The Church of Scientology pressured Sara Goldberg for months to kick her son out of her life. She wouldn't do it. So the church put her on trial one night in a Scientology building in Clearwater. It was scary. Goldberg cried. She had been a devoted Scientologist for 36 years. Now her church was accusing her of committing a crime against Scientology — not "disconnecting'' from her renegade son. Goldberg had raised Nick Lister as a Scientologist. But in 2009, he befriended an ally of church whistle blowers. That made him a threat in the eyes of the church. At her trial, Goldberg felt trapped. If she didn't cut off contact with Nick, the church could label her a "suppressive person,'' someone to be shunned. Her grown daughter Ashley, a loyal Scientologist, likely would abandon her. "You're giving me Sophie's choice,'' Sara Goldberg said, sobbing. Son or daughter.
• • •
Last July, Scientology's restrictive shunning practice, called "disconnection,'' tore apart this once-close family.
A Tampa Bay Times examination of how and why it happened shows church clergy aggressively pressured the family to separate and demanded it in writing.
That collides head on with Scientology's official position. "There is no policy in Scientology that requires Church members to disconnect from anyone,'' the church says on its website, Scientology.org.
"It's a total lie that they don't force disconnection,'' said Sara Goldberg, one of Scientology's elite members for the past decade.
Church officers did not comment for this report. They did not respond to interview requests or answer written questions submitted by the Times.
But angry talk of disconnection is alive on the Internet, where former Scientologists share the pain of being abandoned by loved ones still in the church. They contend disconnection is mandated in Scientology's controlled environment and the church threatens the dreaded punishment to keep members from leaving.
The Goldbergs are among the very few who have refused to disconnect. Their and Lister's accounts present a vivid portrait of yet another church practice that appears extreme and exploitative.
It comes to light as the church defends itself in civil courts around the country against allegations ranging from spying and harassment, to financial fraud and forced abortion.
It follows an FBI investigation into possible violations of human trafficking laws at church work sites. No charges were filed.
Now the story of family pried apart enters that turbulent mix, raising broader questions about the lengths to which the persistently controversial church goes in pursuing its agenda.
A tight family
Sara tried Scientology's spiritual counseling, called "auditing," for the first time when she was 26, living in Jacksonville and reeling from a breakup with a fiance.
"I felt so relaxed,'' Sara said.
She soon moved to Los Angeles and joined the large Scientology community there. She got more auditing, took church courses and worked at church offices. She married a Scientologist, Gale Lister.
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Their daughter, Ashley, was born in 1984, son, Nick in 1987. The kids went to Scientology schools. Ashley became a child actor, with a role in a TV movie, Reform School Girl, starring Friends' Matt LeBlanc.
The family moved to Clearwater in 1996 to be near Scientology's spiritual headquarters, a campus known as the Flag Land Base. The Listers divorced two years later.
In 2002, Sara married Sheldon Goldberg. He had been a Scientologist since 1973 and, like her, had advanced far up the church's spiritual progression, the Bridge to Total Freedom. In 2003, they separately reached the top — "Operating Thetan VIII,'' or "OT-8.'' Other Scientologists revered the power couple.
Sara also headed up a network of Tampa Bay area Scientology volunteers. She talked occasionally with church leader David Miscavige.
Ashley was in the church's religious order, the Sea Org, from age 16 to 19, then came home and married second-generation Scientologist Matt Epstein. Their daughter is Sara's only grandchild. She called Sara "Nana,'' Sheldon "G-Pa.''
The two families lived in Clearwater just five miles apart. They got together all the time. Nana's photo album is filled with cherished memories.
A son strays
Eagle Scout in a church-sponsored troop. Leader in Scientology's teen crowd. Nothing suggested young Nick Lister wasn't part of the herd.
But at 18 he started to change after getting a job at Scientology's community church in Tampa and clashing with his bosses over rules he found unreasonable.
He started peeking at coverage of Scientology on the Internet. The church forbids that. He also palled around with co-worker Matt Argall, who left the Tampa staff after a run-in with his boss.
At the big Flag base in Clearwater, where Argall had been an active member for years, Sea Org staffers deemed him "out-ethics.'' They oversaw his efforts to make amends, but Argall strongly disagreed with their evaluations. He stopped trying to get back into good graces.
It was 2009 — the beginning of an era of intense scrutiny of Scientology's inner-workings. Former church officers Marty Rathbun and Mike Rinder joined other defectors in speaking out about the church, first to the Tampa Bay Times and then to other media. They alleged Miscavige had harassed and physically assaulted Sea Org members for years, primarily at work sites in California.
The church strenuously denied the accusations. But a Miscavige opposition movement formed around Rathbun and Rinder, who had been two of his most trusted lieutenants. Argall called a few friends, collected about $2,000 and sent it to Rathbun. He hired Rinder for a few months at his Tampa Bay marketing company.
And he hired Lister. Lister met Rinder.
Lister was walking a tight wire: Associating with people high up Scientology's watch list while living with his parents, two OT-8s, members of Scientology's master class.
His strategy: Try keeping his subversive life secret.
The church does not turn its back when attacked. Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard instructed his flock decades ago to be hyper-vigilant of "suppressive persons.'' They are evil, Hubbard said, bent on harming the church and blocking Scientologists' spiritual growth. The church issues decrees identifying "SPs'' to its membership. Scientologists are to "disconnect'' — cut off every ounce of contact — to avoid being corrupted.
Rinder got the SP treatment. Family members who are Scientologists, — wife, two children, mother, brother, sister and in-laws — disconnected from him. Argall's many church friends shunned him. His mother, father, brother and sister were not to talk to him.
"I felt like complete crap,'' he said.
Lister stayed connected to both men.
But word of that leaked out. Church officers confronted Lister. Fearing the church would declare him a suppressive person, he admitted his errant ways. He disconnected from church attackers.
He was barely 22. He turned to drinking and drugs.
His parents helped him pay $3,000 for a multiweek stay at a Scientology-affiliated Narconon treatment facility in Oklahoma. He came home clean, but reunited with Argall.
He kept that secret until a Flag staffer phoned Lister to ask how he was doing. Lister talked about Argall.
This time, the church showed no mercy. It labeled him an "SP."
Lister's sister, Ashley, disconnected. So did her husband. Lister's childhood friends disconnected. His own father, Gale Lister, disconnected.
"I'd lost everything a human would care about,'' he said.
Except his mother and stepfather. The church allowed the Goldbergs to talk to Lister. He even could live with them. The church wanted them to "handle'' him, try to reverse his antagonism, his mother said. Church policy allows that, but not indefinitely.
One night, Lister and Argall talked about how crazy things had become. They sent the church a message: What about a truce?
In early February, 2011, Lister walked into a church office in downtown Clearwater, hoping to strike a deal. Argall decided not to go after the church said he couldn't shoot video.
Church spokesman Tommy Davis boasted: We are going to squash you like a bug, Lister said. Flanking Davis were veteran church security officers Marion Pouw, Mike Sutter and Kathy True — four against one. Lister recalled the meeting:
Davis said the church would lift Lister's suppressive person status only if he recanted his heretical actions, disconnected again from church attackers and divulged everything he knew about them. Lister also had to complete a lengthy reform, re-educating himself on Scientology doctrine.
He knew the church could seal off his parents. He agreed.
He talked about Rinder, Argall and other church opponents. "I feel very bad for what I told them,'' he said. He would not tell the Times what he revealed.
Lister tried reforming. Scientologists call these programs of contrition and re-education "A to E steps.'' It's a suppressive person's path back into the church. Lister studied Hubbard's writings at a Scientology mission near his parents' home for several months, paying about $300 for courses. He thought he'd made amends. He asked the church to remove his "SP" designation. It refused, saying he had more course work to do.
Crushed, he stopped trying to repent.
Scientology has been obsessed with controlling information internally and thwarting external threats since the church's early years. In the 1950s and '60s, the secretive new movement promising spiritual growth and self-betterment was investigated by the IRS, FBI, CIA, FDA and others.
Hubbard instituted several safeguards. Interrogations called "security checks'' wring from members information about threatening activities. In "Knowledge Reports,'' members snitch on one another, reporting to the church anyone who breaks rules or poses a security risk.
Hubbard also wrote an extensive code of ethics. It prohibits actions not in the best interests of the group — the church. Wayward members are judged to be in a "low ethical condition.'' The names Hubbard assigned these aberrant states of existence underscore concern for organizational security — Liability, Treason, Enemy. "Ethics officers'' assure misbehavers re-order themselves to church norms.
Disconnection — the church's shunning practice — is another control tool.
Other religions shun to varying degrees. Some orthodox Jewish sects, the Amish and Jehovah's Witnesses steer clear of apostates. U.S. courts have said religious groups have a First Amendment right to do so.
Hubbard created a strict practice for Scientology — cut off all contact. He established it when he set down other security measures.
He also defined the enemy: any person suppressing the organization.
He enumerated several "suppressive acts'' and instructed his followers to be watchful. Many target disloyalty: reporting on Scientology to authorities, testifying in a hostile manner, informing the press about the church, forming a splinter group.
Scientologists connected in any way to a "suppressive person'' are "potential trouble sources,'' Hubbard said. They are to "handle'' the suppressing person — reform him. If that fails, disconnect.
"The U.S. government raids and other troubles were instigated by wives, husbands or parents who were actively suppressing a Scientologist,'' Hubbard said.
Failing to disconnect from a church-declared suppressive person is a suppressive act, a serious offense. Holdouts risk becoming "SPs'' themselves — a Scientologist's worst nightmare. It triggers disconnection. And consequences are grave.
Scientologists tend to socialize within their tight-knit community, work for employers who are Scientologists and patronize members' businesses. Disconnection can mean not only near-total social isolation but financial hazard.
Also threatened is salvation. Scientologists believe auditing is a path to eternity. SPs and potential trouble sources are banned from church services.
Even though the church denies it orders disconnection — it quotes Hubbard saying it's "a self-determined decision made by an individual'' — the practice clearly equips today's church with powerful leverage. It also presents a striking paradox. A church touting a deep interest in human rights keeps in place a practice that exacts misery and pain, as the Goldbergs soon would see.
Pressuring the parents
By March, 2012, Lister had been a declared SP for 17 months and still was living with the Goldbergs, who continued to try to "handle'' him.
But the church clamped down. It designated the Goldbergs Potential Trouble Sources, a penalty rarely imposed on OT-8s, they said. They could not take services or go on church property unless invited.
They could fix it by disowning Lister.
"I'm not disconnecting from my son,'' Sara told ethics officer Jasmine Dunham.
Two months later, the church tightened its grip.
Three Sea Org members from the Freewinds, Scientology's Caribbean-based cruise ship, asked the Goldbergs to meet them separately at the church's Sandcastle complex in downtown Clearwater. Their goal: return the Goldbergs to good standing, which required that they disconnect from Lister.
Sheldon went in first. He met Mark Kimura and Russ McKevitt in the Sandcastle's restaurant. They asked what was bothering him, as a Scientologist.
Sheldon said he'd read the Times' reports of abuse allegations and other coverage, including an investigation of Scientology's high-pressure money raising tactics. The stories troubled him, he told the staffers.
Freewinds auditor Rosanna Loda took him to a small room for a "rollback.'' While Sheldon held the metal cans of an e-meter, a device similar to a lie detector Scientologists use during auditing and in security checks, Loda asked: How did he know about the reports? Who had told him?
"They were trying to find out who was spreading this stuff,'' he said.
Kimura told him reading news coverage of the church was an ethical violation. Kimura assigned a corrective program.
The following day, both Goldbergs met separately with the ship's team. Kimura asked Sara about Lister.
"He's acting out,'' she said. Fearing where the conversation was going, she added: "I am not disconnecting from my son. No one is going to tell me to do that.''
During Sara's rollback, she told Loda she had looked just once at church coverage, and not intentionally. She had heard buzz earlier that year about Flag's former top officer, Debbie Cook, whom Sara knew well. She Googled Cook's name. That led her to ABC News.
"I saw a picture of Debbie Cook on a witness stand,'' Sara said. "She was testifying that David Miscavige had his (assistant) break her finger and hit her.''
Do you believe that?
"I absolutely believe it.'' Cook wouldn't lie under oath, Sara said.
Kimura suggested she was in a low ethical condition. Sara disagreed. He settled for a one-on-one talk. Sara recalled it:
Kimura told her the church needed her back. She had been a force, influential, a leader on several projects.
Leaving the Sandcastle, Sara decided not to go home, where Lister was. She and her husband recently had discovered Lister was talking again with SPs. He'd promised not to do that. Sara decided to stay with a friend for a few nights while meeting the Freewinds team.
The following day, Kimura showed her photographs of Rathbun and others who had criticized the church. Sara recalled what Kimura said:
These SPs are intent on destroying Scientologists. They want to get to you through your son. Don't let that happen.
You've been trying for a long time to handle your son. It's not working. Remember what Hubbard said: Handle or disconnect.
Lister texted his mother several times that day.
Where are you?
What's going on?
Sara didn't reply.
• • •
At week's end — Saturday, June 9, 2012 — Sheldon was in his fifth straight day of making amends for unauthorized media reading.
As he drove to Tampa to assist the Scientology staff there, the church's pull was so strong he could envision his family splitting up.
"I liked Scientology quite a bit,'' he said. "And I knew what the consequences were if I ignored them.''
He also was angry at Lister for reconnecting with church enemies and for his increasing rudeness.
At midday, Sheldon walked into the church's parking lot and phoned Lister.
"You gotta get out,'' he said. "Your mother doesn't like that you are working with an SP. And I love your mother. And I'm going to be a Scientologist. And we can't do this with you. Can you leave today?''
Lister was stunned. "I need a day,'' he said.
He sat on his parents' couch for several minutes — "catatonic,'' he said. He then started packing.
"Every 20 minutes, I got more and more depressed.''
He drove his Honda Accord to a liquor store, bought a fifth of Ketel One vodka and a bottle of Sprite, drove back to the apartment and started drinking.
His 9 mm Glock pistol was in a dresser drawer in his bedroom. He thought: If I get hammered, I'm going to buy bullets.
Sara was at the Sandcastle, walking on the grounds with Loda, focusing on objects Loda pointed to: trees, shrubs, flowers. Loda was conducting a Scientology "locational,'' trying to shift Sara's thinking off the past and onto her present problem.
The Freewinds team repeatedly had told her: Your son is an SP. He's talking with church enemies. He'll corrupt you. Do what Hubbard teaches.
After her locational, Sara told Kimura: "I'm worried what he might do. He's threatened to kill himself before.''
Sheldon arrived. He told his wife: Nick's leaving tomorrow.
Sara froze a second. "All right,'' she said.
Sheldon and Kimura walked outside. At 4:09 p.m., Lister texted.
I apologize in advance for what I do next but I wont be around past tonight. Probably best if you dont come back tonight. Cheers.
Sheldon showed the message to Kimura. The church officer told him: Ignore it. He's trying to manipulate you, Sheldon said.
Sheldon didn't reply.
The Goldbergs stopped for dinner at a Panera Bread a half mile from their apartment. At 8:52 p.m., Lister texted his mother, saying he had his gun and couldn't live with everyone hating him. He also texted his stepfather.
Make sure you dont come home tonight.
"Oh, my God,'' Sara exclaimed. "Sheldon, go over there. You've got to stop it.''
Sheldon hurried out. Sara quickly texted Kimura, reporting what was happening. Concerned she might overstimulate her son, she stayed at Panera, pacing the sidewalk. Another text arrived, this one from Flag security officer Kathy True. She suggested Sara call police. Kimura must have alerted True.
Sheldon got to the apartment in minutes.
"Open the door,'' he said.
Lister freed the latch, crying. And drunk.
"Dude, I can't do it any more,'' he said. "I can't live this life. Please explain to me what I live for because I can't find it.''
"Give me the gun,'' Sheldon said.
Lister turned over the pistol. They hugged.
Sheldon sent a quick text to Sara. Dont send police. I'm handling. Minutes later he phoned her, saying: It's over. We're fine.
At 9:18 p.m. Sara texted Kimura.
Shel is handling him now it's ok. Does not need or want police.
Sheldon locked Lister's pistol in the trunk of his car, returned to the apartment and convinced his stepson to go to bed.
Two hours later, Kimura checked in with Sara by text.
Is Sheld ok? Under control?
Yes. Shel is fine, Sara replied. He did a great job and got it under control.
Good, Kimura wrote. Then he asked about Lister.
Is he moving out?
Sara didn't see her son that night. But she was there when he woke up. She made breakfast. She had been away three days.
"It was a mistake,'' she told him.
He could live with them as long as he needed. Just stop drinking, Sara said. And no more contact with other SPs.
Sara also sent a six-page letter to Mike Ellis, chief of Scientology's "justice system,'' a hierarchy of disciplinary sessions and internal tribunals. She asked for permission to stay connected to Lister. She summarized the night with the gun. Her son needed her, she said.
Ellis responded a month later, with clear instructions.
"I cannot approve that you continue your connection with Nick,'' he wrote, "as this is a violation of HCOB 10 Sept 83 PTSNESS AND DISCONNECTION.'' (HCOB is Hubbard Communication Office Bulletin.)
"Please work with the (Clearwater) Justice Chief as needed to ensure this is handled 100% per policy.''
One of the church's highest authorities left the Goldbergs with no option other than disconnecting from Lister.
Sara told Sheldon: "I'm not leaving my son.''
• • •
Six weeks later, the church dialed up the pressure. It notified the Goldbergs they each would face a "Committee of Evidence,'' separate Scientology trials, the church's most serious "justice action.''
"I never imagined that would happen — I would be in that much trouble,'' Sara said.
They met ethics officer Daniel DiGalbo at 7 p.m. Sept. 27, 2012, at the Starbucks at Fort Harrison Avenue and Cleveland Street. DiGalbo told Sheldon to take a seat. He ushered Sara across the intersection and into the marbled lobby of the former Bank of Clearwater, which Scientology has owned since the 1970s.
Four church staffers wearing the Sea Org's Navy-like dress uniforms were in a conference room, seated on one side of a long wooden table. Sara was to sit opposite them.
She knew one of the staffers, Elvira ElKamel. The others were a young man and woman and a man about Sara's age.
ElKamel picked up Sara's "Bill of Particulars,'' printed on goldenrod paper. She read the charges one by one.
Sara pleaded not guilty to the first two: Failing to "Keep Scientology Working,'' a Hubbard maxim, and failing to disconnect from a person guilty of suppressive acts.
To the third charge, adherence to a person pronounced suppressive by the church, Sara asked, "You mean my son?''
ElKamel and the others sat stone-faced.
"Okay, fine'' Sara said. "I am connected to my son. … So I'm guilty.''
She started crying. "But I'm not disconnecting.''
Sara was wearing her gold, $2,800 OT-8 bracelet, hoping it made a powerful statement. But these were desperate moments.
If she didn't disconnect from Lister, the panel could find her guilty. The church could label her an SP. Her daughter probably would disconnect. She'd never see her granddaughter again.
Sara presented a supporting letter from Ashley. It praised the Goldbergs for their faithfulness to Scientology. Ashley said they had shielded her from her suppressive brother.
Sara said: "You're asking me to make a choice between my son and my daughter. And I love them both very much.''
It's Sophie's choice, Sara said, referring to William Styron's landmark novel. She recalled what happened next:
ElKamel said firmly: You know church policy on disconnection.
Sara argued it allowed her to try to "handle'' Lister. "What if he tried to kill himself again?'' Sara said. "I would never be able to live with myself.''
The older man on the committee said: There are places for people like that — mental institutions.
Scientologists flatly oppose psychiatric treatment. The hypocrisy stunned Sara.
Her trial lasted more than an hour. Her eyes were red and puffy as she walked up to Sheldon outside Starbucks. Now, it was his turn.
He met the same four judges, in the same conference room, also wearing his OT-8 bracelet.
"I was very contrite,'' he said. He pleaded guilty to the three charges his wife had faced. He pleaded not guilty to a fourth charge: "rumor mongering'' about church leaders.
He had never done that and never would, he insisted.
ElKamel told both Goldbergs they would be informed of the committee's decision.
The Goldbergs still were potential trouble sources. No one had to disconnect from them — not yet.
• • •
Following her trial, Sara had trouble eating and sleeping. She did something she'd never done: research the church.
She read the abuse allegations from Rathbun, Rinder and other defectors. She read accounts of women who said church officers pressured them to terminate pregnancies while working in the Sea Org. She read Debbie Cook's remarkable testimony of being confined with other church managers, night and day for several weeks, in a church office building in California derisively called "The Hole.'' She read about the FBI's investigation of church work areas, the lawsuits filed against the church in Tampa, L.A., and Texas.
"I went, 'Oh, my God.' I had no idea. This is horrible.''
In early January, 2013, Sara turned 63. She and Sheldon celebrated with Ashley's family. Ashley Epstein did not respond to an interview request for this report.
The two families got together again — without Lister — in March when Sheldon, a real estate broker whose wife works with him, turned 64. That month, police stopped Lister and charged him with DUI. He later pleaded no-contest and paid a $525 fine. He works in online marketing.
On Mother's Day, Ashley took Sara to breakfast and to a salon for pedicures.
But in late July, the end came. Clearwater justice chief Cara Golashesky wrote the Goldbergs a one-page letter.
"Your Committee of Evidence Findings and Recommendations recommend you be labeled suppressive. There is a declare order issued on you now to that effect.''
Sara's heart leaped into her throat as she read it, she said.
She was due at Ashley's about 4 p.m. to help her pack for an upcoming trip. When she got there, with Sheldon, Ashley held up her phone. Flag had called four times in the past hour. What's going on? Ashley asked.
"We're declared,'' Sara said. She recalled what followed:
Ashley asked, Will you appeal?
"We're not going to disconnect from Nick,'' Sheldon said.
Sara asked Ashley to walk around the block. She told her daughter about Cook's testimony and other reports of abuse.
You're reading the Internet! Ashley exclaimed.
"I hoped love would prevail,'' Sara recalled. "I hoped she wouldn't just cut ties with me. . . . We had been so close.''
When they got back to the house and walked into the living room, Ashley's husband and their daughter were there.
Ashley said, Mom, I have to disconnect from you.
"She just kept hugging me and kissing me and told me she loved me. But she had to do this,'' Sara said.
Two weeks later, Sara sent Ashley a letter.
"No mother should ever have to go through this loss of a child and grandchild. I love you more and more and always did and will.''
The next day, Ashley emailed her mother.
"Please stop sending me emails and calling me,'' she wrote. She added: When you make it right with the church, "let me know.''
Joe Childs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.