David Miscavige, the seldom-seen leader of the church, comes forth in his first newspaper interview to talk of a more peaceful time for Scientology.
Stories by THOMAS C. TOBIN
Photos by ROBIN DONINA SERNE
of the Times Staff
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 25, 1998
OS ANGELES -- When David Miscavige recounts his rise to power in the Church of Scientology -- a journey that began when he quit high school at age 16 -- it is mostly a story of war. War against renegade Scientologists. War against Scientologys critics. War against its one-time arch enemy, the IRS.
But Scientologys 38-year-old leader insists he is a determined peace-maker as well.
After years spent well outside the publics radar screen, Miscavige says he plans to step forward now and take a central role in trying to end differences with those who still oppose Scientology, the self-improvement technology devised by the late L. Ron Hubbard in the early 1950s.
To do it, Miscavige is employing a strategy that is a hallmark of his career: personal intervention.
The Miscavige way can include a generous helping of the audacious personality that fueled his steep rise within Scientology, and helped him at age 21 to engineer a purge of rogue church members.
It also can have an element of surprise, as the IRS saw in 1991 when Miscavige showed up unannounced in its Washington lobby wanting to see the agencys director.
Indeed, Miscavige surprised Clearwater City Manager Mike Roberto in April when he ended up presiding over what was to be Robertos get-acquainted session with local Scientologists. Roberto stayed for four hours.
Miscaviges friends say he is intense and insistent and doesnt suffer fools lightly. Scientologys critics say he is a bully.
He will challenge with a blue-eyed stare or lean forward with a direct, no-nonsense question. His attention sticks to the discussion at hand, and his words shoot out machine gun-style, in the accent of the Philadelphia suburb where he grew up. He will pound a table for emphasis or snap his fingers so hard you imagine they sting.
He is an early-rising, late-working mix of energy and emotion and confidence, all in a solid, 5-feet-5 frame.
Let me tell you, I take a great deal of pride in creating peace, said Miscavige, who became Scientologys leader at age 26. And I have been involved in a few situations or conflicts that looked unresolvable ... and I was capable of resolving them.
He said he expects his efforts will improve Scientologys standing with local residents and change its image as a combative and insular cult.
He said Scientology could be more open to outsiders and he acknowledged it could pick its fights more carefully. It is misconception one that Scientology likes to fight, he said.
Miscavige also addressed a long-standing fear in Clearwater, where Scientology secretly established its spiritual headquarters in 1975 and continues to buy land for a major expansion. Theres no master plan to take over any city anywhere in the world, he said.
On a larger scale, Miscavige said he is trying to parlay Scientologys cherished IRS tax exemption into religious recognition in the major countries of Europe, where the church has battled for acceptance. He said he wants to do it by the year 2000.
That goal echoes what he told 10,000 stomping, clapping Scientologists after announcing the exemption in 1993. At the time, Miscavige called it a sort of government stamp of approval, and said it meant everything for Scientology.
In his interview with the Times, he agreed his planned efforts in Clearwater parallel his bold approach to the IRS.
The city is a major destination for thousands of Scientologists, including many who come for discounted counseling packages that, according to recent brochures, can range from $8,000 to $77,000.
But it also is where the police believe a crime was committed in the death of Lisa McPherson, a 36-year-old parishioner who died after a 17-day stay at Scientologys Fort Harrison Hotel.
It is where a four-term mayor remains a perennial Scientology critic; where 3,000 Scientologists marched angrily against the police chief last December; and where the city and church are immersed in a lawsuit over records of a 13-year police investigation of Scientology.
One big step toward peace, Miscavige said, would be him meeting with Police Chief Sid Klein to resolve all matters with the Clearwater Police. Not grudgingly. Truly.
Another would be meeting Mayor Rita Garvey, he said, perhaps at some combined function.
Miscavige also said it was significant he agreed to be interviewed by the Times, which won a 1980 Pulitzer Prize for its investigation of Scientology and continues to vigorously cover the church. He even allowed the newspaper to visit the quiet assembly line where workers manufacture e-meters, the electronic devices that Scientologists say can track thoughts.
He said he believes Roberto, the city manager, looks to the newspaper as a key source of direction on Scientology.
You have now hit upon why Im willing to talk to you, he told a Times news team during a three-day visit to Scientologys Los Angeles area headquarters. If I make an effort to resolve something I have every intention of doing so. ... I have every intention of keeping my word.
Can he succeed?
Can Miscavige tame the aggressive instincts that Hubbard, as Scientologys founder, so strongly encouraged -- and that outsiders have found to be frightening and heavy-handed?
I think the misunderstanding comes about because we can fight a good war, Miscavige said. If we get involved in a war where we feel our survival is threatened, we will dedicatedly fight. But I think any dedicated institution, especially a religious organization, will do that. That is the history of religion.
But when its over, we can carry on with our main mission in life, which is Scientology. And I was trying to explain to Roberto that I not only am saying that, I have a history of doing so.
When attacked, Hubbard instructed his followers to Treat all skirmishes like wars. But he also told them: Always be ready to parley -- that is, have a conference and settle it. He said, One cannot just fight.
No one in Scientology is more dedicated to Hubbards words than Miscavige. As chairman of Scientologys Religious Technology Center, his job is to preserve, maintain and protect Scientology, but he insists he is not involved in the daily management of church operations.
Not only was he the founders protege and trusted aide, he is to Scientologists what the pope is to Catholics -- a leader who sets the tone, establishes goals and ensures that Hubbards practices and teachings are followed with precision.
The question is which of the founders maxims will apply as Miscavige approaches Clearwater.
I think he would be received with great skepticism, said Roberto. It is not an organization that has the smoothest past to deal with.
But he also said he and Miscavige have an understanding they can improve relations, provided there are no more attacks against the police and the lawsuit is settled.
While Miscavige proposes big steps, Roberto said he wants short steps. He explained why, referring to the Scientologists march on police headquarters: Last December is not that far away.
Mayor Garvey said Miscavige was putting a different spin on Scientology. Its called doing a good PR program, she said. What theyre doing at this time is loving us to death. But, ultimately, the internal workings are the same.
She said she had no idea what Miscavige could do to win her over. The community does not trust them.
Klein, the police chief, said the two sides cant even settle their lawsuit over the police investigation much less reach a general peace.
If were talking big steps, I think its time to put up or shut up, he said. They want a big first step. Theres one.
Miscavige absolutely can bring about peace in Clearwater, said Monique Yingling, a friend and Washington attorney who helped Miscavige battle the IRS. He has the most incredible ability to just cut through the bulls - - -.
Despite a traditional education that ended at age 16, Miscavige also has one of the most incisive minds Ive ever seen, Yingling said.
Hes just very effective at listening to what peoples concerns are and saying, We can come up with a solution to that.