When Hillsborough County Commissioner Harry Cohen received an invitation to present at Thursday’s Tampa Bay Summit on Human Rights, he accepted, thinking it would be a chance to talk about justice for migrant workers.
He had never heard of the Miel y Canela Foundation, which first contacted his aides in June. But he trusted it since it was being held at the local government-run Children’s Board of Hillsborough County.
Then United for Human Rights emerged as a co-host and spread online flyers for the summit with Cohen’s photo. It wasn’t until citizens contacted his office last weekend that he learned United for Human Rights is sponsored by the Church of Scientology.
“This isn’t what I thought it was,” Cohen said on Tuesday, confirming he dropped out of the event. “Scientology and a human rights summit, I don’t know they are compatible with one another.”
Scientology has faced decades of allegations of human rights abuses, from the trafficking of religious workers to the use of private investigators to harass and intimidate perceived enemies. United for Human Rights serves as one of its social activism groups that attempt to flip that reputation, often by positioning itself alongside politicians, community leaders and secular nonprofits like Miel y Canela Foundation.
Public outreach falls under a 1982 policy written by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard called “The Safe Point,” where parishioners insert themselves in social circles with the motive of building credibility and goodwill for the church.
The policy does not focus on explicitly proselytizing Scientology. Instead, it’s about making allies of decision makers and “the top dogs in the area,” as Hubbard put it, so Scientology is easier to defend later if under attack.
“Viability depends on having all areas and persons who could affect or influence the operation under (public relations) control,” the founder wrote.
United for Human Rights, created in 2008, is less a vehicle to recruit members and more of a strategy to divert attention away from controversy around Scientology, said Aaron Smith-Levin, who oversaw courses and counseling as a member of the church’s Sea Org workforce before leaving in 2013.
“It’s just created to deflect, like ‘how could we possibly be committing human rights violations, look how dedicated we are to educating people on the United Nations Declarations of Human Rights,” Smith-Levin said.
In response to the allegations of abuse that span decades in lawsuits, testimony of former members and investigations, Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw said they are “repeated lies by the same small clique of anti-Scientologists.” He said the church “stands for human rights for all.”
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Jeannette Matta, who founded the Ruskin-based Miel y Canela Foundation in February, said she is not a member of Scientology but reached out to United for Human Rights earlier this year when she began researching local advocacy groups.
She said she was aware United for Human Rights is sponsored by Scientology but that religion has not come up in their work together.
“They are Scientologists, that’s their personal business, not mine,” Matta said. “We went with migrant families and celebrated Mother’s Day for them. That’s the type of work they do, that’s what I’m interested in.”
Matta said she was not aware of the allegations of abuse and fraud against Scientology and “cannot speak about it.”
Matta said Thursday’s summit was her idea but, as her co-host, United for Human Rights provided educational materials, plates and utensils for lunch, booked some speakers and advertised the event.
According to emails provided by Cohen’s office, Matta invited him to the summit and her Miel y Canela Foundation provided suggested talking points. The talking points mirror the United for Human Rights’ curriculum of the 30 articles of the United Nations Declaration.
Matta also reserved the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County conference room through her Miel y Canela Foundation. So Children’s Board executive director Kelley Parris was unaware that a Scientology group was co-hosting until a citizen called her on Friday.
“I was extremely disturbed when I found out who they were and I think it is very deceptive not to have revealed that,” Parris said.
Children’s Board attorney David Adams confirmed Parris called him on Friday to ask if they could cancel the summit’s reservation because of Scientology’s involvement. Adams explained that, as a public entity, the Children’s Board cannot discriminate based on viewpoint.
“The building is a public forum and we have an obligation, if we’re going to open it up, we have to let everyone have access,” Adams said.
Cohen’s office was alerted to United for Human Rights’ connection to Scientology by an email on July 15 with a link to a blog written by Mike Rinder, who spent 25 years as a senior Scientology executive before defecting in 2007.
Cohen said he would not have initially agreed to speak at the summit if he had known a Scientology group was a co-host.
In an interview, Rinder said non-Scientology groups like Matta’s foundation are used “as cutouts” to help the church make inroads with groups where Scientology would normally be rejected.
Several of the 10 speakers listed on the summit’s Eventbrite invitation are associated with Scientology groups. Some like Damaris Sanchez, founder of the I am the Group Foundation, are not parishioners.
Sanchez said she was not aware of Scientology’s record of human rights abuse allegations. But she stands by the church for its assistance to her work in helping homeless youth.
“I can say unfortunately the only organization or church that has supported our organization is the Church of Scientology,” Sanchez said. “This is the fourth year we are going to do a back-to-school event and they are always generous.”