Scientology Won’t Set Me Free

In the mid-1980s, journalist Joel Sappell and a colleague began a five-year examination of the Church of Scientology that would ultimately produce a 24-article series. It would also change Sappell’s life in ways both mystifying  and unnerving. Decades later the onetime investigative reporter investigates what happened to him

Rathbun is pacing in his living room, taking drags off an electronic cigarette. He’s got a bad back and needs to keep moving, which means I’m mostly looking up at him from his couch. He might as well be on that dais. Monique—a dark-haired woman with a soft voice and watchful eyes—sits close by, perched at a small table near their front window, quietly tapping away on a laptop. The “catbird seat,” they call it. I get the feeling she’s listening as a witness.

As our interviews stretch over hours, I strug-gle to control the conversation. It’s not just Miscavige’s alleged wrongs or the future of the church that Rathbun is hell-bent on discussing. In wandering monologues he swings between riffs on the secret to B.B. King’s creative longevity to the genius of Ronald Reagan’s PR advisers to the “dictatorial evolution” of Hubbard in the 1960s. I’m not sure whether he’s using his old Scientology tricks to dominate our communication, but this long-awaited sit-down soon begins to remind me of my last meeting with church executives.

Yet slowly I make progress. I recount the saga of our hostile interviews with the church, and Rathbun nods, as though he still appreciates a job well done by the old team. “The whole idea was to make you feel small—intimidated—and to back you off,” he says. Videotapes of our interview sessions, he says, were promptly delivered to Miscavige, who micromanaged the church’s response to our every inquiry. “He got off on seeing how uncomfortable you [were].”

Getting Rathbun to take responsibility for his own actions proves harder. Case in point: When I ask about the private investigators who dogged us, he quickly asserts, “I never hired an investigator to investigate you.” A moment later, however, he concedes that what he means to say is that he never personally hired an investigator. He says the “intel” guys under him took care of that job for him. “It goes through that machine, and I’m just getting reports,” he says so matter-of-factly that we could have been talking about the weather or holiday plans. “It’s all a blur, but I remember beaucoup intelligence reports on you guys during that entire era.” After Miscavige read those reports, Rathbun says, “I shredded all that stuff…. There could be no trace of it.”

Rathbun’s answers to questions about Bob and me often are like that—they begin as denials and after some pushing and prodding from me, end up as vague confessions. Sometimes he seems to be having a dialogue between the new Marty and the old. My questions, he tells me at one point, make him feel like he’s undergoing Scientology auditing, triggering memories of troubling events so he can be freed of their sway—only without the E-meter.

Rathbun says, for example, that the church obtained Bob’s and my personal phone and financial records from private detectives who bought them from sources specializing in that sort of skulduggery. “It had to be two or three steps removed,” Rathbun says, so the church would be insulated from the covert transactions. In that way, he reasons, the church did nothing illegal to us.

“What you were doing was still illegal,” I counter. “Yeah, you’re right,” he says. “You accused me, and I’m not denying it. I guess the lines got blurred over time.”

When I bring up the phony assault complaint and Bob Welkos’s CHP stop, Rathbun says he would have never tolerated such things. But then he acknowledges there were “volunteers” in his shop who’d come from the church’s disbanded Guardian’s Office and who continued to harass people, possibly us. “That really bothered me. It couldn’t bother me if it didn’t happen. It happened a lot,” he says, employing his odd, circular reasoning. “So here I am defending myself, but at the same time I gotta say…I’m not perpetuating that. But, of course, I am because I’m allowing it to continue.”

Rathbun insists he was only following orders. Miscavige, he says, nurtured a “real hatred” for Bob and me. “He’s got everyone in the conference room trying to figure out how to stop Welkos and Sappell,” Rathbun recalls. “You’re working for the enemy…. You were part of this machine, a deployed agent. The L.A. Times was demonized.”

For Miscavige the stakes were high, Rathbun says, higher than we knew. Our series represented an early test of the young firebrand’s ability to navigate a serious challenge at a time when the church was trying to emerge from scandal and enter the mainstream. Among other things the church had paid millions of dollars in lawsuit settlements to ex-members to keep them quiet about their run-ins with Scientology and to avoid even bigger financial and public relations hits down the road.

“We need to back the Times and Sappell and those guys down,” Rathbun remembers Miscavige ordering. But they couldn’t. Rathbun says the church hoped to get us to believe that with “the kind of intrusion we’re going to do in your life, it’s not worth messing with us.” That intimidation didn’t work with Bob and me, though Rathbun says it usually did. Of all the journalists who make inquiries into the church, he says, “you guys who write are the exception, not the rule.”

The Church of Scientology did, however, get the last word—with our words. After the series was published, the church blanketed Southern California with a three-month ad campaign that quoted positive-sounding snippets from the series. These edited quotations—words that Bob and I wrote—were plastered on more than 120 billboards and nearly 1,000 buses. Typical was this one: “The Church of Scientology…has weathered crises that would have crippled, if not destroyed, other fledgling religious movements—testimony to the group’s determination to survive.” The billboards included the story’s date, the newspaper’s banner, and our bylines. The church even bought an obscure sign a block from my house in Silver Lake, on a street I drove every day. I had a hunch that was no coincidence and later was told by a church insider I was right.

Rathbun volunteers that he was responsible for plucking those passages out of the stories but credits Miscavige with the concept. “He saw the series as a loss, but he turned it into a win because the billboard campaign was his idea,” Rathbun says. “In his version of reality, he has ‘outcreated’ you.”

This feature was originally published in the January 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine.