From Samoa's schools to Indonesia's prisons, the teachings of Scientology founder L.Ron Hubbard are spreading far and wide.
Scientology has been using not-for-profit groups to quietly spread its teachings in the Pacific and Southeast Asia, according to academics, critics and high-ranking church defectors.
At first glance these not-for-profits have little to do with Scientology, running programs to teach children about human rights, improve literacy in struggling schools, or rehabilitate hardened criminals.
They carry innocuous names such as Applied Scholastics and Youth for Human Rights, and say they are secular and independent.
But one former Scientology executive says they are more like “front groups” that are used expand Scientology by spreading the ideas of founder L.Ron Hubbard.
Another Scientology researcher says the materials given to schools by one of the groups amounts to “covert religious instruction”.
‘Scientology is on a
Amid a sustained barrage of bad press, the Church of Scientology has struggled to attract new members since its zenith in the 1970s and 80s.
While it still boasts high-profile adherents such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta, researchers say the number of rank-and-file Scientologists is shrinking.
“Historically, most new religions die, and it's fairly clear now that Scientology is on a downward path," University of Alberta sociologist Stephen Kent said in 2018.
Faced with this decline, and widespread scepticism in the western world, academics and former church insiders say Scientology has been on a quest to grow its footprint in less-developed countries. Many of these are sprinkled throughout the Pacific and Southeast Asia.
Some of these countries – Samoa, Indonesia, and East Timor – have deeply-religious populations where the use of Scientology materials within public institutions would likely trigger a fierce backlash.
Australian-American Mike Rinder is the former executive director of the Office of Special Affairs within the Church of Scientology International, and is one of the highest-ranking members to ever leave Scientology.
He said the church used “front groups” to spread its teachings in remote areas while avoiding a direct association with Scientology.
“These groups claim they are not religious – (but) they are supported 100 per cent by Scientology and most of the people involved in them, and certainly the leaders, are all Scientologists,” he told SBS Dateline.
“This is considered ‘dissemination’ - propagation of Scientology.”
Prisons, criminals and L.Ron Hubbard
In the past two decades, overcrowding inside Indonesia’s prison system has become a human rights issue of international concern.
Indonesia’s clogged prisons were in part caused by sweeping criminal justice reforms that began in the late 1990s.
As these reforms began to bite in the early 2000s, an organisation called Criminon started working with the Indonesian government to rehabilitate criminals and reduce repeat offending.
Criminon says its first program was trialled inside an Indonesian prison in 2002.
Its results were apparently so startling – in getting inmates out of prison, and keeping them out – that Criminon claims it was soon asked to expand its program across the country.
“…Based on these results, the Ministry of Justice requested Criminon Indonesia’s cooperation in devising a roll-out plan to bring the program to all of its 365 prisons,” Criminon says.
While SBS Dateline has been unable to verify these claims, and researchers have questioned their accuracy, a report from Australia’s National Drug and Alcohol Centre does confirm the presence of the Criminon program in a smaller number of Indonesian prisons.
“…several prisons have implemented the ‘Criminon’ program,” the report, published in 2008, reads.
“At least 21 correctional officers have completed training in conducting the Criminon program and the expansion of this program is planned.”
Criminon describes itself as an independent and secular organisation. This is crucial to its acceptance in Indonesia, which has the largest Muslim population in the world.
Criminon is linked to Scientology through an organisation called the Association for Better Living and Education – or ABLE.
In the early 1990s, the Church of Scientology International – or CSI for short – filed tax documents in the US in which it said ABLE carried out the "bulk" of the church's "social betterment program".
“ABLE’s sole purpose is to improve society through the application of Mr Hubbard’s social betterment technologies,” the 1993 tax filing reads.
The same tax filing says ABLE achieves this by providing “technical and financial” support to Criminon and other organisations.
“These front groups of Scientology are intended to get ‘the tech’ of Hubbard into society,” former Scientology executive Mike Rinder said.
“The theory is that if you can interest someone in any piece of the tech, they will then become interested in more of it and start inquiring about the broader works of L. Ron Hubbard and can subsequently be introduced to Scientology.”
The Church of Scientology International in 2015 said Mr Rinder was not a “credible source concerning Scientology” and had not “stepped inside a church in nearly a decade”.
SBS Dateline spoke to a public health researcher who is based in Indonesia and familiar with the country’s prison system.
The researcher said Criminon had likely exaggerated its influence in the country and that authorities were “totally clueless” about Scientology and its links to Criminon.
“They have no idea about Scientology. The Ministry (of Justice) would be condemned by the Ministry of Religious Affairs,” the researcher said.
Church of Scientology Australia president Vicki Dunstan said there was nothing unusual about the church's relationship with groups such as Criminon.
"Contributing financial support to charities is in and of itself a charitable activity and does not convert the activity into a 'front group' or 'recruitment tool' as you absurdly suggest," she said in a statement.
"Can you actually say with a straight face that you think Scientology attempts to get new members by searching out the illiterate, drug addicted criminals of society? How disgusting a question," she added.
Criminon Indonesia spokesman Nigel Mannock said the organisation provided a “secular service to the broad community”.
"Criminon Indonesia, while it was set up with the help of Scientologists, has been run locally in Indonesia since its inception by non-Scientologists, mostly Muslims.
"They obviously are not doing the program to disseminate Scientology."
Mr Mannock said Criminon was based on the teachings of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, but it was not a training ground for the religion.
“It does not make Scientologists,” he told SBS Dateline in a statement.
“It is a volunteer criminal rehabilitation program.
“Many Scientologists donate to support the program and volunteer with it. However, many non-Scientologists also volunteer and help with the program as is the case with Criminon Indonesia.”
Scientology and Samoa's schools
The Samoan government has been grappling with the difficult task of turning around declining literacy and numeracy rates among primary school children.
The Samoan education system has been historically hamstrung by poor infrastructure and lacklustre resources, according to a 2015 report by Australia’s foreign affairs department.
It is in this context that a not-for-profit called Applied Scholastics has been donating teaching resources to Samoa and building relationships with the government.
Like Criminon, Applied Scholastics claims it is secular. This helps it to operate in Samoa, where more than 90 per cent of the population identifies as Christian.
And like Criminon, Applied Scholastics is linked to Scientology through the organisation ABLE.
“ABLE International assisted Applied Scholastics to implement its mission of improving through techniques called ‘Study Technology’,” a 2018 US charity filing reads.
“Applied Scholastics sent Study Technology projects to… Samoa, where it worked with the Ministry of Education to implement teacher training.”
Applied Scholastics is based in Missouri and pursues the lofty mission of creating a “world free from illiteracy”.
It does this by providing teaching materials that introduce students to the concepts of “Study Technology”, based on the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard.
David Touretzky, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University in the US, has spent years studying Scientology and its affiliated organisations.
He says Study Technology is a form of “covert religious instruction”.
“First, study tech uses terminology that is found only in the Church of Scientology,” Dr Touretzky told SBS Dateline.
“The concepts of study tech were first laid out in documents called Hubbard Communications Office Bulletins that are officially part of the religious scripture of Scientology.”
In 2018 Applied Scholastics ambassador Warren Meyer appeared at a press conference alongside Samoa’s then-prime minister.
Mr Meyer’s work in Samoa was later recognised in the Church of Scientology’s Impact magazine.
“As long-term Scientologists, Warren and (his wife) have made their mark in several fields… they are currently introducing Study Technology to the Samoan educational system,” the magazine reads.
The Samoa Observer in 2019 revealed that Applied Scholastics Study Technology resources were being trialled in six Samoan schools.
A Samoan government report from October 2020 indicates Study Technology has since spread more widely.
“Even though 6 schools were piloted for this project the spread of the Study Technology tool has covered the whole country,” the report reads.
The same report said Samoa’s education department and the Samoan Qualifications Authority were working to officially accredit Applied Scholastics courses.
In March this year the Samoan Qualifications Authority listed the “Applied Scholastics Educator Training Institute” as a recognised non-formal education provider.
Samoa’s education department did not respond to SBS Dateline’s request for comment.
Applied Scholastics president Christine Gerson said the organisation used Study Technology materials developed by “humanitarian and author L. Ron Hubbard”.
“Study Technology, as delivered by Applied Scholastics, is entirely secular and taught by, and to, individuals of any religion or belief, race or ethnicity,” she told SBS Dateline in a statement.
"We are thankful for the steadfast support we have received through the years from the Churches of Scientology and from Scientologists, in the form of donations, volunteers and goodwill," she added in a separate statement.
"We also receive support from many other organizations and individuals who share our goal to eradicate illiteracy."
Scientology and human rights in East Timor
In a packed conference room at the United Nations headquarters in New York, diplomats mingle with dozens of youth representatives from developing countries.
The occasion is the 2019 International Human Rights summit, a popular annual event run by a not-for-profit called Youth for Human Rights International.
A number of foreign dignitaries give speeches. Nobel Peace Prize winner Jose Ramos-Horta, the former president of East Timor, delivers a pre-recorded video address.
There are few signs the Church of Scientology is involved, until Beth Akiyama is welcomed to the podium.
Ms Akiyama is a former director of Youth for Human Rights, and is now the executive director of the Church of Scientology’s national affairs office.
It might seem curious to see the Church of Scientology so closely involved with the event. That is until you consider the close ties between Scientology and Youth for Human Rights.
The Church of Scientology International is listed as a co-sponsor of the 2019 summit, alongside Mexico’s Human Rights Commission and the government of El Salvador.
The itinerary for the event even lists a “multicultural human rights celebration” hosted by the Scientology Community Centre in New York.
Youth for Human Rights International was founded in 2001 by Scientologist Dr Mary Shuttleworth.
It has been one of the most successful of the Scientology-linked not-for-profit groups in terms of building its profile and influence.
A slick rap video funded and produced by Youth for Human Rights was recognised at the New York Independent International Film Festival in 2005, and in 2007 the organisation reportedly formed a short-lived motorsport team called Youth 4 Human Rights.
Over the past decade Youth for Human Rights has turned its attention towards East Timor, a small country recovering from its violent struggle to gain independence from Indonesia in 2002.
Like Indonesia and Samoa, East Timor is one of the most heavily religious countries on the planet – some 97 per cent of the population identifies as Catholic.
Dr Shuttleworth visited East Timor as part of a worldwide tour in 2009.
Following this trip, Youth for Human Rights International began translating its materials into Tetum, one of East Timor’s official languages. It also established a number of clubs.
“Four Timor-Leste Youth for Human Rights clubs were established,” reads a charity filing from 2012.
“The club held 44 events mostly near the capital, Dili. The events included lectures to four major schools, reaching 1000 students and over 2500 adults.”
Former East Timor President Jose Ramos-Horta praised the work of Youth for Human Rights during his video address at the 2019 New York summit.
“I cannot stress how important it is that young people, such as yourselves, are becoming advocates for peace, tolerance and human rights,” he said in his video message.
Dr Shuttleworth and Youth for Human Rights were in 2019 awarded the Peace Summit Medal for Social Activism by former Nobel Peace Prize winners and human rights organisations.
Youth for Human Rights sits within a larger organisation called United for Human Rights.
Charity records show the director of United for Human Rights, Rubina Qureshi, is also a vice president of ABLE – the group responsible for Scientology's "social betterment" activities.
Aaron Smith-Levin was raised in a Scientology family, but left the church after almost three decades when he became disillusioned with its practices.
He is a former member of Scientology's so-called "Sea Org", a separate branch reserved for the church's most dedicated members.
"The Sea Organization is entrusted to minister the advanced services of Scientology," according to Church of Scientology materials.
Mr Smith-Levin said he believed Scientology’s interest in human rights was a smokescreen to deflect attention away from negative stories about the church.
“My take is that these programs are not for recruiting at all. If anyone joins Scientology because of these programs it is only a happy accident,” he told SBS Dateline.
“These programs exist only to try and get Scientology associated in peoples’ minds with something good.”
Mr Smith-Levin said groups such as Youth for Human Rights would struggle to gain support if their links to Scientology were front-and-centre.
“It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem,” he said.
“They want Scientology to be viewed favourably for running programs that are supported by important people.
“But if Scientology were to promote that these programs were being run by Scientology, no important people would support the programs.”
SBS Dateline was unable to reach Youth for Human Rights or United for Human Rights for comment.
Church of Scientology Australia president Vicki Dunstan said Youth for Human Rights was currently celebrating its 20th anniversary and had received hundreds of acknowledgements and accolades.
Scientology, Google, and the media
Scientology, and the not-for-profit groups linked to the church, have had a presence in a host of other countries in addition to Indonesia, Samoa and East Timor.
In Australian charity filings, the Church of Scientology mentions Tonga, Fiji, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands as countries where it has conducted activities in the past few years.
For example, in 2016 a team of Scientology volunteers travelled through Fiji, aiding clean-up efforts in the wake of a destructive cyclone.
Religious studies scholar Paul Morris, an Emeritus Professor at New Zealand’s Victoria University, said new religious movements such as Scientology frequently saw the Pacific Islands as fertile ground.
“Right across the region you hear of the mainstream traditional churches losing membership to energetic new religious movements,” he told SBS Dateline.
“Scientology does this through their Volunteer Ministers and their educational programs. That’s so they don’t have to overtly compete with the churches.
“If they announced themselves directly as a competitor, they would likely feel the ire of the established churches.”
Scientology's links to organisations such as Applied Scholastics, Criminon and Youth for Human Rights should not detract from genuine charity work.
But critics say the groups should not claim they are secular and entirely independent of the church.
Church of Scientology Australia president Vicki Dunstan said Scientology made no secret of its support for organisations such as Applied Scholastics and Criminon.
“The church has sponsored social betterment and humanitarian programs for decades, and each is prominently featured on the church’s website right on the homepage,” she told SBS Dateline in a statement.
“Each of these programs is an international movement representing our desire to bring solutions to meet social crises and an expression of the church’s humanitarian objective.”
She said the main purpose of organisations such as Criminon and Applied Scholastics was to cure the ills plaguing society, rather than spreading the message of Scientology.
"While each of these programs is based on discoveries and writings of L. Ron Hubbard, the programs are nonreligious.
"A person does not become a Scientologist by participating in these programs any more than a beneficiary of a Catholic charity becomes a Roman Catholic.
"There is no requirement or expectancy that those who benefit from Scientology-sponsored secular humanitarian programs will study Scientology, the religion, itself. They may if they wish, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with these programs."
Ms Dunstan said it was "disgusting" to suggest the Church of Scientology used its humanitarian efforts to recruit new members.
"Helping to reform criminals so they do not continue a life of crime - recidivism is rampant the world over - is a laudable purpose," she said.
"Helping to address illiteracy is vital to our society. After all, the youth of today are tomorrow’s generation.
"The fact that the church and its members sponsor such programs is seen by everyone without preconceived bias and bigotry as a very positive endeavour."
Mr Rinder disagreed.
“The ultimate proof of Scientology's use of these programs as a means of expanding Scientology is that Applied Scholastics, Criminon and (drug rehab outfit) Narconon all fall under the control of Association for Better Living and Education,” Mr Rinder said.
“As for why these remote areas – Google and the media,” he added.
“These areas tend to have less saturation of the truth about Scientology.”
Dr Touretzky said Scientology had copped so much bad press in the western world, it had no choice but to look off the beaten track.
“They’re looking to establish beachheads wherever they can,” he said.
“Their only hope for expansion is to find non-English speaking countries who haven’t been exposed to the last 30 years of negative press. So East Timor sounds great.”