For years, Mike Rinder was the Church of Scientology’s chief spokesman and executive director of the Office of Special Affairs, its intelligence wing. In 2007, his defection was among the most surprising in an exodus of high-ranking officials from the church. Since then, he’s given several interviews, but none as complete as the videotaped discussions we had with him last month in his Florida home. In this first segment, he describes the conditions in “The Hole,” Scientology’s notorious concentration camp for fallen executives at its California headquarters. In other segments, Rinder also talks about the confessions forced out of prisoners, the constant indoctrination of church members, and much, much, more…
First, some background that we picked up while getting a tour of Scientology’s spiritual home.
Rinder was born in 1955 to Ian and Barbara Rinder in Adelaide. (He has two younger siblings, Andrew and Judy.) Ian was an entrepreneur and owned a series of businesses, including a wholesale grocery distributor, an aerosol canning company, a travel agency, a restaurant — he even raised goats at one time. Barbara kept the books.
Mike went to private schools growing up. “They were Christian but non-denominational. There were a lot of private schools in Adelaide,” he says, calling it Australia’s version of Omaha or Des Moines.
In 1959 or 1960, Rinder’s parents became interested in Scientology — L. Ron Hubbard had given lectures in Melbourne around that time, and left behind some active groups there and in Adelaide. After moving to Sydney for about a year, the Rinders then made a pilgrimage to Saint Hill Manor in England in 1966 or 1967 that lasted nine months. (Hubbard had just left the manor, which remains to this day Scientology’s European headquarters.) After a second trip to Saint Hill a few years later, Rinder had twice been around the world by ship by the time he was 15 years old.
It was about then that Rinder remembers being audited for the first time. It wasn’t something the family was public about, that they were Scientologists. The Hubbard books were hidden at home, and his parents weren’t pushy about his involvement.
After finishing high school, Rinder joined the Sea Org at 18, turning down a full scholarship to the University of Adelaide. His first assignment: the “Tours Org,” which traveled the continent, arriving at individual churches to convince parishioners to sign up for more services — called “regging.” After crisscrossing Australia for several months in the Tours Org, Rinder was then sent for executive training at the center of Scientology’s universe — the yacht Apollo, with Hubbard himself.
But first, he needed to do his formal Sea Org indoctrination, known as Estates Project Force, at Saint Hill. Then, in September 1973, he went to Lisbon to meet the ship. After swabbing decks for a while, he then landed a plum assignment back on land: working PR for the ship in Funchal, Madeira, an island owned by Portugal.
By 1974, the Apollo had been kicked out of several other countries, and Portugal was just about its last safe home in Europe. But having just gone through a coup, the country was becoming suspicious of the Americans and Brits on the odd ship. Rinder and a handful of others were stationed in Funchal to hand out surveys to locals in a bid to convince them that the Apollo was harmless.
“Then the ‘rock concert’ happened,” Rinder says. In October, 1974, rumors had spread through Funchal that the Apollo, which was docked there, was working on behalf of the CIA. An uprising of locals dumped a couple of cars and motorcycles owned by the Scientologists into the water as rocks were thrown at the ship itself. While Hubbard shouted instructions from the deck, the Apollo‘s crew scrambled to get the yacht out of port. Rinder himself — all of 19 years old — was trapped in the house he was staying at in town, and ultimately needed a military escort to get back to the ship. It was that incident that convinced Hubbard to leave for the US — but Rinder says the boat’s agent spotted federal agents waiting for the ship in South Carolina, so instead Hubbard sailed the Caribbean for a while. After another year, he would move operations to land, taking over the downtown area of Clearwater, Florida.
Clearwater is, to this day, the spiritual headquarters of Scientology, and we traveled there in March to spend a couple of days with Rinder, who still lives nearby even though he left the church five years ago.
Today, Rinder and another former high-ranking executive, Marty Rathbun, are leading an exodus of church members who have left official Scientology because of the way it’s being led by their former boss, David Miscavige. Both Rinder and Rathbun, as well as others who call themselves “independent Scientologists” still adhere to Hubbard’s ideas even as they reject Miscavige’s church. We asked him to help explain the difference between the two movements…
Rinder is just one of numerous former executives to go public in the last few years with stories of abuse at the hands of church leader David Miscavige. Like Debbie Cook, who testified to her experience of being held in “the Hole” — Scientology’s notorious office-prison, Rinder explains in the first video, above, some of the conditions there. But we also asked him about the mentality that keeps some executives in Scientology for years even after they’ve gone through that kind of experience. He says it’s a matter of gradual indoctrination…
Rinder says he was held as a virtual prisoner in various places — tents on a golf course, for example, as well as in “the Hole” itself — for almost two years between 2004 and 2007, being let out on occasion to make appearances at church events or to handle the BBC’s John Sweeney. But we asked him, not for the first time, if he could remember what first caused him to fall from grace in the eyes of Miscavige, and sent him from the highest of executive positions to a prisoner…
Debbie Cook testified that besides the degrading conditions of the Hole — sleeping on the floor of an ant-infested, sweltering office, eating disgusting “slop” — that the days consisted of mass confessions that could last hours. Rinder was held in the place far longer than Cook, and we asked him what those confessions were like…
Rinder mentions in that last segment that he and Marty Rathbun, another top former official, had been assigned by Miscavige for four years to handle the fallout of the 1995 death of Lisa McPherson, who perished after being held for 17 days at Scientology’s headquarters in Clearwater, the Fort Harrison Hotel. Rinder and Rathbun directed the church’s legal strategy as Scientology was indicted criminally for the death (charges were later dropped). McPherson’s death and the years of bad publicity it garnered for the church is one of Scientology’s biggest headaches in its 60-year history.
Even when he was let out of confinement from the Hole, Rinder says Miscavige could make work assignments feel almost as unpleasant as imprisonment itself. There was the way, for example, he assigned Rinder to do work on what would become The Basics, Miscavige’s 2007 re-release of L. Ron Hubbard’s most essential Scientology books, which all Scientologists were then required to purchase at up to $3,000 per set…
Another strange aspect of imprisonment at the Hole — which multiple witnesses tell us went on at least from the beginning of 2004 to the middle of 2010, if not longer — was that everyone inside were high-ranking executives, all of whom had known and worked with each other for years.
“These were your friends, people you had traveled with,” Rinder says. “But then, you get in the Hole? You can’t trust anybody.”
The forced confessions pitted friends against each other. And the conditions only made it worse. “Everyone sleeping with only about six inches on either side. Above you. Below you. Getting up in the middle of the night, you’d disturb everyone,” Rinder says, and more than once compares it to the madness of Lord of the Flies…
Like Cook, Rinder eventually got out of the Hole because, he says, Miscavige needed them elsewhere. For Cook, it was an event in Clearwater. For Rinder, it was to handle John Sweeney and the BBC while they were filming a documentary about Scientology. But even after he was out, Rinder says he continued to be bullied by Miscavige, and began thinking about “blowing” — Scientology jargon for defecting.
I asked him to describe how he finally broke away in 2007…
So, I asked Rinder, where is this all going?
“I don’t think that the demise of Miscavige and the church is going to be a direct result of people abandoning it,” he says. “I think there is sort of a snowball effect that happens with people who get influenced by Debbie Cook, or the Tampa Bay Times. Other people who know someone affected by disconnection…
“But I think the ultimate demise is going to be either when there is enough media pressure demanding that Miscavige answer up and stop sending lackeys to make excuses, or when he’s forced to testify under oath.
“The minute either of those things happens, he won’t be able to maintain the facade any longer. His facade is built primarily on him doing these events — the New Year’s event, March 13 [Hubbard’s Birthday], June 6 [Maiden Voyage], the IAS in October — where he convinces the flock that everything is hunky dory. They believe it, because he’s the one saying it. If he can’t do that, the whole house of cards will fall to pieces.
“The people in the local orgs, they see that nothing is expanding. But they assume it is everywhere else. They figure they’re doing something wrong, and so they don’t want to look anywhere else. It’s like a whole big incredibly elaborate facade that’s been constructed.
“It will just kind of fall to pieces as soon as that source of bullshit is no longer able to convince everybody that the world of Scientology is experiencing its greatest rate of expansion.
“The only thing Miscavige has is a lot of money. So, he is able to create the appearance of expansion with this buying of buildings. Because all you need for that is money.”
On a personal note, I wanted to thank Christie Collbran, Mike’s girlfriend, for putting up with us over two days so close to her delivery date. She and Mike are expecting a baby boy any day now.
Tony Ortega has been the editor in chief of the Village Voice since March, 2007. He started writing about Scientology in 1995. You cancatch his alerts at Twitter (@VoiceTonyO), at his Facebook author page, on Pinterest, and even this new Google Plus doohickey.
New readers might want to check out our primer, “What is Scientology?” Another good overview is our series from last summer, “Top 25 People Crippling Scientology.” At the top of every story, you’ll see the “Scientology” category which, if you click on it, will bring up all of our most recent stories.
As for hot subjects we’ve covered here, you may have heard about Debbie Cook, the former church official who rebelled and is now being sued by Scientology. You might have also heard about the Super Power Building, Scientology’s “Mecca,” whose secrets were revealed here. We also reported how Scientology spied on its own most precious object, Tom Cruise. (We wrote Tom an open letter that he has yet to respond to.) Have you seen a Scientology ad on TV lately? We debunked some of the claims in that 2-minute commercial you might have seen while watching Glee or American Idol.
Other stories have looked at Scientology’s policy of “disconnection” that is tearing families apart. You may also have heard something about the Sea Org experiences of the Paris sisters, Valeska and Melissa, and their friend Ramana Dienes-Browning. We’ve also featured Paulette Cooper, who wrote about Scientology back in the day, and Janet Reitman, Hugh Urban, and the team at the Tampa Bay Times, who write about it today. And there’s plenty more coming.