CLEARWATER — Allegations of physical abuse, destruction of evidence and punishment rituals in the upper echelons of the Church of Scientology left some local political leaders saying they were shocked and disturbed.
But among leaders who have reached out to the church, those contacted by the St. Petersburg Times say they aren't ready to distance themselves from Scientology and its sizeable membership after a recent Times series detailing accusations from former church executives.
While some in the community saw potential for a new chill to seep into civic and church relations, many officials said in interviews that they viewed the stories as focused on Scientology's California-based leadership, not the residents they deal with.
Although she was "taken aback by some of the subject matter" of the reports, Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala said, "I don't think it's going to change anything. ... They're here. I mean, people read it. It wasn't a topic on the street."
"Their candidate forum is the biggest candidate forum ... in the county," Latvala said, adding that she would probably attend a 2010 forum.
After secretly moving into Clearwater three decades ago, the church used to be politically radioactive in the Tampa Bay area, but eventually became less so. Members of Congress, state lawmakers, county commissioners and other officials attend galas and functions at Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel. At times, a few officials have pushed for legislation supported by the church, which counts thousands of members in the bay area.
In the Times series, former high-level Scientology executives alleged that the church's worldwide leader, David Miscavige, beat them. They said he repackaged old Scientology texts to pump up revenue. And Marty Rathbun, former top deputy to Miscavige, revealed he destroyed evidence to cover up church staffers' treatment of Lisa McPherson, a Scientology parishioner who died while in the church's care.
Church representatives and lawyers said the accounts of the former executives were untrue. Church officials in Clearwater did not return a request for comment for this story.
Will the revelations change relations between Scientology and the public and their elected officials?
"Absolutely, I think much of the stories confirm the heightened attention on the role of Scientology, and could turn out to be very unsettling on the church's relationship and its continuing outreach," said Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel, who has never been warm to Scientology and contends the church's high profile hampers the city's redevelopment of downtown.
Other officials expect no changes. Some distanced themselves from the church. Some say they simply make a practice of talking to all of their constituents. Several wouldn't return phone calls.
Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger said the recent news reports won't change his relationship with Scientology officials in Clearwater. This spring, the church gave Dillinger research to back his case as he pushed the Legislature for changes limiting the use of psychotropic drugs on children in state care.
"I don't think the church (leaders) would have been very happy about it (the series), but I never deal with those people," he said, though he has met the California-based Miscavige a few times. Some of the allegations came from people with "impeachable points," Dillinger said, "but there certainly was smoke."
The Clearwater view
The subject hits home for officials in Clearwater, the church's spiritual headquarters, where Scientologists own scores of businesses and are active in civic affairs, even as part of the population deeply distrusts the church.
City Manager Bill Horne read the recent Times articles closely because he recalls dealing with Rathbun, Mike Rinder and Tom De Vocht, the former high-ranking Scientology executives who made the allegations against Miscavige.
The Times stories recounted occasions when Miscavige made Scientology leaders jump into pools fully clothed as punishment. His accusers said he made staffers play musical chairs, threatening to banish the losers to far-flung outposts, even if it separated families.
Scientology said the former church officials were themselves the transgressors and produced documents from their "ethics files" in which they confessed to misconduct and lavishly praised Miscavige.
The series "was an inside-baseball look at church operations internally, and it certainly was shocking," Horne said. But it won't change how the city deals with Scientology on issues like building permits and downtown redevelopment: "We have a very professional, straightforward relationship with local church officials."
In 2007, Horne and Mayor Frank Hibbard met with Miscavige at Clearwater's City Hall. They say they pressed him to finish Scientology's large Flag Building downtown, which has sat vacant for six years and racked up about $250,000 in fines. They asked him to do away with the uniforms that hundreds of church staffers wear as they walk in groups around downtown. They said Miscavige said Scientology will finish the building soon and will pay the fines, but won't change the uniforms.
"The uniforms make other people downtown feel like a minority, and if you feel like a minority you don't feel comfortable," said Hibbard, who hasn't attended Scientology functions for years.
Other Clearwater City Council members don't have close ties to the church but participate in Scientology events to varying degrees, such as its annual Winter Wonderland celebration during Christmas season.
Said John Doran: "Nobody likes to hear these things about any organization. But for all practical purposes ... it's an internal kind of deal. I've never really had any contact with the upper echelons of the church."
After strained relations between Scientology and the community began to thaw, a watershed moment occurred in 2002 at the church's 75th anniversary party at the Fort Harrison Hotel. The guest list was a who's who of local political, civic and business leaders.
After that, dozens of local bigwigs began attending annual soirees there. Scientologists get officials together with celebrities like John Travolta and Tom Cruise. They hold events touting the church's stance on mental health and substance abuse programs.
State Sen. Dennis Jones, who represents Clearwater, recognized Scientology's "invaluable service to the people of Clearwater" at a 2004 gala, and a photo of him in a tuxedo posing with a plaque graces a Scientology Web site.
But this week, Jones didn't return calls seeking comment. Neither did Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats or U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, who have attended several Scientology events.
Local Scientologist Brett Miller is on a Bilirakis advisory board. Miller also is vice chairman of Florida Citizens for Social Reform, a political action group formed by Scientologists who hold candidate forums at the Fort Harrison. Miller notes that other religious organizations are active in politics as well. "We're a part of the community just like anybody else," he said.
County Commissioner Calvin Harris of Clearwater said he'll deal with the church as he would any other constituent. In fact, he lauded Scientology's help with getting the word out about the 2010 Census. And, unlike the bitter days of years ago, Harris can pick up the phone and ask the church for help.
"It is just nothing like it was," he said. "It's just 1,000 degrees different, if that's possible."