In the Presence of Scientology

Source: National Post
Date: December 29, 1998

In 1995, a 36-year-old believer of Scientology died. Now, three years later, the state attorney has filed charges against the church, which made its headquarters in Clearwater, Fla., 23 years ago. As believers and non-believers clash, the relationship between community leaders and church members is delicate.

The city buses chugging past downtown crowds three weeks ago bore strange and startling messages on the sides: "Think for Yourself.

Quit Scientology," said one. "Doubt is Not a Crime," said another.

"Run, don't walk - Quit Scientology."

In almost any other town in America, the advertisements would have been puzzling and meaningless. But in Clearwater, where the population of 110,000 includes perhaps as many as 10,000 adherents to the Church of Scientology, they were fighting words.

"That's like saying, 'Blacks, get out of town,' " says Scientology spokeswoman Pat Jones, who also is African American.

Scientologists deluged the homes of City Council and Transit Authority members with complaints. Within a day, the ads were gone.

Perhaps at no time has the relationship between the Church of Scientology and city leaders been so delicate since the nouveau religion decided to make this sleepy Gulf Coast town its spiritual headquarters 23 years ago.

Officials would like to embrace the church as a key mover in the downtown revitalization. Pinellas County officials looked on when the church broke ground Nov. 21 for its $45-million "Super Power Project," a 27,000-square-metre "mecca" for Scientologists.

But just a week earlier, the state attorney had filed charges against the church in connection with the 1995 death of a 36-year-old believer. Lisa McPherson was pronounced dead on arrival at a New Port Richey, Fla., hospital after being kept in isolation at the Scientologists' Fort Harrison Hotel 45 minutes away in Clearwater.

The coming trial - a status conference is scheduled today in St. Petersburg, Fla. - promises to be a low point in the long history of acrimony over the religion's presence here. And it will raise uncomfortable questions about the way the church deals with its own affairs and those of the surrounding community.

Frank Oliver, a Miami graphics designer who leads a group called Former Scientologists Speaking Out that had rented the bus space, says the Transit Authority's quick decision to kill the ads underscores the situation.

"How does saying 'doubt is not a crime' infringe on their rights?" Mr. Oliver asks. "How much power does the church exert on local government?"

By most appearances, the organization that arrived in Clearwater under an assumed name in 1975 had blossomed into a model citizen by the time the criminal charges were filed.

After years of rancour in which the church countered City Council hostility and police investigations with lawsuits, demonstrations and investigations of its own, the church went on a major good-citizen campaign.

It spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to spiff up a historic downtown bank building and began hosting performances there by local musicians, opera singers, chamber orchestras, and others. Six years ago, it started the Winter Wonderland Festival, a popular Christmas event that is listed on the Chamber of Commerce calendar of events.

The November groundbreaking signals a major impact on downtown development plans.

"In order to come up with a game plan on how to deal with the revitalization of the community, we need to deal with everybody," says Mike Roberto. Clearwater's city manager. The church, he says is "not a dominant entity, but they are a factor. They're very visible nationwide; it's a topic of some conversation."

Mr. Roberto has been in his job for 16 months - before that, he was city manager of North Miami Beach. He came to Clearwater knowing very little about Scientology, he says, except for the "contentious" relationship between the church and city.

He invited Scientology officials to talk. He also spoke to other churches and downtown business owners. To Mr. Roberto, it was a practical matter. "They bring a lot of people here from other parts of the country, and internationally," he says. "Those people eat and shop. We're trying to take that into consideration."

Clearwater is the religious retreat for the church, whose membership is either the eight million worldwide that it claims, or the 200,000 that critics assert. Los Angeles, where stars like John Travolta and Tom Cruise are prominent Scientologists, is the administrative headquarters. The street in front of the Los Angeles office was recently named L. Ron Hubbard Way after Scientology's founder.

Scientology came to Clearwater as Southern Land Sales and Development, paying $2.3-million cash for the Fort Harrison. The buyers at first said they were with a group called United Churches of Florida.

Scientology founder Lafayette Ronald Hubbard wanted a "land base" for his church, which in 20 years had become a fast-growing organization already drawing adherents and critics worldwide.

Mr. Hubbard, who died in 1986, was a science-fiction and adventure writer who wrote for pulp publications with names like Astounding Magazine. He turned to book writing and philosophy, and in 1950 published what turned out to be the genesis of Scientology - - a self-help book called Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. It decried formal psychiatry while advocating its own blend of therapy and treatments. It became an instant best-seller.

Today, the church's income comes primarily from selling courses based on the theory that the human mind can be cleared of negative influences through a process called "auditing." An electronic device comparable to a low-level lie-detector, called an "E-meter," is used to identify psychological problems. The person being audited confesses to past sins and problems and talks through them.

Scientologists welcome Christians, Jews, and anybody practicing any other religion. They believe in God, but their philosophy is based on man's inner spirit. They also believe in reincarnation and that everybody has lived several lives, dating back millions of years.

People need to be "cleared" of the bad things that have happened in this and in past lives, Scientologists believe. With the help of auditing, ministers and the E-meter, they can become "clear."

Lisa McPherson was "cleared" in September, 1995. Four months later, she was dead.

Kennan Dandar, a Tampa, Fla., attorney, is representing Ms. McPherson's family in a wrongful death lawsuit against the Church of Scientology. He claims Ms. McPherson was trying to leave the church after 19 years and they wanted to stop her.

"In her final days, she was virtually begging for help," Mr.

Dandar said. "What happened to Lisa was disgusting."

Scientologists say Ms. McPherson was happy in the church, and wasn't planning to leave.

On Nov. 17, 1995, Ms. McPherson was driving her Jeep when she rear-ended a boat trailer at a low speed. Nobody was injured. But Ms. McPherson stripped off her clothes in the middle of the street, and walked up to paramedics. She kept repeating, "I'm a bad person; I'm a bad person," paramedic Bonita Portolano testified in a deposition.

The paramedics took her to Morton Plant Hospital in downtown Clearwater. She told someone to call the Scientology offices, and soon, five or six Scientologists showed up. She checked out of the hospital, against the advice of Dr. Flynn Lovett.

Scientology caretakers kept notes about Ms. McPherson's subsequent treatment. Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents obtained the notes - all except those covering the final 53 hours of Ms. McPherson's life. Those "have been lost or destroyed by the Church," wrote agent A.L. Strope.

Among the notes the FDLE did find was this:

Ms. McPherson was "blabbering, incoherent nonstop, shaking, no warm clothes on," Scientologist Alice Van Grundelle wrote in a note dated Nov. 22."I finally chased her around the place 50 times and got on slacks and T-shirt, jacket, socks, and shoes. She was like an ice cube. She talked incoherently hour after hour. She refused to eat and spit out everything she took. Her breath was foul. She looked ill like measles or chicken pox on her face."

Scientologists kept Ms. McPherson in the hotel room for another 13 days. Morton Plant Hospital is just a few blocks from the hotel, but Ms. McPherson wasn't seen by a licensed doctor until she was taken to the emergency room at another hospital 45 minutes away.

That doctor, Scientologist David Minkoff, pronounced her dead.

Her appearance, he said, was "horrific."

FDLE investigators and the Clearwater police department worked for nearly three years, compiling a 7,000-page file, before presenting their case to Pinellas County state attorney Bernie McCabe. Mr. McCabe decided to file the criminal complaint against the church but declined to name any individuals.

Critics say he didn't go far enough. If the church is found guilty of the charges in connection with Ms. McPherson's death - abuse or neglect of a disabled adult, a second-degree felony; and unauthorized practice of medicine, a third-degree felony - it will face a fine of no more than $15,000. No individual would face a jail sentence.

Police won't say what charge they recommended, and the state attorney's office won't comment.

But there is no doubt Ms. McPherson's death and the criminal charges against the church reopened old suspicions among many in Clearwater who had come to accept Scientology as a part of the community.

The downtown demonstrations by anti-Scientologists every year on the anniversary of Ms. McPherson's death, the bus ads earlier this month and the publicity given to the criminal charges have put the church under scrutiny again.

There's no good reason for it, Scientologists say.

"If it were any other church, this would have been damped out within weeks," spokesman Brian Anderson says. "The story would have died."