Being In, Breaking Out

The Dunnings were attracted by Scientology's powerful influence in their lives, until it left no room for anything else.

The Buffalo News
January 31, 2005

News Staff Reporter

Second of four parts

Rich and Anne-Marie Dunning joined the Church of Scientology of Buffalo because they wanted to help save the world.

When they left their high-level church staff jobs on Mother's Day 2003, it was to save themselves.

By then, the Niagara Falls couple had concluded the church was an authoritarian, money-making cult that brainwashes its followers.

They say they ought to know, because it happened to them.

The Dunnings claim the church demanded unquestioning obedience to every church policy, belief and decision. They say it kept members in line with an elaborate security system - including use of personal files and lie detectorlike devices; a system for informing on others, including spouses; and its own justice system.

The church also nearly gained control of their 9-year-old daughter.

"You're told your outside life is causing you harm. Your whole life is supposed to revolve around Scientology and nothing else," said Rich Dunning, 31, who was on the local church's staff from October 2001 to May 2003. "Over time, you forget there is an outside world."

Dunning, who works as a science laboratory technician at Niabraze Corp. in the Town of Tonawanda, was deputy executive director of the church here. Anne-Marie Dunning worked for six months as an "ethics officer."

Today, the Dunnings have broken off all ties with Scientology - and they're trying to rebuild their lives.

Al Buttnor, the Church of Scientology's Canadian spokesman, claimed it isn't unusual for members of newer religions such as Scientology to abandon them, only to - in the words of Southern Methodist University religious professor Lonnie Kliever - "magnify small flaws into huge evils. They turn personal disappointments into malicious betrayals."

Beth Akiyama, a church spokeswoman from New York City, said the Dunnings did not properly understand Scientology.

"Their claims are completely false and are so distorted that it shows their lack of understanding of Scientology," Akiyama said.

Scientologists from the Buffalo church also dispute the Dunnings' claims.

They defend the church - which they say has about 500 local members - as a place where Western New York residents use the philosophic religion to seek enlightenment and self-improvement.

"The most common misperception is that we're a cult, that we're a closed, secret society," said Teresa Reger of East Aurora, the church's local president. "That's so funny because we're the most open group you'd ever want to see."

Change for the good

Buffalo Scientologists say the church has positively changed their lives.

"I was able to increase my own personal integrity to a point where I became very certain about myself," said Mary Ojeda, a former Buffalonian who now lives in Glens Falls and credits Scientology for helping her turn away from cocaine use. "I was able to have my feet planted firmly on the ground."

The church combats drugs through Drug-Free Marshals, which it founded to target youth, and a drug detoxification program developed by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

The Buffalo church works with the Scientology-created Citizens Commission on Human Rights to speak out against psychiatry.

And some members work with Scientology's volunteer ministers, who offer help at disasters such as the aftermath of 9/11 in New York City and the tsunami in the Indian Ocean.

The church also advances Hubbard's "study technology" to tackle illiteracy.

Hubbard's teachings are offered at the church and the Joy of Learning Center, a small, privately owned and Scientology-linked school that opened a year ago in the former Pierce-Arrow building on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo.

The Buffalo church's main patron is Joseph Sgroi of Sgroi Financial, a financial planning firm in West Seneca. The Williamsville resident gave more than $1 million toward the building's more than $2 million renovation in 2003 and an additional $470,000 to national and international Scientology projects.

Sgroi is a proponent of the church's social improvement programs, particularly its study of technology. But Scientologists' "study tech" has met resistance in Buffalo and elsewhere.

Tracy Diina, executive director of Literacy Volunteers of Buffalo & Erie County, said the church contacted her about using Hubbard's study program. She declined.

"My biggest concern is that their methodology is not sound educationally," Diina said. "They couldn't seem to point to educational principles that are employed."

Not a Christian faith

In the beginning, the Dunnings said, they were seduced by the church's warm embrace of new members.

They bought into its goals to "clear the planet" of mental illness and strife.

The church also appealed to Rich Dunning because he desired acceptance in a group. That quest had taken him from hanging around with racist skinheads in his teens - something he now regrets with "every fiber of my being" - to exploring religions.

Dunning, who had used psychedelic drugs years earlier, was also attracted to the church for its drug detoxification program.

The elements of Scientology that attracted the Dunnings form some of the church's main selling points.

Scientology promises to lead its members toward enlightenment, clear them of harmful substances and provide them an all-absorbing community of like-minded believers.

One thing Scientology does not do, however, is worship God, although it believes in a "Supreme Being." It is not a Christian religion, and it is not related to Christian Science.

That lack of a God-centered belief system has led to questions about whether Scientology is a religion.

Members insist that it is.

"The basic philosophic beliefs are religious," said Jeff Hahn, a certified financial planner from Williamsville. "The belief that man is a spiritual being and is basically good, that he can live his life at a higher level of spirituality and that his relationship with a supreme being is unique and personal and not up to the judgment of others."

But others dispute that. They said the church is a business, not a religion.

"I was raised a Catholic, and I always did believe in God. But you never read about anything (to do with God), ever, in Scientology," said Tory Christman, an ex-member who lives in California. "The truth is, Hubbard didn't believe in God, not really. The tech is the religion."

The selling spirit

Once at the Buffalo church, the Dunnings said they found the staff under constant pressure to rake in money. The focus, they said, was always on boosting the weekly "stats," which measure the church's performance in such areas as income and memberships.

The Dunnings said they were trained to persuade members to buy expensive courses and 121/2-hour blocks of spiritual counseling, or "auditing" time, at the downtown church on Main Street at Virginia Street, just north of the Theater District.

The building is an inviting, state-of-the-art facility, gleaming with polished wood, fresh paint and high-tech plasma screens.

The nearly two-story tall main floor includes a room with long desks for reading and studying Scientology texts. From a mezzanine level, members of the church's Correction Division inform staff below if they spot someone studying incorrectly.

The sanctuary is on the church's fourth floor, encircled by placards touting Hubbard's accomplishments. There is also an office furnished for Hubbard's use, as if his death 19 years ago never occurred.

Courses and auditing offered by Scientology quickly get pricey.

They start at a few dozen dollars and quickly accelerate, up to $12,000 and more for high-level courses or tens of thousands when purchased in packages.

It can cost more than $300,000 over a lifetime to climb the church's "Bridge to Total Freedom," confirmed Reger, the local president.

"It's no different from going to Harvard for four years," she said. "Not only do we attract upscale, successful people, but a lot of people come in who aren't yet but become that way because of Scientology."

But for the Dunnings, at least, selling people such expensive treatments felt wrong.

"It made me feel horrible to try to get people who didn't have much money to come up with funds they didn't have," Rich Dunning said. "The people wanted it, though, and you just had to find their button to want it even more."

A billion-year contract

The Dunnings' most chilling experience, they said, involved their daughter Alicia when she was 9.

In 2003, Alicia signed - and her mother co-signed - a contract that was to last one billion years (Scientologists believe in reincarnation) with the church's elite Sea Organization, a group of devoted followers. The "Sea Org," as it's called, has a militarylike command structure, and members wear mock naval uniforms. When she got a little older, Alicia would be turned over to the Sea Org to be raised and educated in New York City for a career in Scientology.

"I didn't look at it that she was going to be taken away," recalled Dunning. "This was an honor. She was going to be groomed for international management."

The contract was canceled when the Dunnings quit the church. Alicia is now 11, and her parents say they can't fathom how they almost allowed her to leave.

Rich Dunning shudders when he recalls the Sea Org official's departing words: "I'll be back for her when she's 13."

Beth Akiyama, a church spokeswoman in New York City, said the contract was voluntary.

"It's like when you become a nun, you pledge your eternity," Akiyama said.

The Dunnings said they were exposed to bizarre happenings during their year-and-a-half as Scientologists.

On the Saturday before Easter in 2003, the Dunnings were hastily summoned to an early evening staff meeting. It followed the tragic deaths, one month apart, of two upper-level members - Elli Perkins, who was killed by her son, and Marie Bolt, who died in a car accident.

The church believes spiritually advanced Scientologists aren't supposed to meet unfortunate fates, the Dunnings said, and it was feared a "suppressive person" must be in the ranks who was in some way responsible.

A suppressive person is someone from among the 20 percent of the population that Hubbard declared was predisposed against Scientology.

A Sea Org member from out of town was brought in to lead the meeting. The staff members were put into a room, the windows were drawn, and Executive Director Jeffrey Carlson - Perkins' son-in-law - stood at the door to prevent anyone from leaving, the Dunnings said.

In the end, no "suppressive" person was found.

Anne-Marie Dunning had planned to go Easter shopping for her children that night. She thought of not going to the meeting but feared being assigned a "condition of treason" for putting her own needs ahead of the church's. That would have meant confessing her moral transgressions in writing, she said, and undergoing a "security check" interrogation using a lie detector-type device called an E-Meter.

Deciding to leave

The Dunnings' parents tried to warn them against Scientology. They confronted them one night with material claiming the church was a dangerous cult.

But because Scientology teaches such information is harmful, the Dunnings decided to return it, unread, in a sealed envelope.

After Anne-Marie fell asleep, however, Rich took the papers out. What he read, he admitted to himself, rang true. But he didn't dare tell Anne-Marie, because she would have been required to turn in a "knowledge report" detailing his doubts to church authorities.

"I was afraid she would have turned me in," Rich said.

The next day, the Dunnings gave the envelope to Carlson, who asked if they had looked inside. Satisfied they hadn't, Rich Dunning said Carlson told him they would have to start to "handle or disconnect" from their families.

Carlson did not return phone calls from The News.

Buttnor, the church's Canadian spokesman, said advancing spiritually is only possible by not being encumbered by people opposed to the religion. Disconnection, he said, is a last resort.

"In Scientology, we're about reason. We're about understanding. We're about love," Buttnor said. "If someone in your family has a disagreement, you should be able to deal with that."

The Dunnings began to lessen contact with their parents, until they slowly began to open up with each other about their unhappiness with the church.

Rich Dunning said the grind of working for the church was taking a physical and mental toll.

"You're there a lot, you're constantly barraged with orders, and sleep deprivation sets in until you get like a zombie," Dunning said.

An important catalyst for leaving, he said, was getting on the Internet and reading about former members' experiences that resembled his own.

For Anne-Marie Dunning, it was a moment of clarity in May 2003 that put her at peace.

"When I made the decision to leave," she said, "all I could think about was, "Oh my God, I'm going to be labeled a suppressive person.' I said that to my mom. What am I going to do?

"She looked at me straight in the eye and said, "What does that mean in the real world?'"

Derek Gee/Buffalo News
Former Church of Scientology staff members Rich and Anne-Marie Dunning sit in the living room of their Niagara Falls home with their daughters Keira, 7, left, and Alicia, 11. The Dunnings initially were attracted by the church's warmth toward new members and its anti-drug programs.

Derek Gee/Buffalo News
Former Church of Scientology members Rich and Anne-Marie Dunning share a snack with their daughters, Keira, center, and Alicia, who signed a billion-year contract to join an elite Scientology group.

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Last modified: Wed Feb 2 22:42:32 EST 2005