Hearing on church suit continues at a crawl
By DEBORAH O'NEIL, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- Monday was supposed to be Day One of the long-delayed wrongful death trial against the Church of Scientology.
Instead, it was Day 22 of a hearing to throw out the lawsuit that blames the church for the 1995 death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson.
The hearing, which began May 2 and now boasts nearly 300 exhibits, is not nearly over. Judge Susan Schaeffer has set aside most of this week and next for the proceeding.
The church is accusing attorney Ken Dandar, who represents McPherson's estate, of serious professional misconduct and perjury and wants Schaeffer to dismiss the suit.
Testifying on behalf of the church has been Robert Minton, the New England millionaire who gave Dandar $2-million for the lawsuit but now says Dandar told him to lie.
Dandar has denied all the allegations and says Scientology is trying to derail the case to stop it from being heard by a jury.
Should the 5-year-old case go to trial, it will probably begin in August or "more likely September," Dandar said.
The day was filled largely with the testimony of a former Scientologist, Teresa Summers, 43, of Dunedin, who left the church in 1999 after 20 years. She later went to work for a now-defunct anti-Scientology organization founded by Minton in Clearwater.
Over repeated objections by church attorneys, Summers testified about her experiences as a member of Scientology's Sea Organization in Clearwater, the uniformed "fraternal order" that staffs the church.
Staff housing, she said, had roaches.
But the Fort Harrison Hotel, the church's downtown Clearwater spiritual retreat, was a magnet for Scientology's rich and famous, Summers said.
Clearwater, Summers said, is very important to Scientology. "It's supposed to be the first Scientology city," she said.
The church, she said, has a practice known as "safe pointing," where Scientologists join community organizations so there is better understanding and less scrutiny of the church. "It's a way of encroaching into the area," she said.
Church spokesman Ben Shaw called Summers' testimony "unadulterated garbage." There has never been a plan to make Clearwater a "Scientology city," he said. He also said Summers distorted the purpose of safe pointing.
"When you live in an environment you should make friends with your neighbors so you can live in safety," he said. "The basic concept is being friendly with your neighbors, getting involved in your community."
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times
local news desks