CANBERRA - The Church of Scientology is under renewed attack in Australia following allegations that it is a "criminal organisation" involved in such activities as blackmail, embezzlement, violence and false imprisonment.
The allegations were made under parliamentary privilege during an impassioned call by Independent Senator Nick Xenophon for police and Senate inquiries into the organisation.
Xenophon also questioned the tax exemption granted Scientology in 1983 High Court Hearing in which the Full Bench confirmed the church's status as a religion.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said yesterday that many Australians, himself included, held real concerns about Scientology but was cautious about further action.
"Let us proceed carefully and look carefully at the material he has provided before we make a decision on further parliamentary action," he said.
The church has denied the allegations and described Xenophon's statement to the Senate as an "outrageous abuse" of parliamentary privilege that violated freedom of speech and the right to religious beliefs.
It also said Xenophon had declined to discuss his concerns and had not responded to letters from the Church, and none of the former members named in the allegations had raised their claims with it.
Scientology, founded in 1953 by the late science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard, has been controversial in Australia for decades.
The church was banned in Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia until 1973, when it was recognised as a religion by Gough Whitlam's Labor Government.
Xenophon's allegations were based on letters from, and meetings with, former members, and his own research that included a fraud conviction in France, further charges in Belgium, and allegations by former church executives in the United States of assault, blackmail, assault and obstruction of justice.
"What we are seeing is a worldwide pattern of abuse and criminality," he said.
"Scientology is not a religious organisation - it is a criminal organisation that hides behind its so-called religious beliefs."
He said letters from former members, some of whom claimed to have been coerced into crime, alleged "truly shocking" allegations of false imprisonment, coerced abortions, embezzlement of church funds, physical violence, intimidation and the widespread and deliberate abuse of information obtained by the church.
A former member born into the church, Aaron Saxton, claimed the church exercised frightening levels of control over its followers.
Saxton said he had been subjected at least 10 times to punishment diets of beans and rice for up to two weeks at a time, and because of the Church's ban on medications and medical attention had been forced to extract his own teeth without painkillers.
Later, as a church security guard, he had forced followers to cut off all outside contacts, had illegally confined and tortured one member, and had used confidential information gathered by the church for blackmail and to discredit former members.
In Florida, he had been involved in taking money from church accounts to provide private services for executives, falsified bank records and sent more than 30 people into hard labour at church work camps.
Another former member, Carmel Underwood, said she had been placed in a "disappearing programme" when she refused to have an abortion, had been assaulted by a church official, and had been forced into penury after being required to pay A$100,000 (NZ$120,000) for church publicity, texts and courses.
Paul Schofield said the church had covered up child abuse and had coerced him into covering up the facts of the deaths of his daughters Lauren, 14 months, and Kirsty, 2.
He said he had been pressured against requesting an inquest after Lauren had fallen to her death in the church's Sydney headquarters, and had later perjured himself at the direction of church executives to conceal the fact that Kirsty had been fed potassium chloride as part of a "purification" programme.
Xenophon's allegations were described by the church as a propaganda campaign that would suit a totalitarian regime - not Australia.
The church said it had been accepted as a religion around the world and had prevailed when that status had been challenged.
The church sponsored an international human rights education initiative, and the world's largest non-governmental drug education programme.
"Senator Xenophon is obviously being pressured by disgruntled former members who use hate speech and distorted accounts of their experiences in the church," the statement said.
"They are about as reliable as former spouses are when talking about their ex-partners."By Greg Ansley Email Greg