Roisin Burke SBP 1

Róisín Burke has obtained a great interview for the Sunday Business Post and though she could not control the answers to her questions we look forward to her second article next week.

Roisin Burke SBP 2

It was founded in the 1950s by a science fiction novelist. It’s long been seen as one of the most controversial religions in the world. Now Scientology is moving into Ireland, putting down roots in south Dublin and hosting numerous community events. Róisín Burke visited its Firhouse base to find out what’s going on

“You couldn’t meet a nicer group of people,” Kieran O’ Byrne insists. I’ve sought him out in exasperation. We have been working on a story that Narconon, a very controversial treatment linked to the Church of Scientology, is setting up a centre in the small village of Ballivor, Co Meath, from where it will offer its psychiatry and medication treatment (normally priced at €1,500 a week), to drug addicts for free.

No one from the church will discuss it with me. Likewise, my many, many questions about why Scientology is on such a roaring expansion in Ireland in recent times have gone largely unanswered.

The silence, symptomatic of its wider refusal to engage with the country at large, has created a vacuum. That vacuum has allowed fear and criticism to flourish, stoked further by ardent anti-Scientology campaigners.

O’Byrne is a Dublin-based public relations executive with his own firm. A practising Catholic, he has nonetheless worked with the Church of Scientology, even making a trip on the Freewinds, L Ron Hubbard’s famous Caribbean-based luxury cruise ship, which is used as a religious retreat vessel. He was, he says, impressed by the experience.


Until recently, most people in Ireland knew and cared very little about Scientology, with its tiny 90-person Irish mission, beyond perhaps the Tom Cruise connection. Then, late last year, the church snapped up the Firhouse Centre, a giant complex in south Dublin. Scores of volunteers were shipped in to run the operation. Controversy after controversy followed.

The mere use of the word ‘community’ has been a lightning rod for many. But the Scientologists are indeed attempting to become part of the area. Upcoming events at the Church of Scientology and Community Centre at Firhouse include a St Patrick’s family day, with free face-painting, a bouncy castle, circus walkabouts and arts and crafts. Then there are the weekly free mother and toddler coffee mornings. A free Winter Wonderland, complete with Santa and live reindeer, was well attended over Christmas.

The church has applied for planning permission for a playground, and a multi-use playing pitch is being made available to community sports teams. Its state-of-the-art auditorium and meeting rooms are also available gratis for non-profit events. When I visit, members of Dublin’s Punjabi community are preparing a concert.

But, far from endearing itself to the local community through these free amenities (which are admittedly popular with cash-strapped parents) the church has instead been a focus of unremitting complaints.

These events, claim some locals, are sinister attempts to lure people into engaging with a so-called cult.

Then there is the courting of local and national politicians and the distribution by volunteers to schools and communities of ‘human rights’ or anti-drug literature. The literature doesn’t reference that it comes from Scientology at all, and the lack of transparency has been seen as suspect.

Roisin Burke SBP 3

Senior Scientologist Diana Stahl rejects all this. Following months of requests, she agrees to meet me and promises to answer every question I ask. Finally, I’m getting inside one of the most secretive organisations in the world.

On my way to Firhouse to meet Stahl, I have a a conversation with the taxi driver regarding what we have both heard about this place.

The driver’s mother had a baby taken from her and sold to an American couple by the Catholic Church when she was very young, he tells me. His point is that while Scientology is considered controversial, the older, more traditional religions have also been involved in questionable behaviour in their day.

“But some might argue that the Catholic Church didn’t seek money quite so much,” I suggest, given that one of the most frequent criticisms levelled against Scientology is thatitisa money-making racket rather than a religion.

That American couple would have paid quite a lot for their baby,” he replies.

At this big new hub in Firhouse, you can ‘go clear’ – ie, achieve the very desirable higher spiritual state of being that Scientologists strive for – at a price, of course. It is one of the few places outside the US, besides its British headquarters in Saint Hill Manor in East Grinstead, West Sussex, where you can join the church’s mission to “clear the planet.” Going clear can costs tens of thousands, according to some former Scientologists.

I am warmly greeted by Stahl, who has been here since the Firhouse centre opened with much fanfare from Scientologists and a visit from the church’s charismatic head David Miscavige. There were, of course, protests at its gates that day.

Stahl is tiny, with sleek dark hair and dark eyes. She wears expensive-looking crystal jewellery with her required senior Scientology executive uniform – a black suit with a gold tie and gold accents. (Lesser Scientology personnel wear a simple black top and trousers, but the higher-ups wear this jazzy suit.)

The organisation has, until recently, avoided courting publicity. But something is changing, as is evident from the recent decision to capitalise on the oft-asked “What is Scientology?” question by placing a TV ad during the Super Bowl last week, based around that single sentence.

Stahl takes me around the vast information centre on the ground floor of the Firhouse complex. The building was originally developed by another organisation, the Victory Fellowship, and then bought by the Church of Scientology from a vulture fund.

There are hundreds and hundreds of videos on interactive screens, and a similar number of books and magazines about Scientology. “I’ve never seen anything in Scientology about aliens, I must say,” Stahl laughs, referring to the fabled doctrine that disembodied beings from another galaxy occupy human host bodies here on earth.

We watch some short but slickly-produced information Videos – the church has its own state-of-the-art production studios on a five-acre lot near Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Soon, Stahl tells me, Scientology TV is launching and will broadcast 365 days a year.

We watch one detailing the life of L Ron Hubbard, a science fiction writer from a prosperous Nebraskan family who, in Scientology lore, was a lieutenant commander in the US Navy and a war hero. Aspects of this record are disputed, as is the claim that he cured himself of blindness and other ailments through the techniques that would become his new religion.

Hubbard borrowed from psychoanalysis, Buddhism and other religious philosophies and eventually came up with something called Dianetics, an early precursor of Scientology, in the 19505, the video says.

This 18 part of the genius of Scientology: it can, chameleon- like, blend in with your existing belief system. Stahl says that she has known even Catholic priests to use Scientology’s tenets, “The Way to Happiness.”

Much of the vast array of education materials are available as Gaeilge, after a team of 20 translators was hired to translate all of the works of Hubbard into Irish.

We then proceed downstairs where the real action happens at the Firhouse centre: the controversial purification ritual, the auditing, and the often expensive courses.

The walls of the plushly- carpeted corridors are covered with framed posters promoting courses with titles like Success through Communication, Personal Values and Integrity, Life Improvement Course, the Prosperity Course and so on.

In the study room, half a dozen people sit, tense and silent, working on their course work, all dressed in the black uniform of centre staff members. Everyone here appears to be in their 20s. Stahl says attendees are typically a mix of centre volunteers, who are mainly from overseas, and locals.

People also come to stay in Dublin to do modules of their Scientology education at Firhouse, with Ireland being a popular destination for that. One man appears absorbed in making models of lumpy clay figures; Stahl explains that this is a way of working out problems through a practical medium.

On each desk are glass bowls containing clear coloured plastic shapes, elastic bands, and bits of cork for the same purpose. “When students study, they get bored. Using these tools is a practical way to work out problems,” Stahl says.

The whole place is rather sumptuous as classrooms go: marble desktops, gold lettered signage and backlit Scientology mottos. Next door, there is a small room for special interactive courses such as the Personal Efficiency Course, which Hubbard developed during his time in Ireland. Stahl says that Hubbard, who lived on Dublin’s Merrion Square in 1956, worked with the shop workers, dockers and office clerks Of the city to develop the material that went into his book.

The famous e-meter auditing kit used in Scientology is not in evidence when I visit, but there is a small auditing room. There is also a chapel that can be hired by other religious groups for services or used for weddings.

We press on to by far the most interesting area, the Purification Centre. This is where devotees undergo the Purifor Purification Rundown, a sometimes days-long or even weeks-long programme of hours of saunas, exercise and megadoses of vitamins and minerals and other elixirs. It is frowned upon by conventional medicine.

It looks for all the world like a small, upmarket health club. Behind a counter are two unsmiling, burly men with close-cropped hair and white T-shirts. To the right is a tiled mural wall with a floor-to-ceiling image of the Cliffs of Moher and the Irish customised Scientology logo that has been specially emblazoned on it. There are three treadmills and an exercise bike in a comer and shelves piled with white towels.

There are also two large saunas inhabited by a handful of people kitted out in identical uniforms of pale blue shorts and white singlets, coming and going while carrying plastic water bottles and looking remarkably composed.

Even when standing right beside them, however, the saunas don’t radiate strong heat the way you might expect. Stahl says this is because the temperature is lower than in normal saunas, which might explain how people manage to tolerate using them for hours at a time.

In a comer is a large sign detailing a long list of vitamins and minerals. It includes calcium, magnesium and niacin with dosages written down that are treble and quadruple the mgs of what would normally be taken.

Drugs and toxins in the body may be preventing spiritual and’mental development, Stahl claims. Doing this ritual is part of the spiritual path of Scientology and necessary for “everyone who wishes to progress”, she says, while also emphasising that it is. “not a cure for medical conditions”. You eat normally during this process, she adds.

As with Scientology courses, children can undergo the purification ritual with parental consent if they are under 18 and it is medically approved, she says.

We head back upstairs, past the glass walled room that is apparently “L Ron Hubbard’s office.” Then we sit down for an exclusive interview on the church’s plans for Ireland, dealing with critics and more.

At this point, Stahl and I sit down for an interview. O’Byrne, the external public relations consultant, is present, but does not intervene or seek to shape any answer or deflect questions.

Stahl grew up in communist-era Bulgaria, and is married to a German fellow Scientologist She has been with the church for 16 years, ever since she discovered Scientology during her time at university in Munich, when she was looking for answers in life. For her, Scientology has delivered those in spades.

Róisín Burke (RB): Could you describe Scientology’s reason for being here on this scale now?

Diana Stahl (DS): Well, first of all, Ireland holds a special place in the history of Scientology, in the hearts and minds of Scientologists, as L Ron Hubbard was here in 1956. He thought very highly of the people of this country. He has written, you know he has several famous quotes you’ve probably seen: “If the weather is cold, the Irish heart is warm. The country and the people could not be improved upon.” It’s known probably by every Scientologist by now. It’s just a special place for us. Ireland is special Pretty much every major city in Europe by now has a church of this size, where we actually present all the information about Scientology people have the opportunity to come and see. There is an absolutes growing interest internationally, and the question “What is Scientology?” is literally the most asked question about Scientology internationally. So we did want to provide an opportunity for people to see, to come, to find out for themselves.

RB: Why Firhouse?

DS: The only reason is that that building was available, and it was absolutely suitable for our needs. It could have been in Dublin 4; it could have been in the North; it could have been the north of Dublin; it could have been anywhere. It provides the facility, the premises we need, including the community centre. That’s definitely an integral part of what we should be doing, providing the community with service. It was the perfect place for us.

RB: So it’s not the European headquarters of Scientology?

DS: No, I think it’s just that many European headquarters [of international companies] are situated in Dublin and that’s why people think it must be the European headquarters. It’s just a misunderstanding. [The Scientology EU headquarters is actually in Denmark]

RB: There’s Merrion Square, there’s Firhouse, and Ballivor in Co Meath is considered to be a separate entity, part of the Narconon organisation. Is that the extent of it? Or are there any other Scientology centres here in Dublin or outside Dublin?

DS: As far as Narconon is concerned, I just want to mention it is true that the church does support, and has always proudly supported, the Narconon programme. We have never denied that, it’s very clear on our site and definitely not a secret. It’s part of our humanitarian mission. However, Narconon is a completely secular programme. That is a drug-free drug rehabilitation. It is a separate topic in itself. So I’m not currently in a position to comment on any Narconon projects as such, right? But that’s that as far ”as Scientology is concerned. We have this and the National Affairs office.

RB: Are there plans for any further Scientology centres if they came up? Are there other properties that the church would be interested in acquiring here?

DS: Not right this moment, but absolutely, in the future, if there is interest in other parts of the country, we would be willing and interested to open other centres as well. We have had interest [from church members, of whom there has been an influx coming here to work at Firhouse] from literally all over the world in Ireland. When this project was announced at an international event in England, Ireland along with several other projects, Ireland got by far the loudest cheer.

RB: You’ll have heard, many times, the assertion that Scientology is expanding here and embracing the community in Ireland with a view to obtaining religious status or charitable status, so that you would have a special designated tax status. Is that true?

DS: Well, look, the Scientology churches all over the world are non-profit organisations. In a number of countries, we do have a charity status or the equivalent. It does help, as it gives us the possibility to do more. Our focus right now in Ireland is, first of all, definitely on a lot going on and it’s growing by the day. It is part of our beliefs and our practices that we should provide the community with what the community needs and wants. To tell you the truth, I don’t even know what is needed for that in Ireland right now, but in the future, why not? I don’t see any reason not to, but that is not the focus of our work right now.

RB: Do you generate revenue here, and to what level, from courses and so on?

DS: Yeah, we do. Every single local church supports itself by donations of parishioners. Parishioners can donate in exchange for the services, for the help they receive here, for the help they receive from us. They can also just donate towards the humanitarian campaigns and activities we have. They are free to donate towards maintenance and upkeep of the facility, as such. This is how the facility is being maintained. This is how everything is being run.

RB: Critics of the church’s activity in Ireland talk about your volunteers here. They will say that they’re working long hours for a tiny amount of money.

DS: It’s very simple. Everyone who works here is a religious volunteer. They’re free to come and go as they please. If somebody decides tomorrow they no longer want to be a volunteer, they’re free to do so. Every single person you see here as a volunteer is here because of their really personal conviction that they want to help people, that they want to expand the activities of this organisation, and that we do have the tools to actually help people. So motivation is a very, very, very important factor here. If somebody comes here to make money or just to have another job, this doesn’t work out. I do this because I really believe in what I do. Scientology has helped me change my life. It has helped me tremendously improve my relationships with my family. I know that I can help people with Scientology. I work more than 45 hours a week and I do that with absolute pleasure. And this is the concept with our volunteers: they’re here because they want to be here. What volunteers get in exchange is they do a lot of Scientology services, which are given to them, as opposed to… like, they don’t have to make a donation for Scientology services, as opposed to somebody who just comes in and does the… courses, spiritual counselling and so forth. Then they get their food subsidised in the cafe. They do get a subsistence allowance weekly, which allows them to cover necessities.

RB: You say they can come and go as they want. Can they speak as they want as well? I’ll tell you why I’m asking: a few weeks before this opportunity arose to come and talk to you, I tried to contact various members of the church for their perspective…

DS: And they all came to me!

RB: Is that normal?

DS: Look, they’re absolutely free to speak and if you wanted to speak to any of the people you contacted, you absolutely could. As I’m the official spokesperson of the church, they will always come to me and ask me: “Do you think I should do that?” They would always ask for advice. Not because they are not free to speak on their own, but because they would like to co-ordinate – Is that something I know about, did anybody tell me about it? – I think it’s normal in any organisation.

RB: That is one of the prevailing criticisms of the church since it has acquired more prominence here in the last year or so: the lack of transparency or secrecy.

DS: We’re ready to answer any questions, when people are genuinely interested in understanding what we’re doing and what’s happening. I’ve absolutely no problem  giving you a tour and showing you what’s happening in this building. Literally anyone who’s interested who wants to come up and find out is more than welcome to do so. There are seriously big glass windows, there’s no issue with transparency.

RB: There’s been a robust campaign of criticism regarding the Firhouse centre because it’s liaising with the community, and that has created all kinds of speculation around the reasons why and the motivations. So I want to ask you about some of the things that have been said or suggested. For example, the label “cult” has been put on what you do here. And it’s been suggested that engaging with the community is a sneaky way of trying to indoctrinate or lure people into the church. The planning applications for the pitches and the playground, the family days out: it’s been suggested by some people that all this has to do with bringing children in and, in turn, they’ll be indoctrinated into the church – that there’s a devious motive behind it.

DS: I have read and I have seen all those “accusations”. It’s very interesting to observe, because you can twist literally anything, any subject, any topic into how vicious and how bad it is. In a country where literally every day two people die from drugs, we’re trying to educate young people about the truth about drugs. How bad is that? How are we supposed to be indoctrinating these children? There are not even services being provided for children here. There used to be a creche here, and now there’s no possibility to provide one and we were asked [by locals] is there a possibility to have a playground here. Many of the families ask that. Some of the councillors mentioned that as well. You see, as I said before, we are very interested to find out what the community needs here, what is it that we can provide.

RB: But you don’t approach people, or solicit them to do courses?

DS: You know, a [local] councillor made a test: she came in twice, undercover, not informing us. Just to test would somebody actually approach her. She said that the first time there was a photo shoot going on and people almost shoved her aside, and the second time she waited ten minutes to get a coffee in the cafe. So she said, okay, that’s pretty normal. People from the local community, you know, have been more than happy, and many have come along to several of our events. You can come on Sundays or whenever we have our next family days and you can ask them if they have ever been approached by anyone here about Scientology, or made to read a book, or do a course or do anything. If they ask questions, we absolutely answer their questions.

RB: The anti-drugs literature doesn’t mention Scientology anywhere and, as you are aware, that has been criticised. Again, it comes back to that alleged lack of transparency.

DS: I think we’re doing this campaign for at least 30 or 40 years. If somebody still doesn’t know that the Foundation for a Drug-Free World is sponsored by the church, well… you know. If the church was mentioned specifically on the materials, that would be promotion for the church.

RB: Why not mention it?

DS: Why would we mention it? You see, the whole point is that these are materials that other organisations use as well. These are not our Scientology-branded materials and only we can use them. We’re not interested in promoting the church with these campaigns, you see what I mean? We’re interested in giving that information, about the truth about drugs or human rights or moral values in the hands of the people. Who gives it to them and how does it reach them, it doesn’t matter, you see. It’s normal for churches to do these types of activities. When Caritas [the Catholic organisation] goes somewhere, it doesn’t necessarily go with: “We are from the, Catholic Church” specifically-and expressly. No, it’s Caritas and it’s doing the work that it does.

RB: These are the sort of campaigns that require a lot of resources. What sort of income would you bring in in a year, say in Ireland from the Irish mission?

DS: It’s very difficult to say. I hadn’t worked for the Irish mission before we opened the centre here. We are very new. We’ve existed for a couple of months. It’s difficult to determine. It depends on donations we receive, events that take place. People a can make discretionary donations for maintenance and upkeep [when they to rent facilities at the centre]. They can donate €50, €5,000; renting a place like that costs several thousand euro. But that’s why we’re not interested in providing it for commercial purposes. We’re interested in providing it for charitable purposes for the community, and then anything they could do in terms of donation.

RB: Do you think you break even, or would there be support from the central office in the US?

DS: So far, we’ve been able to support our needs here in the last couple of months.

RB: The volunteers, some of them whom I’Ve engaged with, or at least former people, would assert that there would be long periods where they would not see their families. Is that a requirement?

DS: No, that’s nothing to do with anything. On the contrary, people are normally encouraged to be in contact with their families, especially if they are abroad. I left Bulgaria at 18 to study in Germany. My family have stayed in Bulgaria ever since. Probany since I started working for Scientology, I’ve been more often home than before.

RB: So, the bottom line – there’s no truth to the suggestion that people within the church are isolated from their families?

DS: Absolutely not. You see, the whole thing in Scientology is about communication – being in communication with your families, being in contact, listening to people, helping people – and obviously your immediate family are part of that.

RB: It’s been suggested that the purification ritual’s benefits are questionable. Do you want to respond?

DS: Oh, there are a number of studies by experts on the purification ritual, and not by people who just give their opinion about things.

RB: How much does it cost?

DS: It requires a donation of about €1,500. People can donate more if they want to, that’s not an issue.

RB: When I was researching this interview, one, of the things I saw were [highly personal and critical] biographies of Irish Scientology detractors that have been put up online on Is that a church-backed move? Or is that somebody on a solo mission there?

DS: Well, look, the reason that information was put online about these specific individuals is because I’ve been asked so often: who are they, what are they all about, why are they speaking out against Scientology?

The centre here is open for anyone who wants to know anything about Scientology. Anyone can come in. They can talk to all the volunteers that are around. There are people that are here to help them to understand, answer their questions.

RB: There has been a claim by some anti-Scientology people I spoke to that they have been followed or harassed.

DS: That is a very interesting construct, because our volunteers have been followed and harassed and tracked on Facebook literally and their friends have been called.

RB: Getting back, then, to the charity work that is central to what you do. What charities have you worked with so far? I saw that you had been involved with helping with Christmas dinners for the homeless. Who else have you worked with here?

DS: We’ve worked with charities for the homeless, we have requests from charities if we could fundraise or sponsor different activities of theirs. Right now, you see, the February 13 Valentine’s concert is going to go to fund the Ten Foundations, a charity working with kids and mothers in the Philippines. They provide educational material and sewing machines for women without work.

RB: Have you worked with the Fr Peter McVerry service [which has a premises next door to the centre?

DS: Actually, not yet. We haven’t got round to everyone yet. But the people from there have been in having coffee here. And many of the neighbours have been.

RB: Do you receive any state funding for anything you do, or any of your projects?

DS: No. As I Said, donations to the church and then the centre were put here with the International Association of Scientologists, which itself is funded by support from generous Scientologists all over the world.

RB: Has your faith ever been challenged? Have you ever wavered, or have you always felt strong about your belief system?

DS: Yeah. I’ve been [challenged]. But, again, in Scientology there is a fundamental principle: “What is true for you is true for you.” And if something is not true for you, well then, you can take what you can think with and use it. So it has been a very interesting journey so far, and has led to Ireland, which is even more interesting.

Roisin Burke SBP43