Scientology critics to decamp
By DEBORAH O'NEIL
© St. Petersburg Times,
CLEARWATER -- A group of outspoken Scientology critics that operated downtown for nearly two years is disbanding and will likely close its Clearwater headquarters, buckling under the strain of legal entanglements with the church.
The Lisa McPherson Trust, founded by New England millionaire Robert Minton and named after a Scientologist who died in the church's care, probably will close its headquarters, but it is not clear when, Minton said.
"For everyone's peace of mind and to be able to continue to do what we're trying to do, it's better we're not there," he said Friday from his New Hampshire home. "It's disappointing, for sure."
He added, "I don't feel beaten. I should, but I don't. I think we will be able to still continue what we're doing and be able to do it somewhere more peaceably."
Already some trust staff members have moved out of state, and some of its records have been removed from the office at 33 N Fort Harrison, Minton said.
The trust's departure will change the face of Clearwater, where the two sides have battled in the streets and in the courts.
The group's stated mission was to "expose the deceptive and abusive practices of Scientology and help those victimized by it."
Church spokesman Ben Shaw said the church is happy to see the critics go.
"Clearwater is better off without them," Shaw said. "They came here to stir up trouble and all they managed to do is stir up trouble for themselves."
The move comes during Scientology's fastest period of growth in Clearwater since the church arrived in 1975. Some 700 additional Scientologists are expected to move to Clearwater in coming years to work in the new Flag Building under construction downtown. The church recently completed expansions of its hotel accommodations for visiting Scientologists.
The Lisa McPherson Trust has found itself embroiled in criminal and civil litigation with the church ever since the group arrived. The trust can't close its offices yet because a judge has granted a church request for an independent review of trust records as part of a civil wrongful-death lawsuit that McPherson's estate filed against the church.
Even though Minton is not a party in the suit, both he and the trust have been drawn into the case, in part because Minton helped fund the lawsuit. Minton and trust staff have been deposed by church lawyers for hours.
Minton and the trust have faced other legal blows. The courts ordered him to turn over all of his personal Florida bank records, now in the hands of Scientology.
And recently, the church named Minton and the Lisa McPherson Trust as co-defendants with the estate of Lisa McPherson in a lawsuit Scientology has filed against the estate.
Minton has said the trust has no involvement in the wrongful-death suit against the church. But in Pinellas County, Minton said, courts always side with Scientology.
"The reality for us is we need to get out from under the legal issues as much as we can," Minton said. "Being away from there will help."
Church officials say Minton and trust members have only themselves to blame for the legal trouble. They have accused Minton of trying to use the civil lawsuit to get money out of the church and say they want to see his records to prove the extent of his involvement in the lawsuit.
"If they hadn't gotten themselves in the middle of the lawsuit and used it to stir up trouble, they wouldn't have gotten all the trouble they're in," Shaw said. "What these guys are complaining about, they completely brought on themselves."
Ken Dandar, the lawyer handling the wrongful-death suit against the church, says Scientology has outmaneuvered the trust, and that has muddied his case.
"I'm glad they're leaving," Dandar said. "Scientology will not be able to use them. They will no longer be the pawns of Scientology."
While the Lisa McPherson Trust will not be in Clearwater, its work, which has largely involved documenting the stories of former Scientologists, will go on, Minton said.
"It's going to be a more amorphous type of entity," Minton said. It will be headed by trust president Stacy Brooks.
Minton's brazen venture into downtown Clearwater, the spiritual headquarters of the Church of Scientology, infuriated the church from the start. Scientology leaders were appalled by the very name chosen for the group, and Scientologists quickly moved to set up counterorganizations with McPherson's name.
With pickets, vitriolic words and video cameras trained on one another, the church and the trust duked it out on Clearwater's streets. A judge drew up a color-coded injunction ordering the parties to stay 10 feet away from each other.
For many, the public feuds were all they knew of the trust. Minton said he regrets being so confrontational in his time here.
"Their absence does reduce what has been a constant state of tension in our downtown area," City Manager Bill Horne said. "That has to be seen as a positive thing in terms of the kind of tranquility we'd like to see in our downtown."
However, former Scientologists say the trust did much to help people who were seeking answers and refuge after leaving the church. Several trust staff members were former Scientologists.
"We felt we were alone," said Lawrence Woodcraft, who left the church in 1995, followed by his daughters. "A lot of people feel when they come out of Scientology, they're freaks. When you speak to other people you begin to realize, it's not me, it's them. It's very comforting to know that."
The trust's departure will eventually result in one change downtown. Last year, the Clearwater Police Department agreed to allow its officers to work off-duty providing security for the church to keep peace downtown.
On Friday, Chief Sid Klein said he has always intended to remove the officers, but he will not rush to remove them until he is sure there are no more opportunities for confrontations downtown.
As for what he thinks about the trust's departure, Klein said, "Bon voyage."
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