State Accused of Supporting Sect

 
THE state government has been accused of sponsoring a Scientology recruiting ground by granting the group's controversial drug treatment arm long-term control of a historic property in the Yarra Ranges. Critics including former Scientologist Paul Schofield and independent South Australian senator Nick Xenophon have called on the government to review a Parks Victoria offer of a 21-year lease on O'Shannassy Lodge to Narconon, a group closely linked to Scientology.
 
''The point of Narconon is to get vulnerable people signed up to Scientology and to push money up to Scientology management,'' said Mr Schofield, a former Narconon executive and ordained minister of Scientology. ''Why is the Brumby government sponsoring a Scientology recruitment group aimed at vulnerable people?''
 
In 2008 The Age revealed that a drug treatment program based on the teachings of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard had operated a secretive and secluded rehabilitation centre at the publicly owned lodge east of Warburton. The lodge, which sits behind a locked gate at the end of a five-kilometre bush track, is one of hundreds of properties managed by Parks Victoria but leased to companies and community groups in a bid to offload maintenance costs.
 
With the lapse of the old lease, the property was put out to public tender. Narconon won that tender and is now finalising negotiations over the 21-year lease. Parks Victoria has defended the decision, noting that only two bids were received for the property, neither proposing a public use.
 
Only the Narconon bid provided reasonable rental income and sufficient investment to maintain the buildings. ''As long as an organisation is operating within the law, we don't discriminate on the basis of their belief, nor do we endorse any particular set of beliefs,'' Parks Victoria commercial manager Andrew Minack said. Narconon's ''New Life'' detoxification and rehabilitation program is contentious in drug rehab circles with its emphasis on long sauna sessions and heavy use of vitamins.
 
Last week Senator Xenophon questioned the state's lease to Narconon. ''It's very important that this not be used as a stalking horse to recruit people to the Church of Scientology. After all, this is a state asset we're talking about,'' he said. Senator Xenophon called for Narconon's books to be opened to the government and an assessment made of its effectiveness as a drug rehabilitation program.
 
Senior Narconon figure and practising Scientologist John Sullivan confirmed that the drug treatment program adhered strictly to standards set by the Association of Better Living and Education - an international Scientology offshoot. Mr. Sullivan defended the program and denied that Narconon sought to convert its students to Scientology. ''We're not here to recruit.'' he said. ''We're here to deliver the program and to get people off drugs. And that's our prime motivation.''
 
Paul Schofield, who left Narconon and Scientology in 2008 after decades devoted to the sect, said families of drug users booked into Narconon paid as much as $25,000 (plus room and board) for a program that was ''99 per cent Scientology''. ''By the time they've finished the program they're often indoctrinated into Scientology and they don't even know it.''