Two years ago, Tanya Durni received a letter from her brother. But it wasn't a friendly note. In the letter, Fred Lennox told his sister that he was "disconnecting" completely from her.
Criticizing Scientology - especially on an Internet news group.
The letter jolted Durni, a golf shop manager at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester.
"It was like someone writing to say my brother was dead," she said.
But what happened to Durni that day wasn't unusual.
Family members and friends of Scientologists - including parents, spouses and children - who are critical of the church can be declared "suppressive." That means the church sees them as intent on harming or destroying Scientology.
Under strict directives set by Scientology's late founder, L. Ron Hubbard, church members must persuade them to check their criticism - or sever all contact.
Critics say they have witnessed that scenario happen repeatedly with Scientology.
"(The policy) is very destructive to family relationships - it's like an iron door that keeps people from any kind of dialogue," said the Rev. Robert W. Thornburg, dean emeritus of Marsh Chapel at Boston University and an expert on destructive religious practices.
"Scientology's biggest threat - how they get control of you - is that you will be labeled a "suppressive person,' " said Rich Dunning of Niagara Falls, who was deputy executive director of the Buffalo church from October 2001 to May 2003.
Because Hubbard wrote that suppressive people inhibit spiritual growth, their influence with Scientologists must be minimized or removed entirely.
Joseph Sgroi, a Buffalo church member and its largest benefactor, said the practice of cutting off families is a last resort, undertaken only when someone remains hostile to the religion.
If a family member has "an incredibly negative effect" and refuses to change, he said, "it might make sense to not deal with that person."
"The concept isn't to destroy families, but to put families together," he added.
Al Buttnor, the church's Canadian spokesman, said Scientologists highly value marriage, raising children and families.
Durni was not alone among her family in being accused of spreading anti-Scientology views by the Buffalo church.
The church accused Fred Lennox's older brother, Jeff Lennox, of spreading "black propaganda" because he told Fred the Church of Scientology was a cult.
"They sent Fred a letter with a threatening bent, saying I had said things untrue about Scientology," Jeff Lennox said.
Ultimately, Fred Lennox was told by the church to face its Board of Investigations. He also was told to undergo a "security check." That's a practice in which Scientologists can be interrogated about moral transgressions with the use of a lie detector-like device called an E-meter.
His family members said his involvement with Scientology deeply affected other family members.
"For years, I never said anything about Scientology," Durni recalled. "You couldn't. It was like we were controlled by it."
Frank Green, a Blasdell resident, posted some anti-Scientology comments on the Internet.
And like Durni, he said the church tried to destroy his relationship with a family member - in Green's case, his niece, Heather Barvian, a Scientologist.
The actions of the church led Green, a retired steelworker, to stage a one-man picket outside the Buffalo church in September. He carred a sign that read, "Scientology Destroys Families" - with the "S" in Scientology sporting a dollar sign.
"It's torn my niece and great-nephews and nieces away from us. Over the last couple of years, it's been nothing but a nightmare," Green said. "I just know it's not the Heather I knew doing all this. She's being led."
Barvian, who now lives in Colorado, denied that being a Scientologist had anything to do with the estrangement.
She said her uncle posted messages on the Internet threatening to kidnap her family from the clutches of Scientology and return them to Western New York. She said he also opposed her decision to escape a marriage she felt was abusive.
Green said neither charge was true.
Critics of Scientology say church tenets function as highly effective instruments of control over members.
Hubbard's "Introduction to Scientology Ethics" lists more than 100 "misdemeanors," "crimes" and "high crimes" that are part of the church's code of discipline.
"It's a system of extreme control that keeps you in a bubble," said Dunning, the ex-deputy director. "You don't dare talk to anyone or read anything (critical of Scientology), because Hubbard wrote that it could make you an accomplice."
High crimes include interacting with Scientology critics and holding Scientology policies up to scorn.
Stephen Kent, a professor of sociology at the University of Alberta who has written extensively on the church, said Scientology's aggressive attitude toward critics, including family members, is ingrained.
"Part of becoming a Scientologist involves learning an alternative ethics system," Kent said, "which places Scientology's survival as vital and attacking critics as necessary."
The Buffalo News obtained a copy of an "Ethics Order" from the church concerning Fred Lennox, dated March 1, 2002. The order tells Lennox to "handle or disconnect" from his sister.
"It has come to the Church's attention that Fred's sister has been on the Internet spreading entheta (a made-up word from Hubbard meaning "lies and confusions') about Scientology," the order reads. "This is the second situation that has come up with Fred's sister in the last eight months . . . Fred was warned that if he does not handle or disconnect from her, he would be declared PTS (Potential Trouble Source) Type A."
Such a declaration prevents an offender from taking courses and counseling, or "auditing" sessions, required for spiritual advancement.
Arnold Markowitz, director of the Cult Hotline and Clinic operated by the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services in New York City, said the agency has seen clients anguished by Scientology disconnection orders.
"If a parent complains - we usually see this with adult children - the member tries to handle it," Markowitz said. "But if the criticism persists, there is a continuum of a distancing of the relationship down to the disconnection letter."
That was Durni's experience roughly two years ago with her brother, Fred Lennox. She said she had warned him that when she posted her views about Scientology on the Internet, the church would pressure him to stop talking to her.
He insisted that would never happen, Durni recalled.
Lennox, 46, has spent half his life in Scientology.
Older sister Tracy Kane said her brother was a "very sensitive child" who had a particular affection for children and animals. Family members suspect he had learning disabilities undetected in school. Kane said he was recruited by Scientology during a particularly vulnerable period in his life.
That would fit a pattern of the Church of Scientology's preying on susceptible people, said Thornburg, the expert on destructive religious practices who considers the church a cult.
"For folks who do not feel they belong anywhere, there's a sense of instant belonging," he said. "Their control of persons who get involved is as complete as any of the destructive groups I've ever studied."
Lennox became involved in 1980, went on staff at the Buffalo church in 1984 and in 1986 joined the church's elite Sea Organization based in Clearwater, Fla., according to Durni. The church believes in reincarnation and, before joining the "Sea Org," Lennox was required to sign a billion-year contract.
Lennox eventually left and resumed Scientology classes in Buffalo.
He was living at home with his parents in 2001 and making $7 an hour when he inherited cash and stocks with a total value of $25,000, Durni said.
Soon after telling a Scientologist official of his inheritance, she said, his family's house began receiving mail with new credit card accounts for Fred, including expensive charges to the Church.
"You would have to know Fred to realize he didn't know how to apply for credit cards on his own," Durni said. "We had to literally take him down and show him how to open up a checking account. They would have had to make the calls and have the applications all ready for him to sign on the dotted line."
A short time later, Lennox went on Scientology's 500-passenger cruise ship based in the Caribbean Sea, where members take expensive, high-level courses.
Durni believes the church enticed her brother to go on the cruise in order to isolate him and make him more susceptible to part with his inheritance.
On the cruise ship, Lennox was supposed to take one week, then two.
After 41/2 weeks, Durni reached her brother by phone and coaxed him back with the promise of more inheritance money. After the call, he was home in less than 48 hours, Durni said.
From a short time before he went on the ship until he returned, Durni said, Lennox went through all of his inheritance and was more than $40,000 in debt. He had gone through $65,000, she said, on courses, tapes and books, travel expenses and repaying a "freeloader debt" from the church.
The "freeloader debt" was for leaving the Sea Org and breaking his billion-year contract to remain in the group. The church says the debt is repayment for courses taken for free while in the Sea Org.
Teresa Reger, president of the Buffalo church, defended the length of a Sea Org contract and the penalty for breaking it.
"It's the policy they know they go into when they sign the contract," she said.
Kane, a children's book illustrator in Durham, N.H., believes Scientology took advantage of her brother in an unconscionable way.
"When he inherited the money, I saw the way they sucked him in and ran up credit cards for money he didn't have," Kane said. "Then they seemed to drop him again, because he's not the kind of person who can excel and move up in their world. He's not important to them unless he has money."
The Lennox family has hoped Fred Lennox, who works part time in a supermarket bakery, will leave Scientology.
They tried an unsuccessful family intervention several years ago, led by someone who counsels mind control victims.
"I saw a side of Fred that was scary, because you could see he was controlled by something," Kane recalled of the attempt.
Although The News previously attempted to reach Lennox and he refused, Scientologists told The News they would try to get in touch with him.
On Tuesday, a statement signed by Fred Lennox was faxed to The Buffalo News, saying he should be free to do what he wanted with his money and life.
"I have no regrets about donating money to my church and did so freely," the letter said. "I live my own life, not one dictated by my sister or family members."
The letter added: "I have dreams and goals and my Church helps me with that. The problem is with people stopping me from achieving my dreams and goals . . . If my sister would stop making my life miserable over my church and my choices in life, I would be happy to speak with her. There was a time when we were very close and I miss that."
Fred Lennox's brother, Jeff, said The News received the letter because Buttnor contacted Fred and asked for a statement regarding this article. Fred told his brother he hadn't done anything with the church for "a long time" until he was contacted and asked to write a statement, which he did Monday with the help of Scientology officials.
On Tuesday morning, over breakfast in a diner, Jeff Lennox said his brother seemed at times proud of the church and at other times intimidated by it.
"He compared Scientology to the Mafia as a metaphor three or four times. I had never heard him do that before," Jeff Lennox said.
There was also an air of futility, Jeff Lennox observed.
"Tanya's efforts against Scientology," Jeff Lennox quoted Fred as saying, "was like throwing a stone at the Empire State Building."