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 heyday, 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 Swiss bank 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 in Scientology's assault on the Cult Awareness Network by representing an Ohio woman who sued a cult-deprogramming organization 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. No one could have imagined that the suit, brought on behalf of a young man named Jason Scott -- who had been kidnapped and deprogrammed from an evangelical Christian sect -- 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 nowhere 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 of Satan, 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. 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. 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 in 1996 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-line number,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' longtime 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 New Times. 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 age 18, 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 the Life Tabernacle Church, a small United Pentecostalist 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.