Scientology attempts to take over Corfu, 1968
The information contained in this article was sourced mainly from the book ‘The Commodore and the Colonels’ by John Forte, and was published in The Corfiot Magazine of May 2006.
It was a warm and sunny August day in 1968 when the ship anchored in Corfu harbour. She was the ‘Royal Scotsman’, a former Irish passenger ferry, now carrying the flag of Sierra Leone, and housing what appeared to the local people to be a school.
Corfu’s British Vice-Consul, John Forte, had been asked to look out for the vessel, which had sailed for the Mediterranean from Southampton some months before, amid reports of ‘young persons detained under duress.’
In fact, the ship was nothing less than the floating World Headquarters for the church of Scientology, a cult founded by Nebraska-born science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. The cult, designated as a church to give it legal status and as a charity to avoid taxes, was described a year later by the News of the World as ‘a perverted form of psychology which robs people of their initiative, their sense of responsibility and their reason.’ Less than a month before the ship’s arrival in Corfu, the British government concluded that ‘it is so objectionable that it would be right to take all steps within their power to curb its growth.’
Hubbard’s doctrine was based on miracles he claimed to have witnessed in the Far East; it sought a ‘scientific’ explanation, with mental exercises which would ultimately allow graduates to become an individual who has ‘willing cause over matter, energy, space, time, thought and life. This state is far more than becoming just a superman, IT IS THE IDEAL STATE.’
Hubbard invented a kind of lie-detector, the E-meter, to measure whether the mind is ‘clear’ of inhibitions and guilt on any subject. Several sessions at a fee of $800 (in 1962) were required to become ‘clear’, or in the words of Hubbard ‘a person who is at knowing and willing cause over his mind.’ Graduation to the ultimate ‘ideal state’ could cost as much as $15,000 at 1968 prices).
But first-hand reports suggested that the routines utilized by the church owed more to brainwashing than any legitimate psychological techniques. According to one leading psychologist, the routines ‘can split the personality into a severe disassociated state and the recruits are hooked before they realize what is happening. The next step erases the boundary between reality and fantasy.’ Many students, finding themselves in debt to the church because of the high fees, were forced to finance ongoing studies by taking menial low-paying jobs within the organization, and in the end find themselves alienated from life outside scientology.
John Forte writes that ‘one of the features of this tax-deductible multi-million dollar industry… relates to the indoctrination of children. Alan Levy [a scientology commentator] is not the first to draw attention to the enormity that small children are ordered to ‘disconnect’ from their families, which means sever relations. Such estrangements are often deep and lasting, leaving heartsick parents no longer able to speak rationally to their children, if, indeed, ever able to speak to them again.’
This, then, was the organization which arrived in Corfu that summer day. Local people were not aware that Hubbard had a hidden agenda. And that was to establish a permanent ‘School of Scientology’ on the island.
Hubbard selected the Harbourmaster, Marios Kalogeras, as his first convert. As a result, the ship and its crew and students were granted special status. Reuters reported that ‘students can be seen in taxis going to and from the ship without being asked by harbour guards for their passports or passes or even being questioned by customs officers.’ John Forte writes that ‘no-one was allowed to visit the ship without the Harbourmaster’s permission and, indeed, I myself had difficulty to pass the security cordon of Hubbard and Harbour Police to deliver a message which I had been instructed to convey to Mr. Lafayette Ron Hubbard to the effect that the British Home Secretary had declared him ‘persona non grata’ in Britain.’
The church then proceeded to capture the hearts of the local shopkeepers by injecting some 1,000 pounds per day into the island’s economy for provisions. The ordinary folk were won over through manipulation of the local daily newspapers ‘Ephimeris ton Idisseon’ and the ‘Kerkyraiki’ whose editors Hubbard quickly flattered. Front pages were dedicated to fawning articles focusing on the church, under headlines like ‘All the World loves Greece, especially us.’ Hubbard also used the papers to butter up the Colonels, who were then ruling the country.
‘Elsewhere, the ‘Gospel’ spread like wildfire,’ wrote Forte. ‘Today it seems not only amazing but utterly incredible that El Ron was able to cast his spell over such a large section of the cream of Corfu society. The build-up of his image was fabricated by a top grade public relations team of smooth cultured and professional experts under the direction of Australian-born Delwyn Sanderson, a glamorous redhead who might have walked straight out of any James Bond film.
‘After exercising her charms and persuasions on the local office of the National Tourist Organization, where she acquired a number of useful introductions, she and her team soon became welcome guests in the homes of prominent hostesses whilst the more eligible males also became intrigued and captivated by Hubbard’s attractive looking daughter, Diana, and her comely handmaidens. An accomplished pianist, Diana claims to have been a great friend of Mozart in a previous life.
‘Having sown its seeds so proficiently, the church could now look forward to reaping its reward in Hubbard’s Utopia.’
Hubbard himself was launched into society at a red-carpet party at the Casino, then housed in the Achillion Palace. Reciprocal events were thrown on board ship; an especially lavish party followed the much-hyped rechristening of the Royal Scotsman with the name Apollo (the church’s two other vessels, which had arrived after the flagship, were renamed at the same ceremony. John Forte noted acidly that Hubbard did not go so far as to re-flag them in Greece; he chose Panama.).
But despite the PR, not all was going Hubbard’s way. Indeed, there was mounting indignation over the behaviour of the scientologists.
Reuters reported that ‘Many local authorities are scared to express their opinions publicly as they feel there might be an outcry against them from traders who see the ship as an easy way to fill their tills. But in private, civil, military and police officials speak strongly against Hubbard and his scientologists who come ashore in military parades, speak to no one and refuse to answer questions of what is going on underdecks on the Apollo.’
John Forte had from an early stage been ‘besieged by British, Greek and other foreign callers to the Consulate bitterly complaining about the harbouring of the scientologists on the island.’ Those who had not fallen for his charm were distressed by the practice of throwing reprobate students, many very young, over the side of the ship in the early hours of the morning. Journalist Costas Daphnis, editor of the local Telegraph, had been writing hostile articles from the start. Alexander Mitchell of the Sunday Times – a dedicated scientology-watcher – made front page news in November 1968 with an exposé of their Corfu exploits.
This article prompted an inspection visit from the Colonels’ security team, which found them ‘harmless’; and a solicitor’s letter to the Sunday Times accusing the paper of defamation.
Meanwhile, Vice-Consul John Forte was instructing ‘protesting British and other foreign tourists (whose ranks had swollen since the Sunday Times article) that they should address the complaints to the Secretary General of the National Tourist Organization in Athens. ‘To the Corfiots I explained that the establishment of the Church of Scientology in Corfu was a matter for the Bishop and the Ministry of Religious Affairs.’ This was to play a major role in the downfall of Hubbard.
‘On the official side’ Forte noted, ‘friction was building up between the security police and the harbour authorities who were offering the scientologists such irregular privileges regarding their freedom of movement.’
Then two young Americans disappeared. William Deitch, one of the world’s leading scientologists, checked out of the Cavalieri hotel on the morning of 9 December after a week-end shore leave and never reappeared.
John Forte continues the story:
‘His disappearance greatly upset a fellow American, 30-year old Pearl O’Krackel, one of his chief disciples, who had recently been appointed head cook on the Apollo. She became greatly disillusioned and defected to live with a young Greek electrician, Sosipatras Mourikis, aged 24. Her conduct started off a chain reaction of discontent and all weekend shore leave was stopped and those whom the electronic E-meters did not register as CLEAN were severely disciplined.
‘After successfully evading pursuit by Hubbard’s police in an exciting car chase, the eloping couple spent a ‘honeymoon’ at a small villa at Perama, 7 kilometers south of the town. During their ‘honeymoon’, Pearl O’Krackel explained some of the scientologists’ practices. She explained how her mind was cleared… and how thoughts could be read. She alleged that her punishment if arrested and escorted back to the ship would be 20 days in a dark cell in the bowels of the ship with only bread and water. She confirmed the punishment of being thrown overboard into the icy seas in the early hours of the morning blindfolded.’
Ten days after her defection, O’Krackel, having survived several bully-boy attempts to get her back on ship, was on a plane for her home in Las Vegas via Athens. She never arrived.
Forte completes the tale: ‘About a month later she turned up at the US Embassy of her own free will, angrily demanding what all the fuss was about and stating that she had always been a devoted scientologist who had never left the movement or asked for asylum. Hubbard’s police had certainly done an efficient job on her.’
Another case was that of 50-year old New Zealander Grace Hill. She made friends with the manager of the Cavalieri Hotel, where privileged scientologists were allowed to stay, and wrote to him about her disillusion with the church and her plans to abscond. Her friend replied, but unfortunately entrusted the letter to one of the scientologists. Grace Hill was never seen ashore again.
But the case which hit headlines concerned two Belfast maintenance fitters, Colin Craig and Jack Russell. Over to Forte: ‘On the afternoon of 11 March I received an urgent phone call at my home from a highly nervous and agitated Irishman whose story was that he and his mate had answered an advertisement in the Belfast Telegraph for qualified maintenance fitters for the SS Apollo.
‘They were met at Corfu airport and on arrival on board they were told they would work under the Chief Engineer, a brilliant technician who turned out to be a youth of 15. When he discovered what sort of ship it was, Craig locked himself in his cabin feigning sickness. Here he remained for two days without food (which he proclaimed uneatable) whilst his mate was becoming slowly but surely converted to scientology and would burst into the cabin shrieking, ‘I’m clear’; he appeared to Craig to be getting more and more insane as his course of pills and E-meter treatment progressed.
‘Eventually Craig managed to persuade the confused Russell to go ashore against his will. After escaping from the ship with a certain amount of difficulty, the Irishmen met up with some of the visiting U.S. 6th Fleet in a nearby cafe. On learning their story the sailors, in the words of Craig, ‘blew their top’ and insisted that they phone me immediately, and fortunately they got through to me at my home in the country. I ordered them to go direct to the Hotel Suisse and to stay there until I called for them in the morning, and to be careful to keep their doors locked and to have their meals in their room.
‘After making the necessary arrangements with the hotel, I contacted the Aliens Police who were delighted to co-operate and posted an all night guard in the hotel lobby in case the Harbourmaster or the scientologists should try and inveigle them back to the ship. Sure enough, Hubbard’s police soon tracked them down only to be confronted by an armed police guard.
‘When I called at the Hotel Suisse in the morning, I found a highly excitable Craig and a most neurotic Russell, who were later repatriated to the U.K. but not before they had made a statement to the police, which was quickly relayed to Athens where it was received with delight by the Security Police as this was the first unbiased and unsolicited evidence they had as yet obtained. Russell’s story made the front page news in the Belfast Sunday News with the headline: Belfastman tells of his escape from horror ship.’
But in parallel concern was mounting amongst what Forte calls ‘Hubbard’s select committee of Corfiots charged with the aggrandisement of El Ron’s image in the eyes of the Colonels’ (mostly the very business people who were so benefitting from the church’s spending power), and on 20 January 1969 they sent a telegram to the Prime Minister and Deputy Minister in Athens complaining that ‘various persons entirely foreign to Corfu are trying to persuade the Government to cancel the permit given to the vessel to remain without giving any specific reasons against the school… This school possessing serious capital and an extensive net of branches abroad plans to get established in Corfu permanently and Corfu tourism would profit greatly.’
Assurances that there was no objection to the Apollo remaining in port came not from the Colonels but on their behalf from Yannis Lagonikas, Secretary-General of the Ministry of Mercantile Marine, and an old friend of Hubbard’s lackey Harbourmaster.
But as Forte points out, this ‘did not provide for a shore-based establishment in what was now being regarded by the scientologists as their promised land and neither did it express the views of the Prime Minister or his deputy to whom the telegram was jointly addressed.’
At this point Hubbard took the bull by the horns; he issued a preemptive headline story in his tame local paper Ephimeris ton Idisseon, unilaterally announcing that the Greek Government had approved his University. In addition, he circulated pamphlets encouraging students to register – thus defying the Greek laws relating to the establishment of foreign schools and religions – and promising prospective students a pink ticket to paradise in consideration of the sum of $2,850 only.
The Greek response to coercion is predictable, and Deputy Premier Patakos emphasized that no permission had yet been granted to the scientologists to become established on Greek soil and that both the United States and Great Britain would like them to leave Greece. Whereupon Hubbard riposted with an announcement that his Scientology School would start operating within 2-3 weeks, and that many students had already turned up.
The final nail was a six-day show of ‘gunboat diplomacy’ by the US 6th fleet (whose members saved the Irish engineers Craig and Russell). Forte describes it as ‘a carefully planned operation designed to bring forcibly home to the authorities the grave danger of contamination by this undesirable cult. If this was the aim of the exercise, then it was certainly one hundred per cent successful.’
Hubbard only released one more, increasingly desperate, press statement, claiming that students were flocking to the School, which would make Corfu ‘surge economically and spiritually.’
Forte reports on the end of the tale:
‘The scientology saga finally came to an abrupt and dramatic end in the early hours of the morning of 19th March when Commodore Hubbard sailed from Corfu in his flagship Apollo, four and a half hours late after being given 24 hours notice by the Nomarch of Corfu to leave these shores.
‘Watching the dramatic departure from the water front, I found myself standing next to S., the island’s most prolific and eligible stag, a veritable ‘Superman’ in his own right. Commiserating with him on the depletion of his stud, he confided, ‘as a matter of fact I’m not sorry they’re gone. When it comes to the point they all tell you they are only allowed to have sexual relations with fellow scientologists.’ Here was, indeed, an intriguing aspect of the Philosophy of the Church.
‘As the ship sailed, El Ron, like an earlier Messiah, wept and all his flock and his Corfiot disciples and followers joined him in his tears.
‘Thus ended a battle whose fortunes had been swaying dramatically to and fro for seven months and in which Hubbard, who seemed at one time to be the conquering hero, was ultimately vanquished.’
But Hubbard had to have the final word. His PR team announced that the scientologists were abandoning Greece ‘due to unforeseen foreign exchange trouble and the unstable Middle Eastern situation’ and also issued a press release which contradicted this claim:
‘Mr. Hubbard had been in Greece establishing a Greek Corporation to teach philosophy. False information about Hubbard was fed to the Greeks by a third party and they asked him to leave.
‘Mr. Hubbard protested in a personal letter to the Deputy Prime Minister of Greece, Mr. Patakos.
‘When the Deputy Prime Minister learnt how he had been misled by lies and false reports made about Hubbard he was extremely annoyed and sent the following message: My personal apologies to Mr. Hubbard for any unhappiness and upset caused and when you return I hope you will stay longer.
‘Mr. Hubbard accepted the apology and the Prime Minister on learning this expressed his pleasure and immediately ordered all the papers concerning Mr. Hubbard’s Corporation be sent to him personally so that he might get the matter corrected.’
What were Hubbard’s plans for Corfu?
His Manifesto promised the conversion of the Old and New Fortresses into hotels, casino, and recreation grounds; the construction of seven yacht marinas, a new harbour in the north, three golf courses, and new schools and hotels; the development of Lazaretto Islet with hotel; and many new factories (including car assembly, aircraft spare parts and agricultural machinery).
The second part of the Manifesto dealt with the matter of the University:
‘Once upon a time Corfu had her own university. This was taken from her at a time of great centralization and since this university functions today elsewhere, there are no hopes it will return here.
‘But there is no need to request for its return.
‘The only thing that is needed is to establish a new university in Corfu.’
That is, a University dedicated to Scientology.
Tucked away at the end was a so-called ‘Supplementary Arrangement’ which may well have been the main point of the whole exercise:
‘We shall make efforts to have the local Royal Palace given as a gift for this worthy target.’
Today, Corfu’s university has been re-established, and many of the infrastructure works that Hubbard promised have been constructed without his help. Maybe if Hubbard had got his way, Corfu would have gained them sooner… And maybe Tom Cruise would be taking his holidays here in Corfu…
Compiled by Hilary Paipeti