Again, Scientology's Secrecy Arouses Suspicion

Source: St. Petersburg Times
Date: April 12, 1996

It is impossible to envision the day when Clearwater puts up signs at the city limits that say, "Welcome to sparkling Clearwater, spiritual headquarters of the Church of Scientology." Two decades after Scientology secretly started buying property and establishing its considerable presence downtown, there remains an enormous amount of mistrust about its goals and motives.

Unfortunately, Scientology has no one to blame but itself for much of the criticism its leaders adamantly argue is unwarranted. Scientology's recent purchase of three small motels north of downtown Clearwater will heighten suspicion. The organization bought the motels on N Fort Harrison Avenue through an Orlando company. It apparently didn't plan to disclose the purchases until the Times independently learned about them. That secretiveness reminds Scientology critics of how the church secretly started buying land 20 years ago under the name United Churches of Florida.

There is nothing illegal, unethical or uncommon about buying property through a third party. Deep-pocket businesses often don't want to reveal their identity when they're negotiating purchases, because the sellers are tempted to inflate the price far beyond the property's true value. Disney did not reveal its identity when it bought thousands of acres in 1965 in Central Florida, and it has often hidden its purchases through various corporate names to avoid price gouging.

But unlike the Church of Scientology, Disney and other businesses usually like to tell the community about their purchases after the deal is done. There always will be considerable public interest in Scientology's activities because of its size. For an organization that appears to be intensely interested in improving its image and promoting its value to Clearwater, Scientology's paranoid secretiveness is a curious public relations strategy.

The organization has plenty to promote about the purchase of the three motels. The area is well known as a spot where illegal drugs and prostitution are common, and large numbers of Scientologists moving in should help drive those problems away. The motels were not in the best shape, and Scientology already is upgrading them. The small size of the properties also makes it unlikely they could be redeveloped for other uses. For all of these reasons, the president of the Old Clearwater Bay Neighborhood Association is understandably upbeat about her new neighbor.

But the Church of Scientology has an uncanny knack for creating controversy. There is a public candidates forum at its Fort Harrison Hotel, but a Times reporter is refused entry and the candidates brave enough to attend the event are embarrassed. The church tries to pack more staffers into its Hacienda Gardens complex, and the zoning request is denied. So it buys three nondescript motels and appears poised to make a positive contribution to the neighborhood, but its secretiveness arouses more suspicion.

"Why don't they believe in the truth and see what happens?" Clearwater Mayor Rita Garvey asks.

Good question.