Independent senator for South Australia, Nick Xenophon, has slammed Melbourne’s Lord Mayor Robert Doyle for attending the opening of a multi-million dollar church of Scientology in Ascot Vale last weekend.

Mr Doyle downplayed his visit to the Ideal Scientology Church on Mount Alexander Road as “a favour” to his friend, singer Kate Ceberano. Mr Doyle told 3AW, “in no way was this any affirmation or support for the religion or the church”.

However, “whilst he may not have intended it, he was sanctioning an organisation whose activities have caused a lot of distress and harm,” Mr Xenophon told Neos Kosmos. Mr Xenophon wrote to Mr Doyle earlier in the week requesting the Mayor meet with “victims” of the Church of Scientology.

“That way he can hear firsthand behind the glitz and the glamour there’s another perspective. Thousands of lives have been destroyed by virtue of their involvement with this organisation,” Mr Xenophon said.

Former president of the Church of Scientology Melbourne, and ongoing parishioner, Emmanuel Foundas, described the reaction to Mr Doyle’s attendance of last weekend’s opening as “abhorrent”.

“We live in one of the world’s most multicultural, multifaceted cities and the Lord Mayor can’t attend an opening of a church of one of those religions without getting lambasted. It’s just wrong,” Mr Foundas told Neos Kosmos.

Scientology is a recognised religion, Mr Foundas insists.

“The High Court deemed us to be a religion, we fought for our rights to be a religion, so anyone who calls our religion a cult is either misinformed or just purely vilifying us,” he said.

The former president, who remains Greek Orthodox, said “fear of the unknown” is the basis for most people’s misunderstanding of Scientology.

“If you come in to see us we’ll say ‘how can we help you?’ not ‘how can we convert you?’,” Mr Foundas said. “You don’t get converted into Scientology. I remain Greek Orthodox; you don’t renounce your religion, you can if you want to but that’s your own thing, you don’t have to”.

Scientology ‘victims’ that Mr Xenophon has spoken to are a group of about six people that have tried to “undermine the church for a while”, Mr Foundas said. “I’ve looked at each of those cases and the accusations those people have made are just blaringly false”.

However, Paul Schofield, who was a Scientologist for 30 years before leaving the church in 2008, said there are almost 1400 ex-scientologists across the world who have publicly spoken out against Scientology.

During his time with the church Mr Schofield worked for the church as well as working other jobs in order to financially support his family.

“You didn’t get paid a wage or living expenses. If the church makes enough money it will pay you a portion of the money it makes,” Mr Schofield told Neos Kosmos.

Mr Schofield first became suspicious during the Basics Books Donations campaign, where the church alleged to have donated 15,000 Scientology books (valued at around $3000 per set) to libraries across Australia but the library database showed only 300 had been donated.

“When I asked questions I was greeted with incredible suspicion and no one could give me an answer,” Mr Schofield said. “I realised I’d been conned mercilessly”.

Scientologists are charged for services such as counselling and courses, Mr Schofield said.

“It’s incredibly expensive. If you go to the ‘spiritual headquarters’ in Florida you can pay a grand an hour, and these thing are not just encouraged, you get to a point in your Scientology progression and you have to go to these things and spend the big bucks; this is where the money is sucked out”.

Leaving the church was not without a fight, Mr Schofield said.

“After I left I became reasonably active in protesting in Melbourne and speaking to media and then I had a Private Investigator turn up at my work. I was being watched, which is standard Scientology practice”.

Nick Xenophon is continuing his campaign to have the Church of Scientology’s tax-free status revoked. “I think the Scientologist church should be subject to some rigorous tests,” he said. “In the UK the church of Scientology can’t get tax free status because they can’t fulfil public benefit tests; that’s the sort of thing that needs to be looked at”.

In response to this Mr Foundas drew on the example of a Human Rights program the church previously ran in Victorian schools, which was cut without consultation by the Victorian Education Department following comments Mr Xenophon made in Parliament. “It’s a vicious circle. They cut our programs and then accuse us of not doing anything for the community,” he said.

“We’re looking forward to working with youth communities in Ascot Vale, but if you turn around and say ‘they’re an evil cult, don’t talk to them’, then how am I supposed to communicate to these people about my community programs?” he added.

“Rather than trying to stop us at every turn, give us a chance to show you how our community campaigns and what we can give to the community. Actually support us and help us and we’ll show you exactly what we can achieve”.

The spokesperson for Nick Xenophon said Robert Doyle is yet to respond to Mr Xenophon’s letter, requesting the Mayor meet with ex-scientologists.