Scientology’s Money Trail

South Park has ridiculed it, protesters have attacked it, and Germany has tried to outlaw it. Yet the Church of Scientology still operates in 160 countries, with an extremely complex economic model that makes it hard for opponents to go after its finances. Ever since the 1980s, when it faced a potentially lethal class-action lawsuit and intense scrutiny from the U.S. government, the group has reportedly spread its revenues—and its liability—among a vast array of independent trusts, corporations, and nonprofits. All are reportedly tightly controlled by David Miscavige, a second-generation Scientologist who has run the church since the 1986 death of its founder, science-fiction author L. Ron Hubbard. Tax filings from the early 1990s show that the church was earning about $300 million a year back then, but the paper trail disappears after that. The church won tax-exempt status in 1993 and is not required to file annual returns with the I.R.S., so it’s extremely difficult to tell just how much Scientology takes in during a given year. (Groups that don’t have direct ties to the church’s executive branch, or “Mother Church,” as it’s known, often act as separate legal entities and file taxes individually.) We asked a number of sources—ex-Scientologists familiar with the church’s finances—to help us arrive at an estimate of its annual revenue.

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