The judges in two separate lawsuits against the Church of Scientology have made the right call to keep the focus on the church's behavior and reject its efforts to sidetrack the cases. The church should address the accusations of misconduct directly rather than delay and obfuscate by trying to force its accusers to change lawyers.
Judges in Tampa and Texas this week properly rejected the church's attempt to force the plaintiffs' lawyers off the cases, which would have stalled the lawsuits and made it difficult for the church's critics to proceed. In Tampa, U.S. District Judge James D. Whittemore ruled that two South Florida lawyers can continue to represent a California couple who accuse the church of fraud. In Texas, a state court judge rejected the church's argument to remove lawyers representing the wife of a former high-ranking church officer who has accused the church of harassment.
The lawsuits go to the heart of some of the most serious accusations against the Church of Scientology. One involves onetime devoted church members who generously contributed to the church. The other involves the family of a former high-ranking staff member who joined former Scientology colleagues in describing in a series of articles in the Tampa Bay Times how the church mistreated staffers, intimidated them and tracked down those who left. The lawsuits could shed further light on the church's activities, so it is no surprise Scientology lawyers are distracting the courts with side issues.
The church continues to operate in unpredictable ways under a cloud of secrecy. In August, in defiance of the city of Clearwater's warning, it cut down two large trees near its downtown headquarters to clear space for a November event and was fined $2,000. This weekend it expected to draw thousands of Scientologists to Clearwater for the opening of its enormous Flag Building, which has been under construction for almost 15 years. That event was abruptly canceled last month without explanation. Without comment, the church also paid $3 million for part of a key city block that had long been considered by Clearwater officials as a key factor in redevelopment.
The Tampa lawsuit could shed more light on how the Church of Scientology raises and spends money. Rocio and Luis Garcia of California accuse the church of fraud and argue the church used deceptive, high-pressure pitches to get them and other Scientologists to donate millions. The Garcias donated more than $420,000 to the Flag Building and claim the church deceptively raised millions more than was needed to build the enormous project.
The Church of Scientology has consistently insisted its fundraising practices and its treatment of its staff are aboveboard and legal. If that is true, then it should instruct its lawyers to drop their stalling tactics and directly address the merits of the legal claims against the church that paint a far different picture.