Amid Controversy, Scientologists Tout Haitian Relief Efforts

As new allegations against the Church of Scientology pose additional threats to the religion's beleaguered public image, Scientologists are relying on their volunteer missions in Haiti to generate good will.

Recent statements by former Scientologists Chris and Christie Collbran shed new light on the religion’s controversial and highly secretive internal practices. In an effort to boost its public image, Scientology is countering with what appears to be a persistent PR campaign that leans heavily on its maligned volunteer efforts in Haiti.

The campaign is a stark contrast to claims by the Collbrans that the church committed egregious acts of inhumanity against them and fellow staffers, ranging from exploitation of child labor to physical abuse. Published in the New York Times, the Scientology defectors’ stories have given the public a rare glimpse of the church’s inner workings.

After being forced to sign billion-year contracts, work long hours for little or no pay, and invest thousands of dollars in Scientology classes and counseling sessions, the couple left the church when their doubts about its ethical values became too overwhelming to ignore.

With breaking headlines such as “Actress says Haiti Changed her Life,” “Scientology Volunteer Says ‘It’s Not Over in Haiti’,” and “Volunteer Firefighter and EMT Brought his Skill and Compassion to Haiti,” the official Web site of Scientology paints a rosy picture of the the religion's humanitarian side.

The church’s self-propelled press efforts also contradict reports by health care professionals and media entities that accused Scientology volunteers of delivering fake medical treatments to devastated Haitians.

After the earthquake, troops of Scientologists in yellow T-shirts joined the ranks of surgeons, physicians, pharmacists, and other rescue workers who responded quickly to the island’s desperate need for medical aid. Questions were immediately raised regarding the legitimacy of the assistance provided by the Scientology ministers, who reportedly cruised the rubble offering “healing touches” to victims suffering from life-threatening injuries and complications.

The therapy in question, called “touch assist,” operates on the theory that shock from injury results in a blockage of energy in the body. Targeted touching, Scientologists believe, can release this energy and promote healing.

“I didn’t know touching could heal gangrene,” mused a doctor quoted in an article by the

Independent. An additional report by a blogger at Gawker, whose source was a doctor aboard one of the Scientology planes deployed to Haiti, said some of the volunteers lacked even the most basic supplies, including food, water, and appropriate footwear.

When asked by reporters, Scientology spokespersons insist the mission was genuine, however. A stream of glowing headlines, Twitter updates, and blog posts continues to issue forth from the group’s online press center, many of them highlighting the presence in Haiti of Scientologists who are also registered nurses, licensed doctors, and EMTs.

A video posted Monday on the Volunteer Ministers’ official blog features testimonies from medical professionals regarding the church’s involvement in rescue efforts. John Macdonald, MD, of the University of Miami School of Medicine, expressed deep gratitude for the corps members’ unflagging willingness to help.

“All of the sudden you guys appeared in your yellow shirts,” said Macdonald, “and every time we turned around, you were there to do something for us. You didn’t say ‘Here’s what we want to do,’ you said ‘What can we do?’”

According to the post, more than 100 Scientologists are still volunteering in Haiti, “arranging logistics and supplies while helping to build shelters and improving living conditions.” Whether these efforts include the Scientology’s unconventional approach to medical care, the blog’s author fails to specify.

For other articles in this issue, see:

Risk of Overdose Rising for Rx Painkillers

Mail-Order Prescriptions Marginalize Pharmacists

House Democrats Push for Medicare Part D Price Controls