Scientology DVDs in schools

By Matt Nippert

A scientologist doctor, who gave evidence on the suicide of a church member she treated, is promoting a controversial educational resource in New Zealand schools.

Dr Helen Smith gave evidence this year to a coroner's inquiry after the death of David Sampson in December 2008. Sampson had won $651,000 in Lotto's first division in 1991, but battled with alcohol abuse and depression.

A friend of Sampson was upset at the church's policy against psychiatric help: "He was suffering from depression, but he wasn't seeing a psychiatrist because they're against that."

Smith, who treated Sampson on two occasions, confirmed she did not offer to refer him to a psychiatrist.

"I definitely recommended he get some counselling, some extra help and get sorted out. But I know, from his own ideas, he wouldn't have wanted to see a psychiatrist anyway, because he didn't want to take medication for pretty much anything."

She last spoke to him the day before his death, to refer him to an ear, nose and throat specialist for sinus problems, but said his death came "out of the blue".

The coroner was satisfied the death was self-inflicted, and a full inquest was not held. Smith's actions were not criticised in any respect by the coroner, and the Church of Scientology's opposition to psychiatry was not mentioned in the findings.

A Herald on Sunday investigation into the group has looked into two other suicides of church members. Aucklander Paul Cooper's grieving mother burnt a photo of church founder L Ron Hubbard, which she found among his possessions. And Aaron Saxton, the son of another Auckland church member who killed himself, afterwards worked in a nautically themed Scientology organisation in Australia. Saxton's allegations about behind-the-scenes church activities caused an uproar after they were quoted in the Australian Senate this month.

Church of Scientology New Zealand secretary Mike Ferriss denied any link between the church and suicide: "In fact religions in general are noted to have far fewer suicides than the rest of society at large. So it is with us."

Youth for Human Rights, a church-backed education group, has been distributing a DVD and booklet about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights since 2006.

The DVD cover features a quote from Hubbard, and a booklet inside offers quotes from "famous human rights leaders" including Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

The Education Minister of New South Wales has advised schools in the Australian state not to use or distribute the DVD.

But Smith, the New Zealand organiser for Youth for Human Rights, said the resource enabled teachers to "show the kids how human rights work, which is pretty cool".

Education Minister Anne Tolley said no concerns had been brought to her attention: "If parents have any concerns they should contact their school's board of trustees."

Ferriss claimed the DVD was "endorsed" by the Human Rights Commission - but information about the DVD was this week pulled from the commission's website after inquiries from the Herald on Sunday.

Gilbert Wong, spokesperson for the Human Rights Commission, said while Youth for Human Rights took part in a commission programme in 2006, this was historic and did not amount to an endorsement.

Northcross Intermediate school in Browns Bay is using the DVD as part of class discussions. Principal Jonathan Treday described his school as "progressive" and open-minded, and he had no problems with where the material came from.

"If someone like Tom Cruise wanted to come and talk about Scientology, saying 'This is who we are, make up your own mind,' he's welcome."

Treday added any controversy over such a visit would possibly have positive spin-offs: "We might get a few more enrolments, with a few more mothers coming to class."

Saxton, the former Scientologist whose allegations formed part of a blistering attack in the Australian Senate, said he suspected the DVD was an attempt to recruit new members - a claim denied by Smith.

matt.nippert@hos.co.nz

- Herald on Sunday

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