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An unusual summons was lodged in the high court in Johannesburg in May. A high-profile business couple were suing their church for R5.8-million, or R16‑million with interest, over a loan that they claim has not been repaid.
The church was a local branch of the Scientology religion, and the couple were wealthy South African property developers and former committed church members Ernest and Gaye Corbett.
Their excommunication late last year has enabled them to break one of the many purported rules of Scientology: they took legal action against the church.
In documents that are now in the public domain, with more to follow, the lid is coming off the church in South Africa after decades of alleged secretive dealings involving huge sums of money and harsh policies that some say have ruined families.
The Corbetts are two of apparently dozens of senior members of the church who were expelled late last year and early this year, in what many say has been one of the largest purges of the church in South Africa.
The Mail & Guardian spoke to nine disgruntled former members of the church who say many others have been excommunicated, all for the same reasons: they googled their church.
Scientologists are forbidden from looking their faith up on the internet, to shield them from damaging allegations, several former members claimed. The church did not respond to questions about whether members are forbidden from looking up the religion on the internet.
But the rumours about the church that were filtering down from the United States were too troubling to ignore: alleged physical abuse and torture at the hands of senior leaders, alleged financial misuse and other scandals that have rocked the church internationally.
Most of those the M&G spoke to said they were excommunicated after they had raised their concerns about these allegations. All live in the Johannesburg area.
“They cut you off so you can’t spread that information to anyone else inside the church,” said one former member who preferred to remain anonymous. The church itself would not respond to questions on why certain members had been excommunicated.
The M&G also spoke to a number of members still in the church, some of whom hinted that those in the ousted group were covering up “harmful acts” — but they would not be drawn on what these may be.
The alleged purge has now freed up dozens of former members to take on the church.
The Corbetts’s daughter, Lisa Goosen, is taking the church to court after she paid more than R2-million for courses for herself and her husband that were meant to take them to the top of the church’s hierarchical spiritual ladder. But the pair were excommunicated, along with most of their family, before they could do the courses and say they are unable to get their money back.
Two other former members, who also asked to remain anonymous, told the M&G they would be taking legal action against the church to reclaim donations, which one claimed was close to R1-million.
One of the litigants also wants to take the church to task over its alleged policy of “disconnection”, which forbids church members from associating with someone who has been excommunicated or declared a “suppressive person”, as it is phrased in the religion. Four people the M&G spoke to said they had suffered financially because of being disconnected, either through threats to their livelihood from those in the church or by losing clients who are forced to avoid them because of the policy.
The Corbetts’s court case, which is expected to be heard next year, will enable their lawyers to dig into the local Church of Scientology’s finances by looking at its books dating back to 2007, when the loan was made.
An investigation into the church’s finances may reveal how much of its donations and income allegedly gets filtered up to the international head of the organisation, the slick David Miscavige, who lives a lavish lifestyle as is widely reported, while thousands of the church’s employees, including those in South Africa, are said to earn a pittance.
Gaetane Asselin, a senior church member who arrived from one of the church’s main bases in California late last year when the alleged purges began, spoke to the M&G on the church’s behalf. The members of the ousted group say Asselin is part of an international team that was dispatched to patch up the instability in South Africa following the uncomfortable questions posed by former members.
Asselin would not comment on matters currently before the court. She dismissed the allegations by former members, noting that the claims by apostates of any religion are not reliable.
The international church has previously denied the claims of abuse and financial misuse.