In recent years the Church of Scientology worked hard to present a kinder, gentler image to the public, claiming it had cast aside the criminal activities, dirty tricks and abusive behavior of the past that brought it widespread condemnation and sent some of its former leaders to prison. But a St. Petersburg Times special report this week revealed the reality behind the new facade: At its core, the Church of Scientology has not changed. It is an organization that uses intimidation and brutality to control its employees, places financial ambition above spiritual service to its members and stops at nothing to undermine its critics.
Times staff writers Joe Childs and Thomas C. Tobin interviewed former high-ranking officials of the Church of Scientology who have defected from the church. Their independent accounts, told for the first time, provide an unprecedented view of the secretive top tier of Scientology management and the bullying leadership style of David Miscavige, a high school dropout who muscled his way to the top of the international organization after the death of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard in 1986. Among the disturbing accounts told by Miscavige's former top aides:
• Miscavige beat and incessantly criticized top executives to subjugate them. Those executives in turn used that style of intimidation on other church employees, creating a management culture of physical violence and humiliation.
• Church officials lied and covered up their mistreatment of Lisa McPherson, a Scientologist who was detained in a guarded room at church facilities in Clearwater after suffering a mental breakdown. She died after 17 days in the "care" of church staffers, including secretaries, security guards and an unlicensed doctor. One of the defectors, Marty Rathbun, now acknowledges that as police investigators moved in, he destroyed incriminating documents containing details of McPherson's last days.
• Scientologists are punished for infractions and forced to write detailed confessions, sometimes about trumped-up allegations, which are held by the church in so-called "ethics files." They expect these written confessionals to remain confidential, but the church released the defectors' files to the Times, apparently caring less about maintaining confidentiality than about undermining the credibility of their detractors.
• The church, which needs vast sums of money to finance its worldwide growth, charges parishioners hundreds of dollars an hour for counseling sessions called "auditing," more than $13,000 for auditing training, and has repackaged old Scientology texts for resale to members.
The Times articles also provided new details about some church history — for example, the church's all-out effort to win a tax exemption granted to religious organizations from the Internal Revenue Service. The church overwhelmed the federal agency with thousands of lawsuits, raising suspicions that the exemption finally was granted in 1993 because of relentless intimidation and pressure rather than an interpretation of the tax code. The exemption has cost government at all levels untold millions in lost tax revenue. The IRS isn't likely to reconsider the tax exemption, but it should.
The church denies much of the information provided to the Times by the defectors. To respond by calling these longtime top officials liars, opening their confidential files and producing their former spouses to denounce them reflects Scientology's long-standing strategy to deny and attack when its actions are questioned.
For years, church leaders have claimed that modern Scientology is law-abiding, open to everyone and eager to build bridges in the community. International celebrities and local politicians have bought into the story of change, joining church officials for their galas and community events at Scientology's spiritual headquarters in Clearwater as if all were well. The Times series, many other media reports and criminal investigations of Scientology that are under way in several foreign countries tell a different story. There is a cancer at the core of Scientology, and that has not changed.