Scientology's new tack
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 20, 1998
hen Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe filed two criminal charges against the Church of Scientology last week over Lisa McPherson's death, the reaction of church officials was unusually benign.
"We'd like to see how to move forward and put this unfortunate incident behind us," said Mike Rinder, a top Scientology official known more for his attacking style.
The church's attitude in January 1997 was very different. It sued Pinellas County Medical Examiner Joan Wood after she said McPherson went without fluids for five to 10 days before her death, and a Scientology attorney called the respected medical examiner a "hateful liar."
The church's recent softening of tone and tactics does not answer the troubling questions raised by the criminal charges. Details of the 36-year-old woman's final days held inside a room at the Fort Harrison Hotel, the church's spiritual headquarters in downtown Clearwater, are horrific and cannot be explained away simply as an "unfortunate incident."
An 18-page affidavit filed with the charges details how Scientology employees lied to investigators, lost or destroyed crucial evidence, used medically suspect practices such as force-feeding McPherson herbal concoctions, injected her with prescription drugs without a doctor's evaluation of the patient, and ordered those who questioned the ill woman's care to "butt out."
It is clear from the affidavit that McPherson's life probably could have been saved with timely medical care. Instead, after suffering a mental breakdown following a minor traffic accident, McPherson was retrieved from the emergency room by fellow Scientologists, held in a room for 17 days and subjected to what Scientologists call "an introspection rundown," which begins with isolation. Even when a church employee recognized that McPherson needed immediate medical attention, it took 41/2 hours to deliver her to a New Port Richey hospital. McPherson was dead on arrival; she had lost 30 to 40 pounds during her ordeal.
McCabe acted responsibly by bringing the nearly 3-year investigation to an appropriate conclusion. He charged the Church of Scientology with abuse or neglect of a disabled adult, a second-degree felony, and unauthorized practice of medicine, a third-degree felony. Since the charges are against a corporation, no prison sentence is possible in the event of a conviction. Florida law calls for a maximum fine of $15,000, and the church could be liable for other costs.
While the potential punishment may be seen as light for an organization with ample resources, the charges are significant. The Church of Scientology has been accused of serious violations of law that ended in an unnecessary death.
It is not clear why McCabe charged no individuals with a crime. The affidavit alleges that two supervisory employees, Alain Kartuzinski and Janice Johnson, made the medical decisions for McPherson (though neither has a Florida doctor's license) and kept concerned employees from seeking outside help.
Scientology officials have not said how they will plead, but they sound like they are ready to put the matter behind them. For the first time, they have admitted they made a mistake in the McPherson case.
"I would say there is never going to be something like this that happens again because there is never going to be someone under similar circumstances that will be allowed to stay in the Fort Harrison," Rinder said.
While that is a more rational reaction than a shrill attack on an accuser, church officials cannot wipe the slate clean so easily.
A skeptical public still wonders: What has changed inside the Church of Scientology that will save the next Lisa McPherson?