Scientology told to release notes on late member
By THOMAS C. TOBIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 16, 1999
TAMPA -- Two boxes of notes jotted in a unique shorthand sit in the office of a Tampa judge while the Church of Scientology fights another legal battle for what it says are its religious rights.
The notes were written by Scientology "auditors" who "counseled" Scientologist Lisa McPherson in 1995, the year she died after a 17-day stay at a church retreat in Clearwater.
On Monday, Hillsborough Circuit Judge James S. Moody Jr. rejected for a third time Scientology's attempts to keep those records private.
But the church, fielding a battery of seven lawyers, said it would immediately appeal. It contends the records of McPherson, like those kept on all Scientologists, are as private as disclosures in a Catholic confessional. Scientology indicated it would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.
Releasing the records, the church's lawyers said, would undermine the ironclad promise of privacy in an auditing session, the core practice of Scientology in which parishioners are said to purge psychological and physical problems.
McPherson's auditing records are sought by Tampa lawyer Ken Dandar, who represents McPherson's family in a wrongful-death lawsuit against the church. Dandar says the records could help prove his contention that McPherson wanted to leave Scientology and was held captive.
Church lawyers reject that theory and say Dandar has many other ways to try to prove his case.
Moody denied two motions Monday attempting to keep the records secret. One was from the Scientology "mother church," the Church of Scientology International.
The other motion was from a group of nine Clearwater area Scientologists who were friends and co-workers of McPherson. Because they once had daily contact with McPherson, they are probably mentioned in the records and their privacy could be compromised, argued their lawyer, Michael Foster of Tampa. The nine Scientologists also contend that release of the records would seriously harm their religion by undermining parishioners' confidence in the permanent secrecy of auditing.
"This is just opening up the confessional," Foster said.
One reason for the secrecy, according to the mother church's motion:
"When a Scientologist dies, his or her (auditing record) is held by the church in the strictest confidence so that it may be available for use in the deceased Scientologist's future auditing, when he or she assumes a new physical identity." Scientologists believe each person is a "thetan" who eventually "drops" the body and moves into countless successive lifetimes.
Thus, in McPherson's case, Scientologists believe the "thetan" that occupied her body has the ability to receive Scientology auditing later in eternity. They also believe that this thetan could, during future auditing, realize it once was the Lisa McPherson who lived from 1958 to 1995. Hence, the church's need to keep her file.
Moody first addressed the issue in March 1998, ruling that Dandar, as McPherson's representative, has the legal power to waive the privacy of the discussions she had with her auditors.
The church had argued that "This is absolutely the last thing in the world that Lisa McPherson would have wanted." Scientology official only Scientology could control the record of those discussions, in part because all Scientologists sign a contract giving the church that power. Not even Scientologists are allowed to see their files, the church says.
The church appealed Moody's decision last summer to the 2nd District Court of Appeal but lost. It then asked Moody to reconsider, saying he had not taken into account a Florida law enacted last June that says, "Governments should not substantially burden the free exercise of religion without compelling justification." Moody said the new law did not apply because it was enacted after the issue first arose.
At the time, the issue was being litigated by Scientology's Clearwater branch, called the Flag Service Organization or "Flag."
Late last week, the mother church, which is senior to Flag, asked if it could intervene and advance Scientology's arguments again. The nine Scientologists made a similar request.
Moody rejected both requests on Monday as "too late" and was prepared to release the documents to Dandar. But, after a request from church lawyers, he agreed to a two-month delay so they could appeal to the 2nd District Court of Appeal.
Afterward, church official Mike Rinder called Dandar's bid for the records a "litigation tactic" and added: "This is absolutely the last thing in the world that Lisa McPherson would have wanted."
Church officials say the records cannot be understood by non-Scientologists. Indeed, Moody, who has reviewed them, called them "illegible" and written in "some form of shorthand."
But Dandar said he has recruited a former high-ranking church member to decipher the notes. The records could allow him to rebut church claims that McPherson loved Scientology, Dandar said.
"They may contain truths I could use to challenge their statements. . . . Everything I know today shows, without question, that she had great difficulty with Scientology."