Beyond talking points at Scientology opening

The Denver Post's Eric Gorski hasn't been exclusively on the Godbeat for a while. So I was quite happy to see him dip back into religion reporting for his piece on the Church of Scientology's grand-opening celebration in Denver. We're told that the celebration filled a city block downtown with balloons, confetti and cheering throngs. Midway through the story we get this tidbit:

The media were not invited to the Denver grand opening, which included an appearance by Hubbard's successor, David Miscavige. Church officials later provided excerpted remarks and video.

So with an event closed to the media, how does a good reporter cover the event? Gorski filed open-records requests to get a pretty interesting story. He found out that Denver Police Chief Robert White and City Councilman Albus Brooks gave remarks working from talking points provided by the church.

And so what could have been a bland repeat of a press release instead gets very interesting. Gorski explains that the church is aiming for a higher profile by renovating historic buildings and transforming them into "gleaming" new churches that serve the community:

As part of that effort, the church has successfully recruited community leaders to praise its drug-prevention programs, commitments to homeless initiatives and other outreach work.

We're given good details about the building that was transformed, including how much it cost to purchase and what church officials report about how its renovation was paid for. There are also good quotes from outside observers as well as church members.

Here's how Gorski handles the membership issue:

Church spokeswoman Erin Banks said Denver-area Scientologists number 10,000, and the church puts global membership in the millions and growing. Scholars say the numbers are exaggerated, and a 2008 survey identified 25,000 U.S. Scientologists and a church in decline.

There's some background on how the church started as well as later controversies.

But the most interesting part is what Gorski found out from the open records request:

"I have seen your fabulous programs, and I know that they are open to all citizens in our community," White said.

Denver Police Capt. Jennifer Steck, who heads the department's public-affairs bureau, said she wrote prepared remarks for the chief.

At the church's request, Steck sent the speech to Banks, the church spokeswoman, for review. Banks replied with suggested additions to lengthen the speech, including more references to community respect and collaboration, according to e-mails obtained in a public-records request.

The "fabulous programs" line was among those added by church officials. All the church's suggestions were accepted, Steck said.

The provision of talking points is put into context by the reporter, too. He interviews White and finds out that White was unaware of many of the criticisms of Scientology.

He tries to interview Brooks but is only able to do so via email. Other speakers from the event are interviewed for their thoughts, too. And more context:

Because Scientology seeks legitimacy as a mainstream religion, winning approval from prominent local leaders is important to church officials, said journalist Janet Reitman, author of the 2011 book "Inside Scientology."

"Scientology has excellent PR skills, they know how to talk to officials and other opinion leaders, they make huge overtures to win people of local and national importance to their side, and they are very, very smooth," Reitman said.

Anyway, I just had to highlight some good reporting on a notoriously difficult to cover religious group.

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