When I made the film "Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief," which aired on HBO on March 29, I assumed that the response from the Church of Scientology would be vitriolic. I was right; but I hold out hope that this reaction may lead to the reform of an organization that has harassed its critics and, in my view, abused its tax-exempt status.
Scientology's founder, L. Ron Hubbard, believed that critics of the church were so fundamentally evil that any kind of counterattack was, according to doctrine, "fair game." He wrote in a 1967 "Policy Letter" that critics "may be deprived of property or injured by any means … may be tricked, sued, lied to or destroyed."
In keeping with this doctrine, the church has waged a crusade against the film starting months before its release. The ex-Scientologists who testify in "Going Clear" have been on the receiving end of threats, surveillance and a smear campaign on the Scientology website Freedommag.org. In one of the attack videos, titled "Crocodile Liar," a bull's-eye frames a picture of Sara Goldberg, a grandmother who left the church in 2013. Rather than engage in informed debate, the videos accuse all the critical ex-members of various misdeeds, including theft and perjury, without mentioning that some appear to have been committed on behalf of the church.
Lawrence Wright, the New Yorker staff writer and author of the book on which the film is based, has not been immune. Nor have I. The church spent a great deal of its followers' money publishing a parody of the New Yorker; it contained expensive graphics that were the envy of David Remnick, the actual editor of the New Yorker, which published Wright's first investigation into Scientology. Because I am a filmmaker, the church produced a video going after me and my father, who has very little to say on the matter since he died in 2006. Wright and I have received countless letters from the church and its attorneys. My face appeared on full-page ads in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times attacking the film.
These tactics, however, don't seem to have damaged the film's popularity. On the contrary, according to the Hollywood Reporter, "Going Clear" attracted over 1.75 million viewers on its first broadcast, the best showing for a documentary on HBO in 10 years.
Only one group is averting their eyes: active Scientologists, who are encouraged, by doctrine, to avoid any criticism of the church. As "Going Clear" shows, the church will sanction its members for reading or viewing critical material. It may be that many of the church's attacks on the film are not designed for the general public, but rather serve as a signal of possible danger for the flock. Recently, longtime Scientologist John Travolta criticized the film — even as he said he had no intention of ever watching it — because it would be a "crime" to "approach a negative perspective."
Judging by online feedback, the most fervent viewers have been ex-Scientologists who seem to be delighted by the fact that their experience has been given voice in a national broadcast. As one long-suffering former member of the Sea Org (the church's clergy) told me, "We were afraid our story would never be told."
The reason for that fear — and the apparent pent-up demand for this story among the general public — may be that, historically, Scientology has been effective at limiting or even preventing open debate about its practices. Over the years, reporters on this beat have been ruthlessly intimidated and their journals and networks subject to war by litigation.
Roughly 20 years ago, according to investigative reporter Richard Behar, the Church of Scientology spent millions attacking him and his employer, Time magazine, in court and through the aggressive use of private investigators. Although the church lost at every level, right up to the Supreme Court, it regarded the litigation battle as a victory because it succeeded in putting the "fear of God" into most media organizations.
In the wake of Wright's book and the film, many reporters, critics and ex-Scientologists seem to be more confident about speaking out and investigating ongoing charges of abuse. Only a few days ago, this newspaper published a story about a private investigator armed with a cache of weapons and 2,000 rounds of ammunition, who was allegedly paid by Scientology to spy on the father of the church's "Chairman of the Board," David Miscavige. A number of articles have even raised the question of whether the church should be permitted to maintain its tax-exempt status in the face of so many alleged or documented civil rights abuses, such as the videotaped harassment of ex-Scientologist Marty Rathbun and his wife, Monique. It's an important question, since it implicates all of us.
The church maintains that its activities are protected by the 1st Amendment as religious practices. Partially on that basis, the church convinced the Internal Revenue Service in 1993 that Scientology should be tax-exempt and that all donations to the church should be tax-deductible. (The film shows that the church's method of "convincing" the IRS featured lawsuits and vilification of its agents.)
In the past, critics of the church have called for its tax exemption to be revoked because it is not a "real religion." I agree that tax-exemption isn't merited, but not for that reason. The Church of Scientology has a distinct belief system which, despite its somewhat strange cosmology — mocked by the TV show "South Park" and many others — is not essentially more strange than, say, the idea of a virgin birth. Scientologists are entitled to believe what they want to believe. And the IRS website makes it clear that anyone is entitled to start a religion at any time without seeking IRS permission. To maintain the right to be tax-exempt, however, religions must fulfill certain requirements for charitable organizations. For example, they may not "serve the private interests of any individual" and/or "the organization's purposes and activities may not be illegal or violate fundamental public policy."
On these points alone, it is hard to see why Americans should subsidize Scientology through its tax-exemption.
Regarding "private interests," it seems clear that Scientology is ruled by only one man, David Miscavige. Further, powerful celebrities within the church, particularly Tom Cruise, receive private benefits through the exploitation of low-wage labor (clergy members belonging to the Sea Org make roughly 40 cents an hour) and other use of church assets for his personal gain.
It appears that many church activities may have been either illegal or in violation of public policy. Numerous lawsuits, my film, other media accounts and an abandoned FBI investigation have turned up allegations of false imprisonment, human trafficking, wiretaps, assault, harassment and invasion of privacy. And the church doctrine of "disconnection," in which members are forced to "disconnect" from anyone critical of the church, seems cruelly at odds with any reasonable definition of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
A proper criminal investigation that followed the money — a virtual river of cash from tax-exempt donations and fees — could sort out some of these issues. Or a congressional subcommittee investigation could force Miscavige — who was unwilling to answer questions for Wright's book or the film — to testify under oath about allegations of abuse.
There is ample precedent for the revocation of tax-exempt status: It happens more than 100 times per year. There is also an important Supreme Court ruling that addresses the religious issue. In 1983, the court upheld a decision revoking the charitable status of a religious college, Bob Jones University, because it forbade interracial dating. The court stated in Bob Jones University vs. the United States that the "government has a fundamental, overriding interest in eradicating racial discrimination in education ... which substantially outweighs whatever burden denial of tax benefits places on [the university's] exercise of their religious beliefs."
It seems to me that our government has a "fundamental, overriding interest" in protecting individual liberty by not subsidizing harassment or surveillance by gun-toting private eyes. The 1st Amendment should not be a smokescreen to hide human rights abuses and possible criminal activities.
Alex Gibney is an Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker.