Scientology rehab centres ‘dangerous and inhumane’, says former member who escaped to Ireland

‘They haven’t gone away, you know,” says John Duignan, a former Scientologist, who left the controversial religion in 2006 and hasn’t looked back since, metaphorically at least.

Scientology rehab centres ‘dangerous and inhumane’, says former member who escaped to Ireland
The controversial Church of Scientology’s rehab facilities are, like the religion itself, divisive.


Ali Bracken reports ‘They haven’t gone away, you know,” says John Duignan, a former Scientologist, who left the controversial religion in 2006 and hasn’t looked back since, metaphorically at least.

The night John fled the Church of Scientology, he was chased through a train station in Birmingham by scientologists tracking him. He evaded them and got a flight back to Ireland, to begin his life anew, having spent the previous 21 years dedicated to the church. For some time, though, he felt as though he was looking over his shoulder. Scientologists visited various family members’ homes, enquiring of his whereabouts.

Now based in Midleton, Co Cork, John says he is finally “content within myself”. But he is deeply concerned about the proposed opening of a €6m drug rehab centre in rural Co Meath, run by Narconon Trust, a branch of the church to which he was once utterly committed.
On October 9, Narconon Trust v An Bord Pleanála will come before the High Court yet again. An Bord Pleanála is trying to halt the opening of the facility, in what has become a long-running legal saga now destined for the Supreme Court.

Narconon Trust purchased a property in Ballivor after Meath County Council agreed, in 2016, that planning permission was not required for a change of use from a nursing home to a residential rehab facility. Narconon developed the site, a former primary school, into a drug rehab centre.

In 2018, when construction work on the building was nearly complete, An Bord Pleanála made a contradictory declaration. Complicated legal wrangling ensued. Finally, in January of this year, Narconon Trust was given the go-ahead to open its contentious facility. Then, in a last-ditch attempt to stop it, An Bord Pleanála was given permission on July 31 to bring an appeal regarding Section 5 Planning Declarations to the Supreme Court.

The Church of Scientology’s rehab centres are, like the religion itself, divisive. Narconon does not believe in weaning addicts off drugs; instead, participants go cold turkey. Its drug detoxification programme uses high doses of vitamins, coupled with long periods in dry saunas, which it says flushes toxins out of drug users’ bodies.

“Narconon’s rehab centres are dangerous and inhumane places,” says John, who did not directly work for Narconon but did interact on a regular basis with personnel from the Scientology-run rehabs and had knowledge of how its operations worked.

Narconon dispute this view of its facilities, and in a statement released to the Sunday Independent it claims to have helped “thousands of people” stating: “Thousands of people from many ethnic and religious backgrounds have gone through the Narconon programme reporting that it has helped them get off drugs and alcohol, stay drug-free, rebuild their lives and reunite with their families”.

Dr Garrett McGovern, a specialist in addiction medicine who runs the Priority Medical Clinic in Dundrum, south Dublin, says he has “concerns” over patients suffering from withdrawals not receiving appropriate medical interventions at Narconon-run facilities. “Scientology is Scientology and that’s fine. But their treatment does not have any evidence behind it if it is the case that they are being treated with vitamins and saunas to flush the toxins out. It’s potentially very dangerous.”

A Narconon-run rehab stint also doesn’t come cheap. It will cost a minimum of €30,000 per patient at the facility in Ballivor, should it become operational.

“Oh, €30,000 would be the minimum cost here for a person to attend their rehab. But it will mainly be people flown in from overseas,” says Duignan. “As well as these rehabs making a lot of money for the church, its so-called counselling takes the form of intense Scientology introductory courses. There is a very high chance that after being at one of their Narconon centres, you will end up working for the church. They are recruitment centres really.”

The proposed Ballivor site would be the first Narconon facility in Ireland, though the Church of Scientology already has a community centre in Dublin’s Firhouse, as well as headquarters in Merrion Square. Local opposition in Ballivor has been vocal and shows no sign of abating.

“The reason we are opposed to this is not because it is a drugs rehab centre,” says Claire O’Mara, of the ‘Ballivor Says No’ action group. “It is the way they treat the people. They won’t even give someone going through severe withdrawal a paracetamol. Complete cold turkey for addicts is dangerous. And what if some of these people, in a bad way because of the type of rehab, walk out or jump out a window to escape? That’s not me being dramatic. The rehab centre is beside a playground and a pre-school. Ballivor is one long street really and this centre is in the middle of it. The community are scared.”

Directly next door is Ballivor community centre. “The local scout group have already taken the decision that they can’t have the children out in the grounds if Narconon opens. They haven’t frosted the windows and it’s not OK for the children to be able to see in if there are going to be people going through severe withdrawals.”

Narconon facilities have been the subject of several wrongful death lawsuits in the US. In one case in 2013, Narconon of Georgia settled a wrongful death lawsuit taken by the family of a former patient who died of a drug overdose while receiving court-ordered drug treatment that cost the patient’s parents $30,000.

There were four deaths in three years at one facility in Oklahoma alone, although these have not been linked specifically to the treatment administered during the programme. “We don’t want Ballivor to be known as the little village in Co Meath where people died in a controversial drugs facility,” adds Ms O’Mara. “We want it to be known for positive things like the successes of our GAA clubs. We won’t stop opposing it. Our voices must be heard. We want people overseas to think twice before they send their loved ones to a facility like this in Ireland. Because they might not see them ever again. They could lose them to Scientology. Or lose them altogether.”

A spokesman for Narconon Trust in Ireland said its “sole purpose” is to help people free themselves from addiction. It pointed to an HSE report in March, which found that 365 more beds were needed to deal with the demand for residential alcohol and drug rehabilitation. “Since then, with social distancing measures, the number of existing beds has been reduced even further, with some facilities having to take up to two-thirds of their beds offline,” a spokesman told the Sunday Independent.

“The drug and alcohol crisis has worsened significantly during the pandemic. Narconon’s facility in Ballivor can offer up to 28 additional beds. While the facility can accommodate people from anywhere, it was built with the intention of helping Ireland to deal with the drug and alcohol crisis.”

While the HSE may well need additional facilities for people struggling with addiction, a private Scientology rehab is not the answer, insists Aontú leader and Meath TD Peadar Tóibín. A major issue for the local TD is that this proposed drug facility is not governed by the HSE at all, or HIQA inspections.

“HIQA do not visit these types of institutions and the HSE claim that they have no duty of care to the patients,” says deputy Tóibín. “This is absolutely wrong.” He has outlined his concerns to the Minister for Drugs, Frank Feighan. “Evidence of efficacy, minimum standards and site visits to ensure safe keeping of patients may make the Church of Scientology business infeasible. It may prevent it from functioning in the future.

“That planning permission was approved for this by Meath County Council was a serious mistake given that the building was supposed to be a nursing home. We await the court’s decision on that process and hope that the needs and rights of both the patients and local residents of Ballivor are protected.”

John Duignan is loath to say it, but he believes the facility will eventually open its doors in Ballivor. “I think they will win in court, unfortunately,” he says. This opinion is based on more than two decades of direct experience with Scientology. He joined the church aged 22 following a chance encounter on the streets of Stuttgart, Germany.

By his own admission, John was a damaged young man when Scientology entered his life. Both of his parents died tragically in the UK when he was just 10 and he was sent to live with his aunt and her family in Carrigaline, Co Cork.

Though his relatives were supportive and caring, he struggled throughout his life with the sudden loss of his parents and being separated from his brothers and sisters, who were sent to live with other family members.

“My parents died six months apart. You never get over it. I was left scarred for life. My aunt and uncle were great but I always felt I wasn’t one of their own kids. Spiritually speaking, I was searching for that family unit when I encountered Scientology as a young man. They saw that vulnerability in me and used it.”

Within a few months, he was deeply entrenched in the church. “I was a penniless vagabond really. I didn’t have the money for their courses, so I was assigned to join their staff as a volunteer, then recruited by the Sea Organisation, which is its militant religious wing really. I was shipped out to California within three months. They saw in me an utter gullibility.

“I then gave them 21 years of my life, before I finally woke up and left in 2006. There was a very gradual progression of realisation to get to that point before I left.”

During his 21 years as a Scientologist, John rose to the position of “commanding officer”. In this senior managerial role, he was involved in activities from computer coding and overseeing local churches, to finance and marketing campaigns, worldwide.

But it was when he was posted in Birmingham, involved in a marketing campaign, that his niggling doubts over L Ron Hubbard’s teachings took over. He had more freedom in Birmingham and was assigned to work with community and business groups, giving him exposure to lots of non-Scientologists. He then began scouring ex-Scientology message boards.

“I found people online who I used to work with and knew well, who had simply disappeared. I had a moment of realisation: ‘Oh my god, I’m in a cult.’ I had to plan to walk away, and I did. I had a midnight flit back to Ireland.

“The transition wasn’t easy. But I’ve lived a lifetime in the 16 years since I left Scientology behind.”

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