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Scientology’s global disaster squad

Inside the religion’s unorthodox healing missions.

Testimonials of touch healing

“These people have seen some nasty things and often that stays in their mind,” Bromwell said. “We do assists to relieve that. Then they can go home, sleep, and they don’t have those pictures stuck in their minds.”

In New Zealand, Bromwell found a boy who obsessed over the quake and suffered constipation for seven days. After applying Scientology’s healing powers, Bromwell said, the boy was suddenly able to relieve himself and play outside without fear.

Katrina Gregory, another Australian Scientologist, recounted her own miracles from rubble-strewn Christchurch. One man’s ankle was struck by a falling cable. Gregory, who is 33 and works as a personal assistant in Tasmania, restored the man’s ability to walk, she said.

“They’re pretty much jumping on the table because they’re hurting and sore and just want to feel better,” Gregory said. “I’ve done a thousand of these things and it amazes me how it always works.”

Other accounts are even more spectacular. In the book “After the Tsunami,” written by a Danish Scientologist, British actor and Scientologist Robbie Scandrett recalled treating an 11-year-old Indian girl who “had not slept since the tsunami and kept hearing the waves, creating a deep fear of the sea.”

Scandrett offered a “touch assist,” which requires touching parts of the girl’s body while saying “feel my finger.” Five minutes into the session, the girl “lost consciousness and slumped into her chair,” according to the account.

Another 45 minutes passed before “her eyes opened very slightly and tears streamed down her cheeks ... her response was that she no longer felt any fear of the sea.”

But several people who have received assists, when contacted by Global Post, likened the nerve assist to a massage: pleasant, but not life altering.

“It was quite formal. They didn’t say much, only ‘I’m going to do a nerve assist on you,’” said Lalan Susanti, an Indonesian translator who worked in Aceh after the 2004 tsunami. “I laid down and they just used their fingers, going up and down the spine, then back up again.”

“After a few days, looking at all the debris and dead bodies, you feel tired inside and out. It was relieving,” said Susanti. “They were doing it to all the locals and they never said a word about religion.”

Back to the beginning with L. Ron Hubbard

“When I was a very young man, I spent most of my teens in Asia,” said Hubbard, Scientology’s founder, in an interview released by the church before his 1986 death.

Hubbard claimed in the interview to have “slept with bandits in Mongolia” and “hunted with pygmies in the Philippines.” His experiences led him to know Asia as “an area of the world where human misery and want are very visible, where man has reached perhaps the lowest states of degradation.”

His solution to this pervasive misery? A sweeping re-think of the mankind’s mind and soul called “Dianetics,” published in 1950. It was his first major genre departure from science fiction and is now revered by the church as a founding text.

In "Dianetics," Hubbard asserts that most physical and mental ills are “psychosomatic” or induced by the mind. Negative experiences, he said, create mental images that get stuck in an unconscious vault of pain: the “reactive mind.”

If the images aren’t confronted and purged, Hubbard wrote, they lie in wait to trigger self-destructive behavior or even physical illness.

“Discharge the contents of this mind’s bank,” Hubbard wrote in Dianetics, “and the arthritis vanishes, myopia gets better, heart illness decreases, asthma disappears, stomachs function properly and the whole catalog of ills goes away and stays away.”

An electronic trauma detector?

Out in the field, volunteer ministers try to clear out this mental muck with assists. But their preferred method uses an electronic device to detect bad experiences, some of which they believe took place in previous lives.

The device is called an “e-meter.” The breadbox-sized unit, studded with dials and knobs, sends five electric volts into the body through two metal handles gripped by the person being “audited.” A trained “auditor” asks the person to recount painful memories over and over in vivid detail.

Those memories — believed by Scientologists to have actual energy and mass — can be detected on the e-meter’s dials, according to Hubbard. As the person confronts their pain, the bad experience will lose its sway over the mind.

“It’s a very precise machine,” said Ponnaz, popping open his e-meter’s heavily reinforced black travel case. “Any bit of pain or trauma is like a mass in your mind. And it registers.”

Science community speaks out

Psychiatrists, however, have largely dismissed all this as pseudo-science. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration ruled the e-meter is “not medically or scientifically capable of improving the health or bodily functions.” And many psychiatrists have a dim view of Scientologists using these techniques on traumatized villagers.

“The Red Cross requires psychiatrists to take considerable training before they’ll allow them to go into a disaster site,” said Nada Stotland, a Chicago-based psychiatrist with Mental Health America, a non-profit advocacy group based in northern Virginia.

“They’re untrained,” said Stotland, who is also a former president of the American Psychiatric Association. “They have completely untested methods of dealing with people’s problems. These techniques have never shown results in scientific tests of any kind.”

Mental Health America even warned Scientologists to “stay out of mental health” after volunteer ministers rushed to New York City after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

The church’s view of psychiatry, however, is equally harsh.

Well-funded Scientology campaigns denounce psychiatry as an “industry of death” that peddles worthless therapy and spirit-clouding pills. Scientologists warn that “psychiatry kills” — they are particularly disdainful of shock therapy — and forbid one another from taking psychoactive pills.

“Has anyone been to a psychiatrist and actually gotten better?” Ponnaz said. “Our technology is available, written in normal terms, not high language. A guy on the street can read and understand it.”