Church behavior?

St. Petersburg Times, published May 26, 2001

   Scientology claims that it has reformed and says it should be treated like any other church. But the Jesse Prince case and others continue to set this church apart.   You have to be courageous to publicly criticize the Church of Scientology. The organization recently proved -- again -- how far it will go to investigate, smear and intimidate critics.

   Jesse Prince is one of those people the Church of Scientology perceives as an enemy because he is a vocal critic. A former Scientologist, Prince is expected to testify in an upcoming civil trial over the 1995 death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson, who died while in the care of church staffers in Clearwater.

   It isn't uncommon for one side in a lawsuit to attempt to discredit the testimony of the other side's witnesses. But the Church of Scientology set out to destroy Jesse Prince.

   The church's lawyers hired several private investigators who watched Prince for months. They even searched for and found a black private investigator from Lake Wales who could unobtrusively follow Prince, who is black, into minority neighborhoods. Prince's privacy was invaded by secret videotaping. The black private investigator, using a false name and identity, befriended an unsuspecting Prince and was invited into his home. That investigator later claimed he saw Prince smoke marijuana.

   With that, the investigators appeared to have the evidence of "immoral or illegal" activities they had been instructed to find. But that wasn't enough for the Church of Scientology. A church investigator took the information to the Largo Police Department, implying that Prince was a drug dealer. The department assigned an undercover officer, who visited Prince's home with the black private eye. The officer found no evidence that Prince sold drugs, but saw a marijuana plant growing in a pot on Prince's pool deck. Prince was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of cultivating marijuana.

   But even that wasn't enough for the Church of Scientology. An investigator working for the church called the Largo police detective and suggested other charges that could be filed against Prince. The Largo Police Department wasn't smart to get involved in what was essentially a campaign of harassment against Prince by Scientology, but at least it drew the line at heaping on unwarranted charges. The cultivation charge was dropped Friday after a jury that heard the case was unable to reach a verdict and a mistrial was declared.

   An attorney for the Church of Scientology defended the practice of using private investigators to protect the organization from people who "harass" it. Interesting. Scientology doesn't want to be criticized or harassed, but it doesn't hesitate to harass and intimidate others.

   Again and again in recent years, Scientology has claimed that it has reformed, that it no longer engages in the kind of underhanded or illegal behavior and smear tactics that have earned it a sorry reputation around the globe. Again and again, Scientology has argued that it is a religion and should be treated like any other church.

   But again and again, stories surface that set Scientology apart. Not only does it have a penchant for secrecy, it will spend virtually unlimited time and money on pursuing, setting up and bringing down its critics.

   That's not like any church we know.