Reigns of terror

dianeticsSay what you will about the Church of Scientology, but its members are tenacious. I have some friends who left the church probably 25 years ago and they are still routinely contacted by members who, shall we say, encourage them to be careful with what they say about the church. And what's interesting about that is that my friends actually have quite a few positive things to say about the church and what they got out of it. If you want to get a taste of how this tenacity plays out, you simply must read the St. Petersburg Times' engrossing three-part series on the church (part one, part two, part three is coming). Reporters Joe Childs and Thomas Tobin speak with four former members -- some of whom were incredibly high up in the organization. They are careful to balance each of the claims made by these former members with the official position of the church.

It's riveting. One of the former members is Mike Rinder, a high-ranking executive perhaps best known for a 2007 confrontation with a BBC reporter where he denies that Scientology leader David Miscavige physically abused his underlings. The first part of the series discusses the accusations by the former members that Miscavige engages in physical abuse.

There are so many things to praise about this series, but I would like to point out two things.

First, this paper has a history of excellent coverage of the Church of Scientology. The group's Clearwater headquarters are in the paper's coverage area and there have been interesting stories for decades. This story was the result of 25 hours of discussion with church spokesmen and lawyers and multiple interviews of the four defectors. It came about after Marty Rathbun, who had left the church in 2004, posted an Internet message that he was available to counsel other disaffected Scientologists. The paper contacted him and he agreed to talk about his 27 years with the organization. To corroborate the story, the paper contacted others who served with Rathbun and got them to talk. I doubt another paper, with fewer contacts and less of a history with the organization, could have done as well with the story.

The second thing is that this story doesn't just provide a stunning glimpse of the interior of Scientology, it actually breaks news. To wit, in the second part of the series, Rathbun admits to destroying incriminating evidence to cover up Scientology missteps in the death of a mentally ill member who died under church care:

In early 1997 as investigators closed in, Rathbun met with church staff at Scientology offices in Hollywood, Calif. They combed the daily logs that McPherson's caretakers kept during her 17 days at the Fort Harrison.

Three entries particularly troubled Rathbun.

One contained a bizarre sexual reference McPherson had made. Another revealed that no one thought to remove the mirror from the room of a psychotic woman bent on harming herself. The third was one caretaker's opinion that the situation was out of control and that McPherson needed to see a doctor.

Rathbun concluded the notes had to go.

"I said, 'Lose 'em' and walked out of the room," he recalled, adding that the decision to destroy the records was his own.

"Nobody told me to do it and I did it," he said. "The truth is the truth and right now I'm going to confession, and I really think it's something that hurt the church more than it hurt the people that were trying to get recompense.

"But it is what it is, and I know it could potentially be a crime."

In a recent interview, State Attorney Bernie McCabe said it was clear the records were missing because the church handed over entries for every day of McPherson's stay except the final two before she died. That the church appeared to be hiding something only fed McCabe's sense that something was amiss.

The church dismisses Rathbun as a bitter former member who inflates his importance. Of all four of the members who spoke with the paper, the church said they failed at their jobs, broke Sea Org [the church's dedicated work force] rules and were ethically suspect, the team said:

As the lawyers and spokesmen defended Miscavige and sought to discredit his detractors, they produced materials from the four defectors' "ethics files" -- confessions, contritions, laments that the church keeps to document their failures. . . .

Moving up the ethics ladder requires that the subject pen confessions or soul-searching memos called "formulas," which are said to better the individual as he or she examines what went wrong. These memos also can give the church a ready source of written material to use against members who would turn against Scientology.

More documents are generated when a person wants to leave, or "blow."

So the church opens the files, including Rathbun's, in which he apologized for leaving the church briefly in 1993, for striking and verbally abusing staff dozens of times, for making more work for Miscavige, for mismanagement staff and messing up major assignments, etc. Rathbun says he admitted these things because they were what Miscavige wanted to hear (although he and other disaffected members previously admitted to the paper that they physically abused staff). The church emphasizes that Rathbun -- not Miscavige -- reigned in terror but, on the other hand, that wasn't really that high up and didn't hold a title after 1993. The paper produces a Scientology magazine that gives him various titles after 1993. Let's just say that the reporters go well beyond "he said, he said"-style reporting. And it produces some colorful scenes:

If Rathbun's responsibility was as limited as the church says, the Times asked, how did he get people to submit to a reign of terror? [Tommy] Davis, the church spokesman, erupted.

"He's the one who's saying that Dave Miscavige beat these people,'' Davis screamed. "And he's saying that Dave Miscavige beat the exact same people that he beat. And that's what pisses me off. Because this guy's a f------ lunatic and I don't have to explain how or why he became one or how it was allowable.

"The fact is he's saying David Miscavige did what he did ... And now I'm getting a little angry. Am I angry at you? Not necessarily. But I'm g-- d--- pissed at Marty Rathbun. Because he knows that he was the reign of terror."

Let's just say that I'm really glad that anything I confess to my pastor is kept secret under the seal of the confessional!

Whenever we cover stories about Scientology, we get quite a few comments from anonymous and church members. I'm curious what those two groups think about this series. I'm sure that the church members can't be happy, but I'd like to know what their specific journalistic complaints are, if any.

Remember, we are interested in complaints about the journalism.

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