the Church of Scientology
since 1968
ALEX GIBNEY & HBOThe Prison of Propaganda

Letter to Sheila Nevins,
President, HBO Documentary Films

March 12, 2015

Sheila Nevins
President, HBO Documentary Films

Re: You Make the Bed You Lie In

Dear Ms. Nevins:

You have a problem. HBO’s and Alex Gibney’s film on the Church of Scientology is completely discredited. We tried to warn you that the film is loaded with admitted liars who make false and defamatory allegations on a whim, but you wouldn’t listen.

Our initial concern proved true: Having spent nearly two years working on the film in secret, Alex Gibney never provided the Church with a single allegation so it would have an opportunity to respond. He never let us provide him or HBO relevant context and factual information. He never even asked the Church any basic fact-checking questions. That explains why it’s full of errors.

And despite Alex Gibney’s repeated assertions that the film was based on Lawrence Wright’s book, it includes both new subjects and new allegations that are not in Wright’s bigoted diatribe. So by withholding information on who was making what allegations, leaving us to guess at a myriad of possibilities, we never had any opportunity to refute claims that ended up in the film. That’s bias.

Even when we brought 25 people to New York—executives, former superiors, former secretaries, former colleagues, former spouses and even children of the sources in the film—after HBO’s attorney asked for anyone with firsthand knowledge to be made available, you and Mr. Gibney spurned them. That Mr. Gibney was only interested in the story he had already sketched out two years earlier, rather than a fact-based story, is the very definition of propaganda. Stop pretending you did not know who the people are who came to New York (like Mr. Gibney is doing). You are now seeing them in our videos. Some have written you personally. All of them are known and relevant.

Now that your film has had so many egregious falsehoods and inaccuracies exposed, here is what you are left with—thoroughly discredited talking heads telling stale, proven lies. We have been telling you for months that these sources are not credible and will say anything in front of a camera to get revenge on the Church that expelled them in disgrace. We are not trying to discredit these people. You are miscrediting them:

  • Spanky Taylor. Her entire story is a lie. Besides the fact that she has been gone for 30 years—an eternity of time in a new religion as we are—she never “escaped” from the Church as she and Mr. Gibney claim. That’s because she remained an active Scientologist for six more years after leaving her staff position. Her husband exposed this lie about her “escape” and that she remained in the Church. Now, Lawrence Wright is shifting his story to admit, as he did on public radio this week, that she continued in the Church after her supposed “escape.” A filmmaker that claims he is a “documentarian” and a network that claims it has integrity would disclose to their audience that the dramatic “re-creation” of an “escape” never happened.
  • Sara Goldberg. Mr. Gibney painted a sob story of a grandmother struggling to keep her family together, but didn’t want to speak with her ex-husband, her daughter or anyone else in the family even when they were just a few minutes away from his offices in New York willing to see him at his convenience. Now you see them on camera, exposing how Sara Goldberg broke up her own family because of her drug-abusing son. You even have video footage of her son being arrested, along with statements from the rest of the family about what factually occurred. And that’s relevant information, as the Church does not and did not tear any family apart. Again, if Mr. Gibney applied even the most rudimentary journalistic standards of fact checking, his film would disclose Nick Lister’s criminal conduct and what the rest of the family had to say about Sara Goldberg so viewers could judge for themselves. Withholding all of this relevant information makes the film inaccurate and deceitful. Instead Mr. Gibney exploited Ashley Lister’s special needs daughter using photographs of the young girl without the mother’s permission. This kind of callous, insensitive and shameful behavior should not be tolerated by HBO.
  • Hana Whitfield also has motives to lie about the Church, not the least of which is she left more than 30 years ago (like Spanky Taylor, she has been gone for 50% of the time the entire religion has existed) and filed a $1 billion class action lawsuit that was thrown out of court six times, with a judge calling it “incomprehensible.” Denied her $1 billion litigation lottery ticket, she then became a “deprogrammer” which Alex Gibney has become an apologist for—a practice which is now recognized as the equivalent of kidnapping, coercion and denial of human rights. Mr. Gibney’s film conveniently ignores that Hana Whitfield’s “mental state” could have something to do with her having conspired to murder her father. A responsible documentarian would reveal Hana Whitfield’s lingering guilt over her involvement in plotting her father’s murder. Instead, the film covers up these facts.
  • Mr. Gibney doesn’t disclose that his primary sources are self-admitted liars and were involved—per Marty Rathbun—in suborning perjury and obstructing justice. The same Marty Rathbun that was the leader of his now-defunct small Texas cult, a tiny group of anti-religious haters who have been joined at the hip for six years in a campaign to make up stories about their former religion. The same Rathbun who has now descended to “deprogrammer” for his personal profit. The same Rathbun who Mr. Gibney puts on a pedestal while making an implausible, outrageous and defamatory allegation about the Church and its leadership being involved in a “wiretap” that never happened. When Rathbun is questioned further, he not only conveniently can’t provide any specifics of who did what, he also can’t explain how he suddenly “remembered” this alleged incident six years into his venomous campaign against the Church that has included dozens of media interviews, thousands of online rants and, most important, countless hours of interviews with Lawrence Wright, whose book the film is purportedly based upon. It completely defies logic that Rathbun “forgot” to mention such an event or somehow just “remembered” it. As you know, even Mr. Gibney’s other primary source—Mike Rinder—denies having any firsthand knowledge (because it didn’t happen) and Rathbun cannot offer any corroboration. Mr. Gibney should have taken these false and inflammatory statements out of the film and disclosed Rathbun’s record of lying and his serial record of violence so the audience can judge for themselves. Mr. Gibney’s failure to do so makes this not a documentary but propaganda.
  • And you have Mike Rinder, someone who admitted in a January deposition to the exact opposite of what he says to Mr. Gibney in the film. He’s also a tainted source because he’s paid by law firms seeking to score a payday suing the Church. His domestic abuse is documented by his ex-wife, brother, daughter and his ex-wife’s surgeon and all of this would have been relevant to the film since Gibney shamelessly has Rinder lie about his ex-wife and didn’t ask her for comment or to sit for an interview, even when she was in New York to see him. Someone of Mike Rinder’s character does not belong in an HBO film. And, at a time when religious hatred is spreading through the world and inciting violence, it’s also irresponsible to release any film about religion with someone so obsessed with inciting hatred as Mike Rinder, a paid anti-religionist and a domestic abuser.
  • Further, we’ve already shown that the blatantly absurd “ant” story is pure propaganda and is an intentional misrepresentation of the Church production studio facility that, among other amenities, includes a pool, tennis courts, golf course, housekeeping services for staff and facilities so nice local outside community groups regularly use them for events. The person telling Mr. Gibney this lie about ants on camera, Tom DeVocht, had such a propensity to lie that he once confessed that he believed his only sin was “getting caught.” HBO ignored all efforts by his ex-wife to provide information showing he is a pathological liar and stole from her. She also would have told you about how DeVocht’s motives stem from his being expelled after he wasted millions of dollars due to his incompetence and deceit related to construction. Mr. Gibney has no firsthand knowledge of these allegations and never visited the property. He never even asked to visit, or to film there. Instead Mr. Gibney uses stale, made-up stories and portrays them as the truth.
  • Yet another source for the film, Marc Headley, is a professional liar who was outed during litigation as a paid tabloid source for, among other publications, the scandal-ridden News of the World that folded in disgrace over the British hacking scandal. Headley’s failed lawsuit spawned the film’s core myth—that the Church is involved in “abuses” which are entirely the invention of this same small, failed Texas cult. You now know a federal judge tossed these same allegations out in 2010—an Appeals Court unanimously upheld that decision in 2012—and that Headley was made to pay the Church $42,000 in court costs. Mr. Gibney even thanks Headley at the premiere. Yet all of the allegations Headley makes in Wright’s book were dismissed as meritless by a lower court and upheld by the Appellate Court prior to the book ever being published. Given these phony claims are at the heart of Mr. Gibney’s film, their unravelling is reason enough to pull the film.

The real problem is HBO jumped into bed with Lawrence Wright based on his past resumé. You didn’t vet his book, nor did you review the numerous errors and source credibility issues that we painstakingly chronicled. There was good reason why publishers in the UK, Canada, Australia and Ireland wouldn’t publish the book.

His extensive use of Marc Headley, who we have already covered above, should have been a tip-off. So should his use of Jesse Prince as a source. When a judge states in the court record that he is “flabbergasted” at the lies someone tells, that person isn’t qualified to be a source for a book. When that same source acknowledges under oath to having incest with his sister, and that he sees nothing wrong with it, there is clearly a screw loose. If even that isn’t enough to disqualify someone as a source, it’s three strikes when it comes to light the source received more than $300,000 from attorneys to attack Scientology. More important, what does this say about an author willing to overlook this level of baggage so he can portray a fully discredited source as a “victim.”

You chose to base the film on Wright’s book, focusing much of the film around Mr. Gibney’s interviews with him. You claim the film is an extension of the book, and then fly Wright around the country on a press tour so he can further disparage the Church and spin new fabrications. So it’s only fair you know the truth about the sources he and Mr. Gibney chose, for good reason, to conveniently leave out.

You should know, for example, that Wright subject Amy Scobee is bitter for having been removed after having sex with a parishioner she was counselling, which violates the most sacrosanct codes of a minister in Scientology or any other religion. Or that source Ervin Scott gives an eyewitness account of something that was physically impossible for him to have witnessed. Or that source Valeska Guider Paris claims to Wright she was held against her will on the Freewinds religious retreat when there are countless photos and even declarations showing her leaving the ship hundreds of times by herself or with friends to shop, enjoy beach outings, take vacations and even a honeymoon. Then there was Scientologist John Aczel, who Wright listed as a source but never even spoke to.

Bottom line: Lawrence Wright’s book and Alex Gibney’s film are both stuffed with falsehoods from sources whose only corroboration is each other. There are no records, police reports, medical reports or any credible third-party corroboration to validate these tales and myths.

We agree with one reviewer who has described Mr. Gibney’s film as “pointless scaremongering.” All of Mr. Gibney’s sources serve that purpose. They spew false, embellished and hyperbolic tales to create sensationalistic hatred toward the Church with a portrait none of its parishioners, staff and clergy recognize.

Including any one of the above sources in Mr. Gibney’s film irreparably and fatally damages its entire credibility. In two hours this film racks up more falsehoods, errors, embellished tales and blatant omissions than were committed by Rolling Stone, Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly combined. By our calculation, the film on average includes one major error at least every two minutes. Publishing even one egregious error would cause any respectable news organization to act quickly to protect its integrity, and would also likely include a full reassessment of the work and the credibility of the sources. Because Mr. Gibney’s film cannot be trusted, it deserves to be reassessed and undergo a similar thorough vetting of its claims and facts.

Lastly, you have a serious problem because not once did Alex Gibney seek permission to use the many Church photographs and videos illicitly used in the film. Moreover, both of you have chosen to continue to use the Church’s copyright-protected materials in the film, despite repeated notice from the Church that the use constitutes infringement, and that copies of many of the materials used in the film were wrongfully misappropriated from the Church. HBO claims that it cares about the intellectual property rights of others, and it certainly makes an effort to protect its own intellectual property rights. Its decision to proceed despite notice of infringement, and to ally itself with willful copyright infringers, reveals its hypocrisy. Juries do not like copyright infringers. A jury recently awarded $7.4 million against Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke, who had testified that their song “Blurred Lines” was “inspired”” by Marvin Gaye’s song “Got to Give it Up”. Here, Alex Gibney was not just “inspired” by the Church’s works, he used copies of works that were stolen from the Church. We expect that a jury would be similarly angered by Alex Gibney’s conduct. If that happens you will be branded a willful copyright infringer and you will have to deal with all of the negative publicity that results.

The Church is passionate about the First Amendment—both freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion. You ignored the Church and now you see the result is that you were sold a sleazy bill of goods by a handful of bitter individuals with their own personal agendas. Freedom of speech is not freedom to lie. Nor should HBO make money by spreading lies and disrespecting the religious beliefs of others while inciting the same kind of bigotry and religious hatred that sadly continues to spread around the world today.

The only responsible action for you to take is to cancel the film. It’s not too late to do the right thing. Do so.


Karin Pouw

cc: Richard Plepler, Chairman and CEO, Home Box Office, Inc.

The Church of Scientology is committed to free speech. However, free speech is not a free pass to broadcast or publish false information. We have all seen what happens when facts are not checked or those being reported on are not given a chance to respond. The Church is taking a resolute stand against such actions—both on its own behalf and for others who either cannot or will not do so.