One year after launching a "National Affairs Office" on Merrion Square, the Church of Scientology is opening an "Ideal Org", not dissimilar to a mother church, in the Dublin suburb of Firhouse.
The organisation is turning Ireland into a European hub, and a former high-ranking member believes that Scientology’s operations here might gain even more significance as pressure mounts in the United States.
There was a flurry of activity at the former Victory Centre on the Firhouse Road on Thursday evening. Scientologists were building a stage alongside a big screen for Saturday’s grand opening of their church’s latest Ideal Org.
Any visitors walking towards the gate prompted security guards to block the view, while a UK-registered car slowly crawled up and down the road.
Meanwhile, ex-Scientologist John McGhee was dropping hundreds of leaflets inviting local residents to attend Saturday afternoon’s protest against his former religion’s increasing presence in Ireland. McGhee was greeted with enthusiasm and curiosity by the customers of a nearby pub.
"We don't want them here," said a woman who took out her phone to share the protest page on Facebook. "That building should've been a school."
Bar staff complained to McGhee that in recent weeks, foreign Scientologists had come to the business questioning why alcohol was being served early and why sports games were being shown on TV, while eavesdropping on conversations. One member of staff called their presence “intrusive” and said she had already barred a Scientologist from the pub.
Paul Preston, who is closing up the local butcher’s shop for the day, was more relaxed, however. “I haven’t really got a strong opinion about them. Hopefully they’ll bring some money into the community. It would be good if the building were open to the public though; it’s a huge place.”
Scientology was founded in 1953 by the American science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. The US and Spain are among the countries that recognise it as a religion, while other governments have declared it a cult.
Ideal Orgs are a relatively recent phenomena, thought up in 2002 by David Miscavige, who succeeded Hubbard upon his death in 1986 and was best man to Tom Cruise, the organisation's most famous devotee, at two of his weddings. Miscavige is expected to cut the ribbon in Firhouse on Saturday.
The philosophy behind the Ideal Orgs is "if you build it, they will come", explains Chris Shelton, who grew up in Scientology and was heavily involved with the Ideal Org scheme in the US. For 17 years, Shelton was a member of the Sea Org, Scientology's elite organisation whose members sign billion-year contracts dedicating multiple lifetimes to their religion. He left in 2013 and became an outspoken critic.
"The Ideal Org strategy has been a top priority for Miscavige for well over a decade now," he tells The Irish Times. "The idea is that these orgs will be a living, breathing embodiment of Hubbard's technology and policy. People will walk into them and won't be able to help themselves but start doing Scientology. The AV displays, staff appearance and swankiness of the quarters will convince doubters that Scientology is the real deal."
Census figures put the number of Scientologists in Ireland at a mere 87 but up to 250 members from around the world have recently moved into the country to operate the Firhouse premises. This is more than double the usual number of foreign support staff, says Shelton.
The Merrion Square premises is only the second National Affairs Office opened by the organisation internationally. The first one sprung up in Washington D.C. a year ago.
The reason for selecting Ireland as a base is unclear, given the low level of Irish membership, but it may be designed to create a tax haven for the Church of Scientology International in case the organisation was to lose its religious tax exemption status in the US.
Scientology has been under increasing scrutiny in the US. Defections from high-ranking members, and books and documentaries alleging brainwashing and emotional and physical abuse, are drawing unwelcome attention to the organisation.
Perhaps most damaging has been a TV series with actress Leah Remini who, like Shelton, grew up in Scientology. She left in 2013 after questioning the disappearance of Shelly Miscavige, the leader's wife who vanished from public life over ten years ago.
Remini’s show gives a platform to former members, attracting two million viewers and winning an Emmy last month. Calls to have Scientology’s religious and tax exempt status revoked have been growing in the US.
In response, the organisation is attempting to clean up its image through its front groups and community programmes. One of those, the Volunteer Ministers, has been visible helping out in the wake of the recent hurricanes in the US. In Ireland, the Way to Happiness has been organising clean-ups of Sheriff Street over the past year.
Critics claim these front groups are merely recruiting and propaganda tools for the organisation.
Fiona O’Leary is an autism advocate from Cork who in that capacity stumbled across the Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR), a Scientology offshoot denouncing psychiatry, conventional mental health services and most prescription drugs. Over the past year CCHR has been handing out literature in front of medical practices in Dublin and sending out letters warning professionals of the “dangers” of psychiatry.
O’Leary says she made contact with the CCHR but the more she learnt about its core principles the more she became alarmed. She says she was told by the organisation that psychiatrists are “above the law” and “rape patients as a form of treatment”, that vaccines can cause autism in children, and that schizophrenia is “a symptom of an underlying physical issue”.
“They told me they were planning to work in the area of autism, and then out it came, all the quackery and the anti-vaccination stuff,” O’Leary says.
“This is why I’m so worried about this new building.”
Scientology’s front groups do operate from the Ideal Orgs, says Shelton. “In practice this hardly means anything because most of these Ideal Orgs are so introverted into their own problems, like paying their bills, that they don’t have the time or staff resources to do much running of these front groups. Just buying a new building and giving it a facelift does nothing to change how empty and struggling these orgs remain.”
The Church of Scientology did not respond to requests for comment.