THE FEDERAL government's passion for commissions of inquiry into all manner of atrocity, iniquity and anomaly may have helped prepare the ground for some unofficial and oddly based fact-gathering bodies. When the Australian Citizens' Commission on Human Rights takes out newspaper space to call for submissions on "Psychiatric Violations," for instance, the casual reader might scarcely pause to remark that the commission is sponsored by the Church of Scientology.
It has become almost a reflex in Australia to regard any activity of the scientologists as sinister. A growing distaste for the "Modern Science of Mental Health" culminated in 1963 in a Victorian government board of inquiry into the sect's techniques and practices. The board judged scientology to be "evil; its techniques evil; its practice a serious threat to the community medically, morally and socially; its adherents sadly deluded and often mentally ill ..."
Although the inquiry was later criticised as an old-fashioned witch-hunt, scientology was duly banned in three States and kept under close scrutiny in others. It did not, however, go away. Ten years later, when the sect bobbed up again - this time as a religion - and won the recognition of the South Australian and Federal governments, its leaders claimed 20,000 members in Australia.
Whether religion, science or Miss Lonelyhearts club, scientology has one enduring feature: it concentrates on the mental health of its members. Students receive (at some expense) courses of "auditing" and "counselling" which rely heavily on the less subtle search-and-destroy techniques of psychoanalysis. Satisfied customers claim great leaps in "spiritual rehabilitation" and "capability achievement" as well as more prosaic triumphs over unsightly fat, chronic sinusitis and social unease.
Reputable psychiatrists, themselves engaged in internal wrangle over whether they should be officially vetted and registered before putting up their plates, deplore the use of "religious" techniques as a front for amateur mind-meddling. "But more ancient and generally acceptable religions use confession, counselling and so on in not very different ways," an eminent Sydney psychiatrist backpedalled, "and we don't want to criticise those even by implication. Besides, we have problems of our own." He declined to let us use his name and added: "We have nothing to gain by denigrating the scientologists."
The scientologists, on the other hand, plainly feel that they have something to gain in attacking the psychiatric establishment. Hence the Citizens' Commission on Human Rights (Psychiatric Violations). The commission started up two years ago in South Australia and for some time its activities were confined to that State. A year ago it spread to Western Australia and in the past two months feeder branches have been established in the Church of the New Faith or Church of Scientology offices in other States.
The chairman of the South Australian branch is scientologist Andrew J. Youngman, in civilian life a divisional manager in a chemical corporation. Youngman explains the commission's aims: "We are compiling information on violations occurring in mental hospitals. Our major concern is that people in these hospitals have virtually no rights whatsoever, particularly in South Australia and Victoria. Complaints come in from ex-patients, relatives, friends, nurses and other hospital staff who have heard of us either by word-of-mouth - that's very strong in South Australia - or from our advertisements."
Youngman claims that members of the committee check out each complaint "against other information" before they act on it, and that they have now collected more than 100 "verified" reports. These will be used as ammunition in the commission's continuing demand for a Royal Commission into conditions in South Australian psychiatric institutions.
From time to time the South Australian commission sends out interim reports of its findings. One such report, describing Youngman's visit to the security ward at Glenside Mental Hospital outside Adelaide, was promisingly headlined "Z Ward - A Relic of the Bedlam Era" but contained little more horrific than the disclosure that one toilet looked filthy.
The reports also make regular mention of leucotomies, lobotomies, electric shock therapy, excessive drug dosage and other "barbaric treatments", but without adducing any evidence that such practices are actually in use or producing a single sufferer from among their wide supply of complainants.
A report dated April, 1973, did give summaries of six case histories from the commission's files. They were, as such stories must be, pathetic, but they were not as spine-chilling as one might have expected. Mr H., for instance, committed to a mental hospital by his mother, complained that the routine was monotonous, that he was given a lethargy-inducing drug (Largactil) and that he "felt he was being brainwashed;" he absconded while on trial leave after four months' detainment.
Mr J. A. H., a chemist, alleged that while he was in the Royal Adelaide Hospital with concussion a house surgeon told him to go to Hillcrest (mental) Hospital and, in the words and italics of the report, "actually threatened that he would be committed if he didn't go voluntarily."
A returned serviceman who broke a window in a government office after failing to get a repatriation pension was committed to "the infamous Z Ward" at Glenside Mental Hospital; the commission stated that, "He was told that he would never get out of Z Ward, some months later he was transferred to E Ward and later discharged." And so on, and on, and dismally but unflabbergastingly on.
The only surprise in the interim reports is that the touted horrors should be so mild.
Some members of the anti-psychiatrist lobby just don't fancy the scientologists as bedfellows. But the scientologists say that their interest in the commission is little more than supportive. Everyone involved with the commission claims that it began as a spontaneous movement of "concerned individuals" and only later won the "sponsorship" of the Church of Scientology.
This patronage, however, has proved substantial. The Federal pontiff, Perth-based Reverend Michael Graham, says that his church provides "at least half" the funds needed to run the commission, the rest coming in as donations from the ubiquitous concerned individuals. It also provides telephone numbers, addresses and presumably office facilities in WA, SA, Victoria and NSW.
Asked whether public criticism of scientology as a pseudo-psychiatric discipline might not weaken the commission's case, both Graham and Youngman flatly denied that scientology had ever been criticised in the way. Graham: "Even in the Anderson (Victorian government) report, if you read it very carefully, there has never been any accusation that we are using psychiatric techniques." And Youngman: "Throughout the world scientology is opposed to psychiatric practices."
But if the public are unfairly critical of scientology the church seems to reciprocate by remaining deeply suspicious of the public. After the appearance of one newspaper advertisement calling for submissions to the commission, The Bulletin rang the number listed for Sydney inquiries. "Good morning; Church of Scientology," said a girl's voice, fresh and sunny as a spring morning. I identified myself and asked to speak to the spokesman for the Human Rights Committee. "Er ... hang on," said the voice fractionally less frisky. After a muffled consultation, off, it returned to say baldly, "He's not in." "Can I ring him back later?" "Er ... hang on." Further consultations, then. "I don't think he'll be in today and I don't know when he will." "Well, I'll try again later," I said tenaciously, "so can you give me his name, please?" "Er ... hang on." Distant mumbles, as before, and finally - in tones which sounded distinctly wintry - "I don't really have any information on that. We'll ring you." Click. But they didn't.
[photo: woman on cans, E-meter, auditor] A girl takes an E-meter test at Sydney's Church of Scientology