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Scientology: A smiling storefront, a darker interior

By Howard Troxler, Times Columnist
In Print: Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Either several former ranking, long-term members of the Church of Scientology have all simultaneously decided to lie to the St. Petersburg Times, in a thorough, orchestrated and masterful conspiracy …

Or else they are not lying, and they confirm that the church is led by a man, David Miscavige, with serious issues of power and paranoia, even given to not-infrequent physical attacks, all of which permeate the culture of the church's upper echelons.

The articles in the Times these past three days by my colleagues Joe Childs and Thomas C. Tobin have been extraordinary. We haven't had a look inside a religious organization like this since Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, or the Rev. Henry J. Lyons.

Let's make a distinction here between the church's doctrine, what it claims to be teaching, and the practices documented in these articles, which veer into the surreal.

The street-level message of Scientology actually is pretty standard: We have a spiritual essence; we are imperfect; through the religion's guidance we can improve.

True, Scientology refers to this essence as a "thetan" and requires the believer to hook up to a meter to be measured, which is not my cup of tea. But then again, neither do I believe in reincarnation, the karmic wheel, or that I have to obey all 613 commandments in the Old Testament, although I do not disrespect people who do.

Anyway, lots of people say their lives have been improved by Scientology, and I believe them. Any external structure can be an improvement for people who need it.

But as these articles by Childs and Tobin show, at its higher levels Scientology is more of an insidious loyalty cult than a benign self-help society. And the punishment for being disloyal is severe.

Frankly, a lot of the church's reaction to its apostates has been histrionic and weird. (As for the ex-Scientologists, I have mixed feelings, since they used to perpetuate with a vengeance the same tactics to which they are now victim).

Come on — bringing in their ex-spouses, still in the church, to denounce them? Publicizing the bizarre, ritualized "confessions" that the church makes its people write for "ethics files"? For a while, Scientology tried to appear reassuringly beyond such tactics. No more.

The case of Lisa McPherson, who died in church custody following a breakdown in 1995, is a turning point in the story. One of the former church leaders, Marty Rathbun, now admits that he destroyed evidence, though the statute of limitations has long lapsed. Criminal charges were eventually dropped; the church reached a settlement with McPherson's family.

We also know more now about the orchestrated campaign by which the Church of Scientology browbeat the IRS into granting it not-for-profit status, promising the IRS commissioner the offensive would be turned off "like a faucet" once he complied. This is an impressive accomplishment. Also a scary one.

In the end, these articles show a deep divide between the optimistic message being peddled in storefronts and the church's paranoid practices at its highest levels. Where the private religion of Scientology and the public sector intersect, whether in covered-up deaths or setting tax policy, the public sector must be more than routinely vigilant. As for those who seek answers in Scientology, they are entitled to the full story. What they believe is up to them.