Journalist John Sweeney is best known for his explosive work on Scientology. He tells Jonathan de Burca Butler it’s a nonsense pay-as-you-go religion
In a career that has spanned over 30 years, British journalist, John Sweeney, has covered countless conflicts in such far flung places as Burundi, Rwanda and Bosnia.
In 12 years as a foreign correspondent for The Observer he witnessed the fall of Romania’s Ceausescu and saw the release of Mandela.
In Zimbabwe, shortly after joining the BBC, he found himself in the boot of a car that took him to the site of a mass grave filled with former opponents of Robert Mugabe.
He has been shot at, robbed and threatened, and yet it is his run-in with what many see as a mysterious church that shot him to fame.
In 2007,the BBC’s Panorama aired a documentary called Scientology and Me. It featured Sweeney and his attempts to investigate the often impenetrable world of Scientology.
At one point in the documentary, Sweeney becomes so frustrated with church leader Tommy Davis’s persistent interference and aggressive lecturing that he famously lashes out. He says himself he ‘lost it’.
“Obviously I was wrong to lose my temper,” says Sweeney.
“I apologised then and I apologise now. But on the other hand ex-members of the church say that this image of me screaming my head off is the defining image of Scientology in the 21st century and the true one.
“I was a war correspondent. I’ve been to Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq and if they can get a tough guy like me to do that...that’s what happened to me and it happened because I felt I was losing my mind because of what they were saying to me. I was called a bigot, a liar and psycho and I think since then a Scientology blogger has written that John Sweeney is genuinely evil. I take that as a compliment really.”
The 57-year-old is in Dublin next Saturday to give a talk at an anti-Scientology conference, “Scientology: Enough is Enough”. The conference, which takes place at Filmbase in Temple Bar over the course of two days, claims that with the help of ex-members and investigative journalists it will reveal the inner workings of the church.
The Church of Scientology was founded by science-fiction writer turned counsellor-cum-religious leader, L Ron Hubbard. Sweeney explains that at the core of Scientology is the belief that 75 million years ago a space alien brought aliens here and blew them up by dropping hydrogen into a series of volcanoes.
“The cause of all our ills,” explains Sweeney, “is that we’re infected by the dead souls of all these pesky space aliens but you can be cured of them and become a superman if you do Scientology.”
The story is admittedly somewhat far-fetched but in terms of religion Scientology is hardly unique in that regard. Whatever about its belief system, the church has attracted criticism and praise in equally strong measure.
Just last week, a documentary revealed how Scientology leaders ordered the wiretapping of Tom Cruise’s ex wife, Nicole Kidman’s telephones during their marriage. It was part of a campaign to break up the couple as he was distancing from the Church.
Marty Rathbun, formerly the religion’s second highest-ranking official, told Oscar-winning film-maker Alex Gibney, that his role was to “facilitate the break-up” for church leader David Miscavige. The church has said that the “accusations made in the film” were “entirely false”.
Famous members such as Cruise, John Travolta and Juliette Lewis have raised the profile of the organisation and are fiercely protective of it. Critics, on the other hand, are suspicious of its motives and its modus operandi. For Sweeney it is a question of access.
“Scientology is not a religion, it’s a con,” he says.
“If you go into a Christian church they will tell you Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. In a mosque they’ll tell you to follow the prophet. So the religion is openly accessible immediately. There are all sorts of bits and pieces to them yes but basically you get the big thing straight away.
“In Scientology the main message that our brains are infected by these dead aliens is something that you learn step by step and therefore they’re hiding their core belief and making it a pay-as-you go religion. That is a confidence trick.”
“People have the right to believe in whatever they want,” he continues, “and that includes the Church of Scientology and if you’re into it fine. But also people like me have a right to scrutinise it, to mock it and to criticise it and both rights should be equally respected.”
The Liverpool native argues that Scientology uses fear and intimidation to keep people schtum. Does the media have a part to play in the silence?
“I don’t think people like Tom Cruise should be allowed to go on the Late Late Show in Dublin or Graham Norton in London and talk about their lovely movies but there’s no mention of this crazy thing they’re in,” he says.
“According to ex-members, it’s dark. What sort of religion says that you can’t talk to your grandchildren because their mum and dad have left the church. What sort of organisation is that? And the idea that the media gives Tom Cruise and John Travolta a free pass on that is wrong. It doesn’t have to be a torture session but it’s not right to rule out all questions on it.”
Sweeney followed up Scientology and Me with a feature length documentary entitled Secrets of Scientology and a book published in 2013 Church of Fear: Inside the Weird World of Scientology.
“I’m not afraid of them they are afraid of me,” he says. “In particular I have seven friends who were high up in the church but are ex-members and they know that if they sue me these friends will come to testify on my behalf and they’re frightened of what they’ll say. ”
A spokesman for the Church of Scientology was unavailable for comment.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved