The Church of Scientology disputes the accounts of its former members.
"Contrary to the St. Petersburg Times' mischaracterizations, parishioners donate to the church because they enthusiastically support their chosen faith," spokeswoman Karin Pouw said.
"They continue to do so because those donations fund programs that parishioners are proud to support: The opening of new Ideal Scientology Churches throughout the world, and the implementation of global humanitarian initiatives and social betterment programs."
Those parishioners, in the thousands, far outweigh the "handful of disaffected apostates" who spoke to the Times, the church said.
It said apostates harbor strong emotions against their former religion, compelling them to lie about their experience. The church cited the work of the late Oxford professor Bryan Wilson, who wrote in 1990: "The apostate is generally in need of self-justification. He seeks to reconstruct his own past, to excuse his former affiliations and to blame those who were formerly his closest associates."
The International Association of Scientologists, or IAS, supports many church causes, including the drug rehabilitation program Narconon, the antipsychiatry group Citizens Commission on Human Rights, the Volunteer Ministers disaster relief program and the Way to Happiness Foundation, which disseminates Hubbard's maxims for good living.
The church declined the Times' request to see annual IAS revenues and expenses.
It described its Ideal Orgs program as a modern version of the Catholic Church's efforts to build cathedrals in the Middle Ages.
Eighteen Ideal Orgs have opened since 2006, in London; Berlin; Malmo, Sweden; Dallas; Nashville; Rome; Washington, D.C.; Brussels; Quebec; Las Vegas; Los Angeles; Mexico City; Pasadena, Calif.; Seattle; Melbourne, Australia; Moscow; St. Paul, Minn.; and Tampa.
The church said that nine more are in progress, in Inglewood, Sacramento, Orange County and Hollywood, Calif., and in Portland, Ore., Phoenix, Denver, Cincinnati and Tel Aviv.
Another 42 Ideal Orgs are planned across the globe: 14 in the United States, nine in Europe, seven in Africa, five in Canada, four in Latin America and one each in Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan.
Scientology is "enjoying a period of tremendous expansion during an economic downturn," all supported by parishioner donations, Pouw said.
She said all donated money is spent carefully and efficiently, with extensive efforts to control the costs of new churches and printing operations.
Although some Scientologists donate heavily, Pouw said, "parishioners typically donate $1,000 a year on average." The church declined to detail how it made the calculation.
It disputed several other aspects of the former members' accounts.
The church said it is against policy and guidelines to coerce parishioners, hold them against their will, challenge them when they leave fundraising events or show up at their homes unannounced. Accounts of tables pushed in front of doors and parishioners followed into restrooms were denied.
Fundraisers do not pressure parishioners to go into debt or advise them how to make donations possible, the church said.
The accounts by former staffer Linda McCarthy regarding heavy pressure to donate at IAS fundraising events are false, Pouw said. Scientologists "joyfully attend these briefings and stay all the way through to the end."
The church also questioned how McCarthy could have known the content of texts and phone calls made to IAS fundraisers during fundraising events in Santa Barbara, Calif. The Times' "willingness to accept any allegations no matter how absurd simply exposes your bias and bigotry."
(McCarthy said she knew about the texts and phone calls because IAS fundraisers told her about them and she was standing next to them. Other former members related similar accounts.)
Former parishioners Lynne Hoverson and Bert Schippers of Seattle described a time when a church fundraiser complained in a "Knowledge Report" that they wouldn't go into debt to make a donation. Another fundraiser wrote a similar report against former parishioner Luis Garcia, complaining he wouldn't donate $350,000 for a new church building in Orange County, Calif.
The church said it disagrees with the characterization that a church official expected the Seattle couple to give more. Asked if the report on Garcia tried to drive a wedge between him and his wife, the church said the report "does not say what you imply."
Pouw said Knowledge Reports "addressing only a parishioner's willingness to make donations would not be appropriate. However, in these instances it appears the authors of the Knowledge Reports noted other problems they believed should be addressed."
The church said that any parishioner can say "no" to a fundraiser without threat of "internal justice action. It happens on a daily basis."
Garcia said he feels conned because the facility he gave money to is still not complete. The church said those renovations are "planned and about to commence."