Reporter loses his temper when spokesman for the group just won't stop speaking. But these days, Scientology is hardly the worst offender among religions (or would-be religions). They all need to be more transparent and financially accountable.
BBC reporter John Sweeney had the cameras turned on him as he attempted an investigative report on Scientology. During a visit to the organization's exhibition Psychiatry: Industry of Death in Los Angeles, Mr. Sweeney is seen shouting at the top of his lungs at Scientology spokesman Tommy Davis, who persisted in questioning Mr. Sweeney about an earlier interview. The organization, which had its own cameramen present wherever possible, has posted its own version of the clip and links to its counter-investigation on YouTube.
There are many Churches of Scientology registered with the IRS since its 1993 ruling recognizing Scientology as a church—and as church entities none of them have Form 990s. Among them are the Church of Spiritual Technology, Los Angeles (EIN 95-3781769) which was involved in the original ruling, Church of Scientoltogy Flag Service Organization, Clearwater, Florida (EIN 59-2143308), and Church of Scientology Flag Ship Service Organization, Clearwater, Florida (EIN 98-0133545).
In the UK, as in the US, the status of Scientology has been determined by the taxing authorities. The Charities Commission in the UK rejected its application as a charity in 1999, but it subsequently achieved exemption from VAT as a not-for-profit organization by Revenue & Customs in 2000. According to this story from last year in the Telegraph UK (Harry Wallop), Scientology turned around and sued for all of its VAT since its arrival in the UK in 1977, so far successfully. This article also reports that Church of Scientology Religious Education Inc. had annual income in the UK of £9.82m (about $19 million).
Scientology owes its success to the fact that the US governments (federal and state) bestow extraordinary benefits with minimal accountability to organizations classified as churches, but then allow organizations to achieve that status with nothing more than an administrative ruling from a taxing authority. They post a guard with a can of mace to protect a vault full of gold.
The UK has set a higher bar by having a Charities Commission specifically to consider the public benefit of all charities. What the UK case shows is that the taxing authority will tend to be more of a pushover than an expert body. What the Charities Commission denies, the taxing authority grants.
In the twenty-first century, the dangers of unaccountable religious organizations have become manifest, and they go far beyond the quaint twentieth-century accusations of mind control and personal gain still leveled against alleged cults. What we have found over the last decade is that even long established mainstream religions, when they are exempted from all oversight, are subject to far more serious risks of:
- exposing children to sexual abuse and
- exposing the public at large from funding for terrorist activities.
These concerns should be enough to prompt a rethinking of access to religious status and the complete lack of accountability for such organizations. Some simple suggestions for the US:
- Administrative grants of religious status (that is, by the IRS) should be limited to groups aligned with an existing denomination.
- Groups not aligned with existing denominations should be required to obtain a ruling on their status from the courts, not the IRS.
- Religious groups should have the same financial disclosure requirements of other comparably sized charitable organization.
None of these reforms would hamper the free exercise of religion in the US. Financial disclosure requirements have not deterred hundreds of thousands of charities in the US, and they would not deter serious churches. What they would deter is diversion of these organizations' resources to improper purposes, and—just as a by-product—might also expose personal gain by the leadership of these organizations.