow, the Narconon director dealing with schools, is a Scientologist from west London. She named Marlborough College — the Wiltshire school whose former pupils include Kate Middleton, Prince William’s girlfriend — as a reference to endorse Narconon’s work.
Skirrow said: “We lectured to about 56,000 students and teachers last year and we did 38,000 the year before . . . It has an effect . . . Kids say their viewpoints actually do change.” She went on to claim: “A lot of behaviour in kids is because they are not getting the right nutrition, then they might end up taking drugs. Then, of course, drugs destroy vitamins in the body and it becomes a worse thing.”
Her description of the charity’s philosophy appears in more detail on the Narconon website. Here it claims that drugs stay in a user’s fatty tissue for years but can be flushed away using a regime of vitamins and saunas. This is derived from the works of Hubbard and is hotly disputed by mainstream drug therapists and scientists.
Perhaps these unorthodox views — and Hubbard’s name on the website and in Narconon’s annual report — should have rung alarm bells with teachers at Marlborough and the other schools that pay the charity £140 a session to lecture their pupils. But it was not until this weekend — when contacted by The Sunday Times — that the schools appear to have become aware of how controversial Narconon is.
The charity, based in St Leonards, East Sussex, claims to be an independent organisation. But Professor Stephen Kent, a Canadian academic who is an authority on Scientology, said: “The connection between Narconon and Scientology is solid. Of course, Scientology tries to get non-Scientologists involved in the programme, but the engine behind the programme is Scientology.”
The disclosures come as the Church of Scientology is engaged in a push to win new disciples and gain acceptance in British society.
Its critics claim it is a cult that uses hard-sell and mind control to separate devotees from their money and, in more serious cases, from their families. Scientologists reject this and claim to have a good record in resolving family conflicts.
Andreas Heldal-Lund, who has researched Scientology and runs Operation Clambake, a website critical of the organisation, said: “Most people might see them as a bit of a joke because of their beliefs and teachings. But they are in fact the most controversial and dangerous cult in the western world today, and pose a real threat to free speech.”
In Britain, Narconon has a number of Scientologists among its trustees and leading members. They include Michael “Woody” Woodmansey, a former drummer for David Bowie.
Two years ago a panel of drug-abuse experts, including four doctors, were asked to examine Narconon’s work in schools by the state of California’s department of education. One of the panel, Steve Heilig, a director at the San Francisco Medical Society, said last week: “When we reviewed Narconon we all felt it did not reflect scientific knowledge or good educational approaches to this issue. There were a lot of problems with the science of it — there were claims made in there that drugs remain in your body forever unless you use these very specific techniques such as niacin and saunas.
“That’s where you start to get the red flags raised about this link to Scientology because those are the theories that come out of some of the writings of L Ron Hubbard, who was a science fiction writer.”
The British government expressed concern about Narconon as long as eight years ago. A 1998 memo from the Home Office’s drug strategy unit warned that the charity had its “roots in the Church of Scientology and (is) not in the mainstream of drug rehabilitation”.
Tower Hamlets council in east London advises its schools against using Narconon. DrugScope, one of the UK’s main drug charities, said: “We feel that the quality of Narconon’s information is not objective and non-judgmental. It does not have any credibility.”
Stephen Shaw, the prisons ombudsman, advised that inmates in British jails should not receive drug education from Narconon because it is so “closely associated with the Church of Scientology”.
The Sunday Times disclosures raise serious questions about how Narconon appears to have slipped through school vetting procedures.
Parents of pupils at Marlborough said they had not been informed of the lectures. “I would have preferred to know there was a connection between the Scientologists and the teaching that was given to my son,” one mother said.
It appears that the schools themselves were in the dark. Alison Jerrard, head teacher at Ricards Lodge, said: “We did not have any reason at the time to think there was anything inappropriate, or anything misleading.” Of the schools contacted, Marlborough, Golden Hillock and AELS did not comment on Narconon’s activities.
Yesterday a spokesman for Narconon said he was satisfied with the validity of the science promoted by his organisation. He added that Narconon would have been happy to declare any links with Scientology if asked by schools.
Skirrow said: “Of course it has very strong links (with Scientology). That’s not at all hidden. But I think that some people have got confused that it is Scientology. And it’s not.”
A spokeswoman for the Church of Scientology said that Narconon is separate organisation which is open to people of all religions. She said: “Narconon has a documented 75%–80% success rate with graduates (recovering addicts), which is the highest in the field. That’s why we formed the Narconon Network and why scientologists and non-scientologists continue to sponsor the opening of new centres.”
Secrets of a church that believes a galactic warlord caused all our ills
Established in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1952 by L Ron Hubbard, the science fiction writer, Scientology claims to be the world’s fastest growing religion. It opened its first church in Los Angeles in 1954 and now claims 120,000 members in the UK and more than 10m worldwide.
Members progress through a hierarchical structure and, at key levels, new “secrets” are divulged. They progress by paying for courses either in cash or by doing work that benefits the organisation.
The belief system has been described as a regressive utopia, in which man seeks to return to a once-perfect state through secret processes intended to put him in touch with his primordial spirit.
In 1995 a key secret concerning the way in which Scientologists believe the world was formed was leaked by a disillusioned “operating thetan”, one of the organisation’s most highly ranked members.
It asserts that 75m years ago an evil galactic warlord called Xenu rounded up 13.5 trillion beings from an overpopulated corner of the galaxy, flew them to Earth and dumped them in volcanoes and vaporised them with nuclear bombs.
This scattered their radioactive souls, or thetans, which were then trapped and implanted with a number of false ideas — including the concepts of God, Christ and organised religion.
These entities attached themselves to human beings and are at the root of our personal and global problems today.
Scientology has proved exceptionally robust and has grown steadily since its launch. In America it dominates entire towns and even in Britain some children have been brought up as Scientologists.
What worries critics most is the religion’s secrecy and intolerance of dissent. Members who are critical of the church are declared “apostates” and are excommunicated and often cut off from family and friends who must “disconnect” from them.
In the 1960s Hubbard issued a policy known as Fair Game, which said that all who opposed Scientology could be “tricked, sued or lied to and destroyed”.
Eight weeks ago I was sent undercover to investigate the Scientologists at their new headquarters near St Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London, writes a Sunday Times reporter.
My experience shook me. What I had expected to find was an eccentric but largely harmless organisation. What I discovered was a paranoid and dogmatic group which — through a mixture of pyramid selling techniques and subtle intimidation — preys on the vulnerable to expand and enrich itself.
After introducing myself to one of the organisation’s “body routers” or “greeters”,
I was taken inside, shown a series of videos depicting happy Scientologist families and then given a “personality test”. This marked the start of a common theme: a constant digging to establish and mark out my insecurities and character flaws.
I was told the test had revealed that I had problems with “concentration”, “depression” and “confidence”. But I was not to worry — with only a bit of work Scientology would sort me out.
Over the following weeks I progressed through various courses at a cost of about £200. At the same time they recruited me to become an “expeditor” — the first rung on the ladder to being given a full-time post with the organisation.
I was part of a team that would be paid according to how much money the organisation made each week — a figure partly dependent on how many people we recruited.
I witnessed a number of highly unorthodox tactics and practices:
The use of a type of lie/stress detector called an “e-meter” to test recruits with a view to finding their “ruins” or vulnerabilities.
Pressuring new members of staff to divulge and document the minutiae of their sex lives, including the names of all those they had slept with.
Encouraging members to identify “suppressive persons” in their lives — people who had a negative impact on them, including parents and other family members.
Perhaps the most troubling were the four e-meter tests that I had to undergo. Hooked up to the device, I was grilled on my background, my views on Scientology and my past employment. It felt as if I was being turned inside out so that they could assess the potential for me to become a compliant member.
In another episode I was told to try to concentrate on counting a series of numbers out loud while another student shouted questions at me about my sex life.
The idea was to get me to learn to ignore distractions while focusing all my energies on a single enterprise. It was at around that point that I decided I had had enough.