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Scientology came to Clearwater 44 years ago today ‘wearing a cloak of secrecy’

Read our Pulitzer Prize winning coverage of the religion’s early days in Clearwater.
The cover of a special publication by the then-St. Petersburg Times which included several of the paper's Pulitzer Prize winning stories about the early days of the Church of Scientology in Clearwater. [Times archive]
The cover of a special publication by the then-St. Petersburg Times which included several of the paper's Pulitzer Prize winning stories about the early days of the Church of Scientology in Clearwater. [Times archive]
Published Oct. 27, 2019

The following is one in a series of stories that won the then-St. Petersburg Times the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. In it, reporter Charles Stafford, who won the prize along with Bette Orsini, details how the Church of Scientology moved into Clearwater with big plans under a false name. The story, originally titled “Church entered Clearwater on path of deceit,” was published on December 20, 1979.

The Church of Scientology came to Florida’s Suncoast in late 1975 wearing a cloak of secrecy that concealed a dagger of deceit.

The mystery began Oct. 27. The Fort Harrison Hotel was purchased by Southern Land Sales and Development Corp. for $2.3-million hard cash, and then a few days later the old Bank of Clearwater building for $550,000. For whom? And why?

A middle-aged man in a green jump suit appeared in mid-November to say that he, Sorel Allen, was “director of membership and public affairs” for United Churches of Florida. He said the buildings would be leased to United Churches, a new organization organized by laymen interested in the religious truths of all denominations, and he said this ecumenical group would hold meetings and seminars for persons of all faiths, and everything would be very open.

But Kenneth Seidenberg, an attorney for Jack Tar Hotels, told The St. Petersburg Times on Dec. 5 that the sale of the Fort Harrison was “one of the strangest transactions we’ve ever dealt in.” Southern Land Sales wouldn’t even give Jack Tar its telephone number, he said.

“We have never been involved in this cloak and dagger (kind of deal),” Seidenberg said. “They have been so secretive that it has been driving us crazy as to who they are and what they are.”

United Churches was not the answer.

Documents recently released in the Washington trial of nine Scientologists tell the real story. On Nov. 26, 1975 — nine days before Seidenberg expressed his frustration ― L. Ron Hubbard, founder and commodore of the Church of Scientology, issued a secret Guardian Office Order headed “Program LRH Security. Code Name: Power.”

Related story: How Scientology doubled its downtown Clearwater footprint in 3 years

Flag, the church’s program office, sort of a theology center, had been at sea aboard the church-owned yacht Apollo for several years. The Precise reasons why the church maintained a headquarters operation on a ship are not known. But now it was coming ashore. The quiet Gulf Coast city of Clearwater had been chosen as the new site.

Hubbard’s directive said the church should establish a permanent office there. He stated the following goal: “Really attain PROAC (public relations office area control) in the CW (Clearwater) operating area for the organizations operating there, sort out any weak spots or potential threats internal or external and handle . . . Dynamite spots should be predicted far in advance ... and handled before any repercussion occurs.”

That same day, Henning Heldt, Scientology’s deputy guardian for the United States, received a letter from someone named Ron, which read: “We have found a whole part of a condominium to rent. It is 5.3 miles from the FH (Fort Harrison). We have been negotiating on it as a simple rental ... It will be UC (United Churches) or SLD (Southern Land Development) ― I don’t know what name the mission is using for the negotiation.

"As the office of LRH (Hubbard) will be there, the bus and phone lines will have to lead to there . . .

Scientology’s international spiritual headquarters in downtown Clearwater is anchored by the Flag Building, on left. An elevated walkway connects the building to the Fort Harrison Hotel, the church’s first purchase in the city in 1975. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]

“There will be an LRH private office at the FH (that is easy as I just drive in the garage and enter the third floor-garage elevator hall door and go on up. There will possibly be a personal office at the bank bldg if they get it clean. This is rougher as one has to step out of a car and walk to the door).”

Ron told Heldt what he would be doing:

"Probably my best layout is to get very well known in the CW area with a camera in my hand and my Universal News press card taking pictures of ‘beautiful CW’ which is the local button (they hate tourists and also retired people). My photoshoot people will continue, as I have a whole org (translation: organization) for that sort of thing ...

“So I think the exact plan will be that I play operations above security, slide in on personal PR (translation: public relations) as that well known photographer very visible with a whole crew camera in hand and living in a nearby town. Not push it. Just let it seep in. My portrait of the mayor will hang in city hall never fear ... And we count on your B1 (translation: information office) to very quickly pre-alert any trouble so I can go fishing until you handle.

”AND WE COUNT ON YOU GUYS TO MOW IRS DOWN AND WIN ACROSS THE BOARDS.

Related story: High-ranking defectors provide an unprecedented inside look at Scientology

“That is the way it will have to be played within the realities of the scene ... So the program is attached.”

Could this Ron have been LRH himself? Who knows?

Two days later — Nov. 28, 1975: Heldt issued a new directive, “IRS: Endure.” He quoted Hubbard: “Views of the scene are optimistic at this time. However knowing the insane, we must be fully prepared and positioned to get right on operating throughout the U.S. and work until we get a straight jacket on IRS no matter what they do ... Earlier I advised a new corporation be set up in every org (organization) area in U.S. to parallel the actions of each org and simply sit there dormant, but ready to hire the old org’s staff and continue, non successor, in new quarters.”

The directive said: “Flag will continue to operate as C of S of C (Church of Scientology of California). C of S of C will be leasing space from United Churches of Florida, a non-profit corporation which will in turn be leasing from the owner of the buildings.”

The plan called for organizing “Dormant Corp.” and “Mother Church Corp.” for possible future use should the church lose its tax exempt status and IRS seize its assets. It also directed that means be found “of safeguarding cash reserves from IRS seizure or wipe-out.”

Dec. 5: With Clearwater folk still trying to decide what this United Churches business was all about, the Guardian Office of Scientology issued directives on Project Power.

One goal was to “establish the indispensibility of United Churches” in the community. The directive said:

"The overall plan is to locate opinion leaders ― then, their enemies, the dirt, scandal, vested interest, crime of the enemies (with overt data as much as possible). Then turn this over to UC who will approach the opinion leader and get his agreement to look into a specific subject (which will lead to the enemies’ crimes). UC then ‘discovers’ the scandal, etc., and turns it over to the opinion leader for his use. Ops (operations) can be done as a follow up if needed to remove or restrain the enemy.

“Example: B1 finds the Clearwater Mayor as an opinion leader and Mr. Shultz as his enemy. Overt (and suitable guise) investigation of Shultz shows him to like little girls and that he walks in the park every Sunday when he attempts to drag little girls into the bushes. B1 turns this data over to UC. UC goes to the Mayor and gets his OK to look into ‘what can be done to beautify Clearwater City Park.’ Shortly after the Mayor gives his OK to look into the park, UC ‘discovers’ that there are undesirables in the park and turns the data over to the Mayor. Several days later UC ‘discovers’ that Mr. Shultz molests little girls in the park and turns that over to the Mayor managing to get press on the whole park campaign and to make a friend out of the Mayor. Now if Shultz is also a potential enemy of ours (which he might be after the above is done) and the Mayor or newspaper hasn’t removed him from a position of power then OPS (operations) does.”

Church functionaries were directed “to fully investigate the Clearwater city and county area so we can distinguish our friends from our enemies and handle as needed.” Dossiers were to be compiled on medical societies, clinics, hospitals, police departments and agencies, public relations firms, drug firms, federal, state and local government agencies, city council, banks, investment houses, local representatives in Congress and Florida’s two U.S. senators.

Charles Stafford, left, and Bette Swenson Orsini, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1980 for their coverage of Scientology's early days in Clearwater. [Times archive]

Finally, the directive called for protecting “ourselves against any potential threat by taking control of the key points in the Clearwater area.” This was to be accomplished by determining key news media and political leaders and gaining either their allegiance or control over them.

It didn’t work that way. Instead of winning the friendship of Mayor Gabriel Cazares, United Churches ― which was still fronting for the Church of Scientology at this time ― found him critical of their secrecy.

“I am discomfited by the increasing visibility of security personnel, armed with billy clubs and Mace, employed by the United Churches of Florida,” the mayor said. “I am unable to understand why this degree of security is required by a religious organization ...”

Reporters had been working diligently to find out who was behind United Churches. They were finally successful. But on Jan. 28, just as they were ready to publish their stories, Rev. Arthur J. Maren of Los Angeles arrived in Clearwater for a news conference.

He announced that the Church of Scientology of California was the new owner of the Fort Harrison and was also behind formation of United Churches. The Church of Scientology had kept its involvement secret, he said, because it didn’t want to overshadow the work of United Churches.

The secret was out.

Stories about this new religion, Scientology, began appearing in The St. Petersburg Times and the Clearwater Sun. Mayor Cazares continued his criticism of the church and its methods.

And the church? Did it turn the other cheek?

Hardly. That’s not part of Scientology’s creed.

Charles Lee Stafford was the St. Petersburg Times’ Washington Correspondent. He died in 2007 at the age of 83.

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