Scientologists who cross their religion can be declared suppressive persons, shunned by peers and ostracized by family.
Published June 25, 2006
Religions have always penalized those who betray the cause.
Catholics excommunicate, barring the wayward from church rites. The Amish, Jehovah's Witnesses and some orthodox Jewish sects shun their nonconformists.
In the Tampa Bay area's burgeoning Scientology community, members abide by a policy considered by some religious experts extreme: Scientologists declare their outcasts "suppressive persons."
Another Scientology policy - called "disconnection" - forbids Scientologists from interacting with a suppressive person. No calls, no letters, no contact.
An SP is a pariah. Anyone who communicates with an SP risks being branded an SP himself.
Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard wrote the policies four decades ago, church leaders say, not as a tool to oust members but to provide those going astray with a mechanism to return to the church's good graces. That aligns with Scientology's tenets of improving communication, strengthening relationships.
But SPs who have felt the sting and other church critics say the suppressive person policy is a sledgehammer to keep marginal members in line - and in the flock.
Whatever Scientology's motivation, its suppressive person policy results in wrenching pain, say a dozen SPs interviewed by the St. Petersburg Times.
Some have gone years without seeing or talking with sons, daughters, mothers, fathers - all of whom abide by Scientology's no-contact requirement.
For a Scientologist thinking of forsaking the church, the decision is grueling: stay in or risk being ostracized from loved ones and friends.
It left Caroline Brown in Cincinnati, weeping at the sight of a basketball court.
* * *
Like so many Scientologists, Caroline and her family came to Clearwater in 1991 to escape the "wog" non-Scientology world.
By 1998, she was divorced and living with her teenage daughter, Darby Zoccali. Her ex-husband and son lived together just a few miles away.
Caroline was unhappy, depressed. Her drinking strained her relationship with Darby.
Mother and daughter agreed Caroline could give her life new purpose by taking a Scientology job in Ohio. As a church staffer, her Scientology counseling would be free.
Darby, who just turned 18, stayed in Clearwater in her own apartment.
But the counseling in Cincinnati didn't help, Caroline said. Depressed and having anxiety attacks, she was flat broke and crying herself to sleep.
Walking past a basketball court one day, she burst into tears.
Her son played basketball. What was she doing in Cincinnati, working 14 hours a day, seven days a week, a thousand miles away from her son and daughter?
Caroline decided to bolt - from Cincinnati and from Scientology - even though she knew she almost certainly would be declared a suppressive person.
Hers was an "unauthorized departure," akin to going AWOL. To leave church service in good standing, Scientology staffers must complete "sec checks" - short for security checks.
They are like confessionals. Scientologists spell out transgressions to "feel better about them and take responsibility for them," Clearwater church spokesman Ben Shaw said. "It is one of the most invigorating experiences you can imagine."
The process can take months. Fellow church staffers pose questions to the outgoing member seeking to discover "crimes" deemed to be the source of suppressive acts.
Questions include whether an SP has made statements against Scientology to friends or to the media, but the sec checks can be extremely personal, according to church documents obtained by the Times. Questions can probe possible drug use, history of theft or nonpayment of taxes, or ask about masturbation or homosexuality.
A staffer who leaves without routing out through sec checks violates a signed church contract, Shaw said, and likely will be declared an SP.
That's what happened to Caroline. After she returned to Clearwater, the Scientology community turned its back.
She bumped into an old Scientology friend at a Dollar Store. Without so much as a hello, the woman said, "Go handle it. You go fix it. Handle it."
Darby wrote her mother a disconnection letter, and helped her brother, then 14, write one too. The letters are clear: Until you get back on good terms with Scientology, Mom, we're disconnecting.
Darby says her decision to disconnect from her mother had nothing to do with Scientology. She says her mother doesn't need to become a Scientologist again for them to have a relationship. But she needs to do the sec checks to remove the SP label.
Her message for her mother: "All you have to do is fix it. So do it. It's not that horrible."
Now 23, Darby is a Pilates instructor and a service broker for her boyfriend's telecom company. She took her first Scientology class when her mother was in Cincinnati.
"Every time I used it, my life got better," she said. "I'm not going to give that up for someone who created so much pain."
Her mother knew the consequences of walking away. "It's more like she disconnected from me," Darby said.
When Caroline got her son's disconnection letter, she called a lawyer. Her parental rights trumped Scientology's disconnection doctrine. She and the boy met at Cody's Roadhouse in Clearwater.
"I love you more than any other human being on the planet," she told her son.
He lit up, she said. She now sees him regularly. But not Darby.
"My heart is still broken about not having my family," Caroline said. "I'm the one who got her (Darby) in it, I'd like to be the one who gets her out."
Remarried now, Caroline attends St. Petersburg College, hoping to become an art teacher.
"It's fun creating a new life," she said. "I just wish the ones I love more than anyone in the world could be part of it."
* * *
The suppressive persons who spoke to the Times were declared SPs because they publicly and repeatedly challenged the church. They also faced the church's regimented internal justice system.
The process typically begins with a Scientologist writing a "knowledge report" about another church member, outlining alleged transgressions. The accused may be directed to undergo ethics counseling or ordered to face a "committee of evidence," a tribunal of church staff members who, acting as jurors, determine if the person has committed suppressive acts.
Suppressive acts must be renounced, and suppressive persons must atone. Failing to comply carries heavy consequences, as Randy Payne discovered.
* * *
For two decades, Payne, 53, was a dedicated Scientologist. He and his wife published a Scientology newspaper in Clearwater. He paid tens of thousands of dollars for Scientology training.
He expanded his Clearwater private school, Lighthouse, which incorporated L. Ron Hubbard's study techniques, and opened sister schools in Scientology's target markets of Hungary, the Czech Republic and Italy.
To use Hubbard's "tech" and materials, Payne agreed to pay 10 percent of his schools' revenues. He paid the fee initially, but stopped in 1997 because he said his curriculum had evolved to a point where Hubbard's techniques were used only marginally.
The church threatened to declare him an SP.
"It's the ultimate weapon for them because no one can talk to you," Payne said.
He pleaded his case through four committees of evidence - two held in Clearwater, two in Los Angeles. He formally was declared a suppressive person on May 11, 2003. The order said Payne "spread false and derogatory statements to others about Scientology and Church staff."
Scientology agents sought to cut off Payne's ties to the church community. A church ethics officer told an employee at Payne's school that he needed to quit, according to a note the employee wrote to Payne. Church staffers informed Payne's students who were Scientologists that Payne had been declared and that they should leave the school, he said.
The suppressive person policy was used against him as a form of extortion, Payne said, to get him to pay the fees.
He wrote legislators and met with law enforcement officials, asking they investigate his claim of extortion.
Last October, Payne made a more public protest that could happen only in Clearwater. During the opening moments of a Clearwater City Council meeting, when residents typically complain about parking problems and potholes, Payne stood and with TV cameras recording his every word, complained about the Church of Scientology:
"It is my belief that this church's leadership has created a corrupt internal justice system to enforce its money-making scheme on individuals and businesses."
Council members sat mute.
* * *
Extreme? Perhaps. Effective? Definitely.
That's the view of many religious scholars who say the motive behind Scientology's suppressive person doctrine is clear: keep members from breaking ranks.
"That's the way the church keeps discipline," said J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion, a think tank in Santa Barbara, Calif., that focuses on smaller groups. "For them, that's an internal control mechanism."
Scientology's disconnection requirement is far more extreme than the severing practices of most modern religions, Melton said.
"I just think it would be better for all concerned if they just let them go ahead and get out and everyone goes their own way, and not make such a big deal of it," said Melton. "The policy hurts everybody."
Church spokesman Shaw suggested the Times interview two other professors who have testified in Scientology's behalf in legal cases.
"It is rather strict," said the first, F.K. Flinn, adjunct professor of religious studies at Washington University in St. Louis. It also is characteristic of a young religion, he said.
"It has to do with feeling threatened because you're not that big. You do everything you can to keep unity in the group."
Scientology is not as controlling as were the early Christians, Flinn said. Its SP practices are akin to the shunning of the Amish and Jehovah's Witnesses. Some Amish communities allow contact with close friends and families; Jehovah's Witnesses cut off all communication except in cases of family business or emergency.
The second expert Shaw suggested, Newton Maloney, a professor at the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., characterized Scientology's disconnection policy as "too extreme," particularly as it affects families.
"Some people I've talked to, they just wanted to go on with their lives and they wanted to be in touch with their daughter or son or parent. The shunning was just painful. And I don't know what it was accomplishing.
"And the very terms they use are scary, aren't they?"
Shaw says the church's policy is far from extreme. Doesn't everyone distance themselves from negative influences?
"Prisoners are disconnected from society," Shaw said. "Employees are fired, spouses scorned and divorced by their partner."
Unethical lawyers are disbarred. Discriminatory businesses are boycotted. Journalists who fabricate stories are fired, he said.
"All of these actions represent the practice of disconnection in cases where an antisocial person will not reform or restrain their destructive actions."
The suppressive person and disconnection policies are a last resort, Shaw said.
"The only reason to declare someone a suppressive person is to give them a road map to their own salvation."
And many SPs have returned.
Hubbard once wrote that SPs were "fair game," meaning that they could be "tricked, sued or lied to or destroyed." Hubbard canceled the "fair game" policy in 1976, saying it was never intended to authorize "illegal or harassment type acts against anyone." Church critics, however, remain wary.
* * *
Potential Trouble Source. No Scientologist wants to be called that. PTSs can't take classes or get the spiritual counseling called auditing. But if you maintain contact with a suppressive person, that's what you are.
Two recorded messages left last year on the answering machine of Creed Pearson illustrate just how serious this can be.
The caller: Scientologist Kathy Feshbach, a major contributor and founder of a Scientology mission in Belleair.
The first call was placed on March 2.
"Hi ... this is Kathy Feshbach. ... Ah, George Mariani is running for mayor again in Belleair, called us; wants us to have all our friends over on Sunday at our house at 4 for him to talk. It's really important because No.1, he is reaching for us, the Scientologists. So that's really a good indicator. So I really want to have a big showing for him. ... So, anyway, it's a big deal that the mayor called us so I really want you guys to come over."
What Feshbach did not know was that Pearson - a Scientologist for 25 years and big church donor - had been declared a suppressive person the previous month. Pearson, 50, said he was declared because he told his friends in Scientology that the religion was being altered by current management. He also said L. Ron Hubbard had lied while ticking off his accomplishments during a speech.
Four days later Feshbach called Pearson back and left a second message. It was clear she had learned he was a suppressive.
"Hi, Creed, this is Kathy Feshbach. Sunday morning ... I just heard that you were under some kind of ethics cycle. So, you are not invited to our house today. I am sure you understand. So, ah, thank you very much for understanding. Please do not attend the event. Thank you very much for understanding."
* * *
As the community of Scientologists has grown to an estimated 10,000 in the Tampa Bay area, so too has the number of declared SPs increased, according to church officials and former members.
Shaw said there are only about 40 SPs in the bay area. Former Scientologists say the number of suppressive people is much higher.
Thousands of SP declare files are kept at the church's administrative headquarters in California, said Astra Woodcraft, who worked there for three years ending in 1998.
Now, she is in those files herself.
* * *
The Woodcrafts are a family divided. The mother, a son and grandmother are Scientologists. The father and two daughters left.
The two sides do not speak.
Raised with her brother and sister in Scientology, Astra Woodcraft spent two years in Clearwater as a teen, living in a church-owned motel on U.S. 19 and serving as a Scientology cadet.
Her family later moved to Los Angeles and at 14 she joined the Sea Org, the legion of church staffers who dedicate their lives to church service. Woodcraft was assigned to the ethics security team, which tried to keep people from leaving Scientology.
One month after turning 15, she married a 22-year-old fellow Sea Org member. A few years later, she traveled to England to attend her grandmother's funeral. Enthralled with "the outside world," she stayed on for a time in England and decided to leave Scientology.
Her husband wrote her from Los Angeles: "What really will happen if you decide not to come back and get declared? I will have to disconnect from you, and so will the rest of your family - your Mom, your Dad, Grandma, Matt and Zoe. Or, you come back and standardly handle the situation, with whatever decision you have made."
Woodcraft, pregnant, filed for divorce. She was 20. She returned to the church in L.A. in April 1998 and did her sec checks. It took a month. She signed a document admitting to trying marijuana at age 13 and once stealing a pair of pantyhose.
Then she left. Scientology hit her with a "freeloader's bill" for $80,000. Sea Org staffers get Scientology courses and auditing for free. But leave, and you are billed retroactively. She refused to pay.
Later, Woodcraft's younger sister, then 15, also left Scientology. She was in the Cadet Org, living with her mother, then a church staffer in Clearwater. She called her father, who had been declared an SP years earlier. He picked her up at the Clearwater Library and spirited her away.
Shaw provided the Times a letter from Astra Woodcraft's mother, Leslie Woodcraft.
"While not happy about it, I could have accepted her (Astra's) decision to leave church staff," Leslie Woodcraft wrote. "But what is very, very upsetting is that she reverted to her old, dishonest ways."
Astra became a "puppet of vested interests and her 'story' - lies and false accusations really," Leslie stated, likely made as a way to seek attention.
The letter ended, "Still, I have not given up hope that one day Astra will realize that she made a decision that, as final as it may appear to her now, can be reverted."
Astra says she left "not hating Scientology," but the church's reaction left her wanting nothing to do with it.
"The hardest thing for me is explaining to my daughter why she can't see her dad," who did not contest Astra getting sole custody. "I don't want him to see her. I don't want Scientology to touch her in any form."
But she wishes she could speak to her brother and mother and grandmother, all of whom remain Scientologists.
"I really love my mom and I miss her a lot," Astra said. "I would love for her to see my daughter."
Robert Farley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4159.