Talk about explosive allegations: In a mammoth two-day investigative series totaling more than 10,000 words, the St. Petersburg Times reports that the Church of Scientology repeatedly pushed members of its religious order, the Sea Organization, to have abortions "for the greatest good."
Women who declined to end pregnancies faced threats and intimidation, according to former members interviewed by the Times. In riveting front-page stories, reporters Joe Childs and Thomas Tobin methodically lay out the facts and allegations yet go out of their way to seek the church's side of the story.
The church denies all the former members' accounts -- a fact made clear as the Times repeatedly allows space for the church's response to specific claims. Be sure to read Sunday's part one and Monday's part two.
Here's the top of the first story:
Laura Dieckman was just 12 when her parents let her leave home to work full time for Scientology's religious order, the Sea Organization. At 16, she married a co-worker. At 17, she was pregnant.
She was excited to start a family, but she said Sea Org supervisors pressured her to have an abortion. She was back at work the following day.
Claire Headley joined at 16, married at 17 and was pregnant at 19. She said Sea Org supervisors threatened strenuous physical work and repeated interrogations if she didn't end her pregnancy. She, too, was back at work the next day.
Two years later she had a second abortion, this time while working for the church in Clearwater.
A St. Petersburg Times investigation found their experiences were not unique. More than a dozen women said the culture in the Sea Org pushed them or women they knew to have abortions, in many cases, abortions they did not want.
Some said colleagues and supervisors pressured them to abort their pregnancies and remain productive workers without the distraction of raising children. Terminating a pregnancy and staying on the job affirmed one's commitment to the all-important work of saving the planet.
Often, we complain at GetReligion about stories that raise allegations against religious organizations without citing adequate details.
In this case, the St. Petersburg Times provides a tractor-trailer load full of reporting on the strikingly similar stories told by former church members. The incredible two-day package strikes me as journalism at its best -- tough but fair. The reporters tell a difficult story with precision and balance. And the Times supplies more than enough facts and context for readers to draw their own, informed conclusions.
(Church spokesman Tommy) Davis denied pregnant Sea Org couples were shunned or called "degraded beings.''
To the contrary, those wanting children are helped, Davis said. "They receive assistance from the church, including immediate prenatal care, medical care, financial assistance and even help in finding housing and employment upon departure from the Sea Org.''
The Times asked to interview church officials, including church leader David Miscavige, about the accounts of former Sea Org members who described the pressures to have abortions.
Davis responded in writing. He also provided the sworn declarations of 10 former and one current Sea Org member who said the church and their colleagues comforted and supported them during their pregnancies, allowing naps, giving gifts and creating flexible work schedules.
"I received lots of care and support from the staff and at no time was I made to feel guilty for wanting to have a child,'' said Kathryn Reeves, who left the Sea Org in 2009 with her husband and has a baby daughter she said has a cheerful disposition.
"I am sure that part of her being so happy is that my pregnancy was very calm, very sane, and completely free of upset,'' Reeves said in her declaration.
Besides the allegations, the reports provide insight into Scientologists' beliefs. For example, Sea Org members sign billion-year contracts, "symbolizing a commitment to serve in this life and coming ones." Also, Scientologists believe life consists of eight dynamics, or channels, including procreation -- unless that conflicts with broader dynamics, according to former members.
The St. Petersburg Times' package, of course, follows an engrossing three-part series on the Church of Scientology by the same reporters last year. Nearly a year ago, Mollie highlighted that series, which marked the first time a major paper had dealt substantively with claims of physical and mental abuse by Scientology's current leadership.
I urge you to read the latest stories and share your observations and questions in the comments section. Remember, please, that we are interested in journalistic issues.