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Scientology responds with surprising calm

Church officials appear relaxed in the face of charges stemming from the 1995 death of a member at the Fort Harrison Hotel.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 15, 1998


CLEARWATER -- The Church of Scientology is drawing this weekend from a seldom-used page in its playbook.

Faced with charges Friday that it neglected and unlawfully practiced medicine on one of its members, Scientology's outward response has been calm and measured. Church officials speak not of fighting, but of finally "resolving" the 3-year-old fallout caused by Lisa McPherson's death and "moving on."

There have been none of the verbal broadsides that public officials have come to expect of Scientology, as when one of its Los Angeles lawyers called the local medical examiner, Joan Wood, a "hateful liar" in 1996, shortly after the police investigation into McPherson's death became public. At the time, Scientology officials also were accusing Clearwater police of discriminating against the church.

The charges, filed by State Attorney Bernie McCabe, followed a three-year investigation by Clearwater police and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. It was the first time Scientology has been criminally charged as a corporation in the United States.

Scientology's reaction also is thought to be a first, and a surprise.

"They were just really relaxed," marveled Ken Dandar, the Tampa attorney representing McPherson's family in a wrongful death lawsuit against the church.

What's different?

"These are different charges," church attorney Laura Vaughan said Saturday. She said they do not accuse church staffers of intentionally harming McPherson.

When the church responded angrily, she said, it was against those who seemed to say the church intended to hurt McPherson. It also was a reaction to statements by Dandar that attacked Scientology's core practices, she said.

In those instances, she said, "they will always get that kind of (aggressive) response" from Scientology.

Vaughan said the church has not decided how to respond legally to the criminal charges. "There are a lot of what-ifs out there," she said, adding the church was not surprised by any of the allegations.

McPherson, 36, died in 1995 while in the care of fellow Scientologists, who isolated her in a room at the church's Fort Harrison Hotel, forced medications on her and waited too long to take her to a hospital when she became ill, according to an affidavit that accompanied the charging documents Friday in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court.

Scientologists took McPherson to the hotel to help her recover from a serious case of mental instability.

According to the affidavit, the church faces damaging testimony from some of its own members, who witnessed and raised questions about McPherson's care.

And for the first time in two years, the church itself is acknowledging that errors were made. Referring to McPherson, Scientology official Mike Rinder said Friday:

"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. There never should have been anybody like that staying in the Fort Harrison in the first place."

Clearwater City Manager Mike Roberto called the church's response "very responsible." He said, "I think everyone is ready to move on as best they can."

Roberto said the charges would not change the city's relationship with the church, which has been working with City Hall on downtown redevelopment and planning for a mammoth Scientology building to be constructed in the downtown core. A groundbreaking ceremony is scheduled for next Saturday.

"I think they're reacting the way they need to," said City Commissioner Ed Hooper, who called the church's response to the charges "appropriate."

One test of Scientology's current posture will be how it reacts in coming weeks. The church has a Nov. 30 court date to answer the charges, and anti-Scientology critics are scheduled to picket the Fort Harrison Hotel on Dec. 5 in protest of McPherson's death.

In past years, the church has responded to similar events with large, noisy counter-demonstrations. Responses like that are closer to the norm for Scientology, whose founder, L. Ron Hubbard, generally preached an aggressive approach to problems.

"The proper strategy for any battle is to find a weak spot in the enemy lines and attack it," Hubbard once instructed. "You can defend to a certain degree, and you have to defend to a certain degree. But use 75 percent of your energies to attack and you will always win."

In this instance, Scientology hints at a less aggressive strategy.

"It's certainly not something that is good," Rinder said of the charges. "On the other hand it is something that, when you take it out of the context of this community, it is one event in the large world of Scientology. And there are a lot of other things that are happening and going on. And this is something that has to be dealt with. And we will deal with it. And we will move on into the future."

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