Hotseat: Scientology Critic Tony Ortega

A longtime critic of Scientology visits the church's Victory City.

The Church of Scientology isn't getting great press these days.

The self-improvement religion founded by L. Ron Hubbard in 1954 was exposed in a 2013 book by Lawrence Wright and in a 2015 film documentary, both titled Going Clear.

The investigations laid out a case that Scientology's leaders flattered celebrities for donations, imprisoned and enslaved its converts, and harassed anyone who left or criticized the church.

Nobody is watching the church's comeuppance with greater interest than Tony Ortega.

The 52-year-old journalist has been publishing unflattering reports on Scientology since 1995, mostly in weekly newspapers, including the Phoenix New Times and The Village Voice. (Ortega was editor of The Voice until 2012.) He says church operatives retaliated by tracking his movements, interviewing his co-workers to dig up dirt, and showing up at his mother's house.

Ortega has written a book, The Unbreakable Miss Lovely, alleging Scientology's harassment of defector Paulette Cooper. This Sunday, he visits Portland—a city with great significance to Scientologists. He explained why in a recent conversation with WW.

WW: Has the increased exposure of Scientology driven any of its high-profile members into jumping ship?

Tony Ortega: For several years, some very high-profile celebrities have been either quietly or a little less quietly moving toward the exit. But on the other hand, what's really interesting is that this year, David Miscavige, leader of Scientology, seems to have put some of the remaining celebrities on the spot. I noticed several months ago that people like Kelly Preston and Kirstie Alley and Nancy Cartwright [the voice of Bart Simpson] suddenly got a lot more vocal about their progress on what's called "the Bridge." It says they're putting on a show, and all of this kind of activity is always aimed at the big donors.

Why is Portland such a special city for Scientologists?

Portland is a really important city mainly because of a mid-1980s lawsuit involving Julie Christofferson Titchbourne. Two lawsuits at that time were really crucial. And the reason why they're important—because Scientology has been sued so many times in so many ways, and Scientology has sued people in so many ways—is that they were suing because they claimed the technology itself was harmful, that Scientology itself was harmful, and in both cases, juries agreed with them.

Scientology was appalled. They sent everybody up to Portland. It was called the Religious Freedom Crusade, also known as the Portland Crusade. Thousands of Scientologists all were outside the courtroom trying to pressure the judge, and it worked. The judge blinked and decided that he had given bad instructions to the jury and vacated the award. And ultimately Titchbourne ended up settling for a few thousand dollars, when she had originally won $39 million.

So to Scientology, Portland represents a great victory for them. And when they opened that Ideal Org [at 360 SW Oak St.] in May 2013, they cited it constantly, like, "This is our city." They really think of Portland as one of their great places in history.


What are Ideal Orgs? Are they like megachurches?

They are not. Because "megachurch," of course, implies lots of people. And they're empty. The idea was that you would take over some historic structure, spend a lot of money to procure the building and then spend a lot more to refurbish it. Miscavige had this idea that if he created a slick enough presentation that it would create this rush of new people to Scientology. May 2013 in Portland was a big one. And it's dead. There's just nobody in it.

Why should people care about this fairly obscure religion with fairly few adherents?

First of all, they do. If you write about Scientology, you will find a massive audience. I think it's a combination of the fact that there are some celebrities involved, that they're very secretive about what they do, and that they're bullies, and they get away with it.

But does Scientology actually matter?

I think it does. It's really amazing to see how a totalitarian organization can exist inside the United States today and the way it's able to run roughshod over our courts. Scientology takes all of America's most closely held beliefs and ideas about itself—freedom and tolerance—and turns them around and uses them as weapons. They're able to get away with destroying people—all with the help of the United States court system. And I think that exposes some real problems in our current society and systems. I think it's important to watch them. 

GO: Tony Ortega speaks to the Humanists of Greater Portland at Friendly House Community Center, 1737 NW 26th Ave. 12:45 pm Sunday, Sept. 27. Free.