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'Mental health' hotline a blind lead

The televised blurb offered mental health assistance dealing with the attacks. Callers reached Scientologists.

By DEBORAH O'NEIL

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 15, 2001


The televised blurb offered mental health assistance dealing with the attacks. Callers reached Scientologists.

Television viewers who turned to Fox News on Friday for coverage of the terrorist attack also saw a message scrolling across the bottom of their screens -- National Mental Health Assistance: 800-FOR-TRUTH.

Unknown to the cable news channel, the phone number connects to a Church of Scientology center in Los Angeles, where Scientologists were manning the phones.

Scientology officials said the number is a hotline offering referrals to other agencies, as well as emotional support.

"It was entirely a good-faith attempt to help people," said Ben Shaw, a Clearwater Scientology official.

Church spokesman Kurt Weiland in Los Angeles said the phrase "National Mental Health Assistance" must have come from Fox. "I can assure you it didn't come from us," he said. Scientology firmly opposes psychiatry, and church members campaign to eliminate psychiatric practices in mental health.

Fox News spokesman Robert Zimmerman said the station received an e-mail about the hotline and aired the number without checking it.

The e-mail, which Zimmerman faxed to the Times, reads, "National Mental Health Assistance crisis hot line now open. Call 1-800-FOR-TRUTH." It makes no reference to Scientology.

"The bottom line is we (messed) up," Zimmerman said. "Unfortunately, it didn't get vetted. We apologize."

The hotline information ran for several hours -- once appearing below the image of President Bush and his wife, Laura, at the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance in Washington.

The news channel yanked the information Friday after learning of the Scientology connection, Zimmerman said.

Michael Faenza, president and chief executive of the National Mental Health Association, called the hotline number "outrageous" and said Scientology "is the last organization" emotionally vulnerable people should call.

"They just leave a wake of destruction in the realm of mental health," he said.

The mental health association, based in Virginia, is the country's oldest and largest nonprofit organization addressing all aspects of mental health and mental illness.

"This is a very important and sensitive time," Faenza said. "I'd urge the Church of Scientology to stay out of the mental health side of what happens in the country now."

Church officials said no one was being recruited on the hotline and it did not attempt to disguise Scientology's involvement.

"There's no attempt to hide anything," Weiland said. "Given the circumstances, it's more or less irrelevant because no one even talks about Scientology when they call."

In some cases, callers were referred by the four Scientologists answering the phones to agencies compiling information about missing people.

In other cases, callers were directed to agencies taking collections, Weiland said. If people called crying and upset, he said, they were told they could visit a Scientology center.

"These people are grief-stricken," Weiland said. "Our people are working with them to provide help through assistance methods we have in the church to relieve spiritual suffering."

When a reporter called, a volunteer said free copies of a booklet, Solutions for a Dangerous Environment, were available to callers. The booklet is a Scientology publication based on the works of L. Ron Hubbard, although that was not mentioned in the phone call.

The Church of Scientology has 450 volunteers assisting cleanup and rescue efforts in New York, Weiland said.

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