As we continue our year-end celebrations, we’ve come to a big moment. We asked voters to decide which story had the most impact on Scientology watching this year. We chose five finalists that we think had lasting importance as well as immediate punch.
There were many other stories worth covering of course, but these five did seem to generate a passionate response — voting in this category was much closer than in the other two (for video and shoop of the year). There was no one story dominating the others — only a small percentage separated all five of these big stories.
So let’s go through them to see which ones moved you the most!
Fifth Place: Scientology and South Park
In October, Marty Rathbun revealed at his blog internal documents from Scientology’s Office of Special Affairs — the church’s intelligence and covert operations wing — which showed that in the spring of 2006, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone were targeted in a retaliatory investigation by church private eyes. The investigation was payback for a November, 2005 South Park episode, “Trapped in the Closet” which poked fun at Scientology celebrities Tom Cruise and John Travolta, but more importantly revealed in significant detail the most closely held (and embarrassing) of Scientology’s secrets: L. Ron Hubbard‘s assertions about a galactic overlord named Xenu who populated the earth 75 million years ago with disembodied invisible alien souls who, to this day, plague mankind.
The OSA documents revealed that as punishment for that ridiculing of Scientology’s beliefs, private investigators had been sent to gather information about Parker, Stone, their South Park employees, and friends. Gathering that information included going through their trash (called “special collections” in OSA parlance). The documents even suggested that legendary independent filmmaker Lloyd Kaufman, a close friend to the filmmakers, would be pumped for information and in order to place a young mole in the South Park offices. Kaufman confirmed to us that he was hit up for information about the duo. Journalist Mark Ebner, who consulted on the South Park episode, was subject to his own OSA investigation at the same time.
Fourth Place: Marty Rathbun and the Squirrel Busters
In April, former high-ranking Church of Scientology executive Marty Rathbun was faced with a strange sight: on his porch, three men were demanding to talk to him about his post-church activities while wearing matching sky blue T-shirts (each with an image of Rathbun’s head on a squirrel, crossed out), and with video cameras strapped to their heads. Calling themselves “Squirrel Busters,” the men claimed to the local press that they were a documentary crew making a film about Rathbun.
But it didn’t take long to link them directly with the church itself. The goon squad spent a total of five months parked outside Rathbun’s home, filming and following him and his wife, Monique, in one of the most remarkable “fair game” revenge operations we’ve seen in a long time. Rathbun had been targeted because he operates a blog which criticizes church leader David Miscavige, and which has become the rallying point for a Scientology independence movement that is splitting the church apart. Repeatedly, the Squirrel Busters told Rathbun that they would leave him alone if he’d just stop talking to the press about the church. Instead, their bizarre operation gave them more press attention than they may have bargained for.
Third Place: Reitman, Urban, and Wright
For a subject as complex and detailed as Scientology and its 60-year history, there may be no better medium than a lengthy, fat book. Problem is, the few good books on the subject came out long ago and were never best sellers. That changed this year. Janet Reitman‘s excellent history of the church, Inside Scientology, fills a desperate need. Comprehensive, meticulously researched, and masterfully written, the book is an introduction to this vast subject that not only is reaching a large audience, but its critical acclaim helps assure that it will be talked about for years to come.
Reitman’s book had been anticipated for a long time, but another book also arrived this summer that was something of a surprise. Ohio State University religion studies professor Hugh Urban published a fine history, The Church of Scientology, that turned out to be a great companion to Reitman’s book. Urban’s academic approach helps put the church in its historical context, helping to explain Scientology’s paranoia and obsession with spying by putting it in context of the Cold War era that birthed it. Meanwhile, another mesmerizing and lengthy narrative telling Scientology’s story appeared in February in the New Yorker. We hear that Lawrence Wright’s skillful telling of director Paul Haggis’s defection from the church will itself become a book sometime in the future. Suddenly, we have a wealth of book-length treatments to help beginners learn about this arcane material.
Second Place: Valeska Paris goes on a Cruise
For decades, ex-Scientologists have told harrowing tales of how they left the Church of Scientology — and in particular, its most hardcore contingent, the Sea Organization. But this year, the story of Valeska Paris and her ordeal aboard the church’s private cruise ship, the Freewinds, captured the public’s imagination like few other escape stories in Scientology’s history. Australian television journalist Steve Cannane broke this story last month, and we quickly followed with a lengthy interview of Valeska, who says church leader David Miscavige, wanting to enforce a policy of “disconnection” and keep her away from her mother (who had sued the church) moved Valeska to the cruise ship when she was only 18 years old.
Told she would be there only a couple of weeks, she was on board from 1996 to 2007. Like other Sea Org members, she was forced to work at times in the engine room, which was loud, dangerous work. She also was aboard in 2004, when a lavish birthday party was held for actor Tom Cruise. Valeska was not allowed to attend the party. We also interviewed former Sea Org executive Ramana Dienes-Browning, who backed up Valeska’s assertion that she was on the ship against her will. Ramana had her own story of coercion and hardship. Valeska’s sister Melissa Paris, meanwhile, told of working for years in the Sea Org as a teenager for almost no money in the UK. Valeska has been threatened by church attorneys for speaking out, but we suspect her story is only beginning.
“The Money Machine,” an investigative series from Joe Childs and Tom Tobin of the St. Petersburg Times
Tobin and Childs have done it again. In 2009, their series “The Truth Rundown” revealed that an exodus was taking place among high-level Scientology executives, who were defecting, they said, because church leader David Miscavige was abusive and unpredictable. The best in the business, these journalists at the St. Pete Times have followed up with a new series that blows the lid off Scientology’s money-making side, which puts incredible pressure on rank and file church members to turn over large donations that they can’t afford.
In this four-part project, we met Hy Levy, one of Scientology’s most effective “registrars,” who raised more than $200 million from fellow church members before leaving with a $500 severance check. We also learned the story of Brian Culkin, a beginner who was constantly hit up for donations until he’d spent about $350,000 on Scientology in just the one year he was in. And there was Synthia Fagen, who explained the high-pressure tactics of fundraisers for the International Association of Scientologists, and Luis Garcia, an Orange County man who was repeatedly plucked for huge contributions to that area’s “Ideal Org.” Now, better than ever, Tobin and Childs have made us understand just what a money-making operation Scientology is, desperate to pull cash out of its dwindling membership.
“The Money Machine” eked out a victory over Valeska Paris and Janet Reitman — this was truly a year of big stories, which was reflected in the close voting, I think.
Tomorrow, we’ll do our final Thursday Stats roundup of the year, and then on Friday we’ll have a rundown of the Scientology stories that generated the most reader interest here at Runnin’ Scared. And finally, we’ll finish out the year on Saturday not with our regular Commenters of the Week, but with a special Commenters of the Year.
Tony Ortega is the editor-in-chief of The Village Voice. Since 1995, he’s been writing about Scientology at several publications.
Keep up on all of our New York news coverage at this blog, Runnin’ Scared
SCIENTOLOGY IN THE VILLAGE VOICE
[Scientology spokesman Tommy Davis secretly recorded discussing “disconnection”]
[Benjamin Ring, LA deputy sheriff, wants you to spend your 401K on Scientology]
[Scientologists: How many of them are there, anyway?]
[Scientology hates clean ice: The “Fair Game” operation that should turn your stomach]
[Scientology hates clean ice, part 2: Another target, and the web as weapon]
[Paulette Cooper, Scientology’s original and worst nightmare: a Thanksgiving tribute]
THE TOP 25 PEOPLE CRIPPLING SCIENTOLOGY
1. L. Ron Hubbard | 2. David Miscavige | 3. Marty Rathbun | 4. Tom Cruise | 5. Joe Childs and Tom Tobin | 6. Anonymous | 7. Mark Bunker | 8. Mike Rinder | 9. Jason Beghe | 10. Lisa McPherson | 11. Nick Xenophon | 12. Tommy Davis | 13. Janet Reitman | 14. Tory Christman | 15. Andreas Heldal-Lund | 16. Marc and Claire Headley | 17. Jefferson Hawkins | 18. Amy Scobee | 19. The Squirrel Busters | 20. Trey Parker and Matt Stone | 21. Kendrick Moxon | 22. Jamie DeWolf | 23. Ken Dandar | 24. Dave Touretzky | 25. Xenu
HELD ABOARD THE FREEWINDS: TALES OF THE SEA ORG
[Valeska Paris, held against her will from 1996 to 2007 on Scientology’s cruise ship]
[Ramana Dienes-Browning, marriage at 16, sexual interrogation, life in the engine room]
[Melissa Paris, Valeska’s sister: forced to marry at 16]
SCIENTOLOGY VS. SOUTH PARK: INVESTIGATION AS RETALIATION
[Scientology targeted South Park‘s Parker and Stone in an investigation]
[More documents in the South Park probe: instructions to send in a young mole]
[Scientology responds in typical fashion] | [Lloyd Kaufman confirms the probe]
[Mark Ebner also investigated after South Park involvement]
[Mark Chauppetta, private eye, explains what Scientology operatives look for]
MARTY RATHBUN AND THE SIEGE OF SOUTH TEXAS
[Scientology has Rathbun arrested] | [Rathbun and Mark Bunker reveal surprising ties]
In Germany with Ursula Caberta: [Announcing plans] | [Press conference] | [Making news about Tom Cruise, Bill Clinton, and Tony Blair] | [Post-trip interview]
The Squirrel Busters: [Goons with cameras on their heads] | [Rathbun’s open letter to neighbors] | [Ingleside on the Bay, Texas rallies to Rathbun’s cause] | [Squirrel Buster’s claim to be making a “documentary”] | [VIDEO: “On a Boat”] | [“Anna” sent to creep out Monique Rathbun] | [Squirrel Busters go hillbilly] | [A videographer blows the whistle on the goon squad] | [Ed Bryan, OT VIII, shows the power of Scientology’s highest levels]
SCIENTOLOGY SPYING AND “FAIR GAME”
[Secret Scientology documents spell out spying operation against Marc Headley]
[Scientology’s West U.S. spies list revealed] | [Scientology’s enemies list: Are you on it?]
Spy operation against Washington Post writer Richard Leiby: [Part 1] | [Part 2]
[A Scientology spy comes clean: Paulien Lombard’s remarkable public confession]
[Scientology advertises for writers in Freedom magazine]
[Accidental leak shows Scientology spy wing plans to “handle” the Voice]
[Lori Hodgson and Disconnection: “No one’s going to take my eternity away”]
SCIENTOLOGY AND CELEBRITIES
[Hey, Scientology Celebrity, Here’s Your Media Training Checksheet!]
[Tom Cruise and X Factor‘s Stacy Francis singing together on the Freewinds]
[X Factor’s Stacy Francis: Her first husband, Michael Sandlofer, answers abuse claims]
[Tom Cruise and Baby Suri embarrassed by news item, so someone must pay]
[“Tom Cruise told me to talk to a bottle”] | [Tom Cruise likes coconut cake] | [Tom Cruise has a sense of humor] | [“Tom Cruise not a kook!”] | [Paulette Cooper on Tom Cruise]
[Paul Haggis, director of Crash, issues an ultimatum, leaves the church]
[Character actor Jason Beghe defects noisily] | [Actor Michael Fairman reveals his “suppressive person” declaration] | [Michael Fairman talks to the Voice]
[Giovanni Ribisi as David Koresh: Scientology-Branch Davidian link makes sense]
[Russell Brand weds ex-Scientologists in wild ceremony] | [Skip Press on Haggis]
[Placido Domingo Jr.: Scientology’s retaliation is “scary and pathetic”]
Grant Cardone, NatGeo’s “Turnaround King”: [Doing Scientology’s dirty work?] | [Milton Katselas complained about Cardone’s smear job] | [Cardone runs to Huffpo]
[Philip Boyd, Saving Grace actor, rips “the business that is Scientology”]
JANET REITMAN’S INSIDE SCIENTOLOGY
[Our review of Inside Scientology] | [An interview with Janet Reitman] | [A report from Reitman’s first book tour appearance] | [At the Half-King: Reitman not afraid]
[Scientology doesn’t like Inside Scientology] | [Q&A at Washington Post]
[A roundup of Reitman’s print reviews, and why isn’t she on television more?]
HUGH URBAN’S THE CHURCH OF SCIENTOLOGY
EX-SCIENTOLOGISTS SPEAK OUT
[“The Money Machine”: another blockbuster St. Pete Times investigation]
[Marc Headley: “Tom Cruise told me to talk to a bottle”] | [The Nancy Many interview]
[Sympathy for the Devil: Tory Christman’s Story] | [Jeff Hawkins’ Counterfeit Dreams]
[86 Million Thin Dimes: The Lawrence Wollersheim Saga] | [Mike Rinder on spying]
[Scientology in Israel: Arson, attempted murder, paranoia — and a visit by the Voice!]
[Scientology dodges a bullet in Australia] | [Scientology exec Jan Eastgate arrested]
[All hell breaks loose in Israel] | [Scientology sees fundraising gold in the UK riots]
[Aussie former rugby pro Chris Guider calls David Miscavige “toxic” and “violent”]
[Stephen Cox, UK church newbie, pledges 20K pounds] | [Biggi Reichert: A German Lisa McPherson?] | [The Birmingham trove: 7,000 internal e-mails]
[Australian farmer blamed for giving Tom Cruise a bad shrimp, loses her friends, family]
ODD VIDEOS AND ODDER NEWS
[Scientology chillin’ with hip hop!] | [The curious career of Scientology rapper Chill EB]
[Chill EB and me: the Voice interviews Scientology’s in-house rapper]
[Scientology singalong, “We Stand Tall”] | [Captain Bill Robertson and “Galactic Patrol”]
[Scientology wins a major award!] | [Scientology wants your money: Meet Dede!]
[Birmingham in the House! The “Ideal” dance mix] | [Scientology and the Nation of Islam]
[When Scientology was hip] | [Sad: David Miscavige makes fun of his own fundraisers]
[Freedom magazine parodies The New Yorker. Hilarity ensues.]
[Scientology surf report: Anonymous parties outside the New York “org”]
THE VIEW INSIDE THE BUBBLE
[A scientologist’s letter to the Voice and its readers] | [Scientology silent birth]
[Tad Reeves: Scientology might listen to this guy] | [More Tad Reeves and family]
[Scientology never forgets: A heartwarming telemarketing holiday miracle]
[Desperate Scientology fundraising caught on video]