SCIENTOLOGY, the religion of choice for some of Hollywood's highest-profile celebrities, hit the headlines recently after a teenager found himself facing legal action for branding it a cult.

Shoppers on the streets of Poole seemed to agree with the 15-year-old's assessment, but is the cult label unfair?

The fact that it was founded in the 1950s by a science fiction writer, L Ron Hubbard, certainly makes it unlike any traditional belief system, and bizarre tales which appear in the Press don't boost its credibility.

If some reports are to be believed, the movement involves handing over large wads of cash in return for spiritual enlightenment, banning mums from screaming during labour, and a belief in alien beings.

Its practices, which appear to involve various stages of therapy to purge painful memories, are largely shrouded in mystery - which in turn heightens suspicion.

While its most famous devotees, including Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes and John Travolta, are far removed in Tinsel Town, Scientology has found its way to Poole.

The High Street is home to the Bournemouth Mission, one of just 14 Churches of Scientology in the country.

While gathering views on the movement for a news story, I was approached by one of the mission's members and offered a glimpse into their world.

After answering three questions about what I wanted out of life, I was invited inside their offices.

Despite making an effort to be open-minded and put to one side all the outlandish things I'd heard, I was somehow expecting to meet a bunch of glassy-eyed devotees.

But the adherents I met were disarmingly normal.

Norman, friendly and sincere, sat me down next to a large stack of copies of the two-inch-thick L Ron Hubbard book Dianetics, and explained how it could help me improve my life and achieve what I wanted.

I gather that engaging with Scientology involves purchasing this weighty volume.

I must have looked a bit sceptical because Norman asked if I wanted to watch a 40-minute documentary which would, he said, "answer all my questions".

With its smiling personal recommendations and cheesy American voiceover, the DVD was reminiscent of a self-help guide.

But my ears pricked up when it said everything from depression to unwanted aches and pains could be explained by something called the "reactive mind" which stored "painful experiences and uses them to control you".

Sadly, at that point my viewing was interrupted by another church member who seemed unhappy about the fact I was a reporter taking notes.

The DVD was swiftly replaced with the far less controversial Scientology: An Overview.

Although the people I met in Poole were friendly and told me they tried to be as open as possible, I sensed I wasn't wanted.

Scientology has long had an uneasy relationship with the Press, which is perhaps why it maintains an intriguing aura of secrecy.

But, as a pleasant woman called Heather said as she ushered me out, they are used to being regarded with suspicion.

"At least we're not getting thrown to the lions," she added, reminding me that even Christianity was "new" once.

Where Scientology will be 2,000 years from now is anyone's guess.