Scientology's bullying


St. Petersburg Times, published January 25, 1997

The Church of Scientology is its own worst enemy. It spends considerable effort renovating its Clearwater properties, sponsoring holiday festivals and pleading to be accepted in the community it secretly invaded two decades ago. Then it resorts to intimidation and pretends to be above the law when serious questions are raised about the death of one of its members. Those old habits undercut the more recent efforts toward community acceptance.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Clearwater police and Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe are investigating the death of Lisa McPherson, who was a member of the Church of Scientology for 18 years before she died in December 1995.

When Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Joan Wood publicly discussed her office's findings, a lawyer for the Church of Scientology called her a "hateful liar." That does not sound like an organization eager to help find the truth.

There are disturbing discrepancies between the Church of Scientology's version of events and the conclusions reached by the medical examiner's office. Scientologists say McPherson, who was 36, "suddenly took ill" at the church's Fort Harrison Hotel in downtown Clearwater. Wood says McPherson's health deteriorated over several days. Scientologists say the woman was given food and liquids and was conscious when she was taken for treatment. Wood says McPherson went without fluids for five to 10 days and was unconscious for up to two days before she was taken to a doctor. Scientologists say a severe staph infection contributed to the blood clot that caused her death. Wood says that is impossible.

Wood's conclusions raise more questions about McPherson's treatment. Scientologists ignored medical advice and escorted her out of nearby Morton Plant Hospital after she acted oddly following a traffic accident. When Scientologists sought treatment for her 17 days later, they did not take her to the nearest hospital. They drove her to a hospital more than 20 miles away in Pasco County to see a doctor who is a Scientologist and had never examined her before. Why?

Scientology officials intimidated McPherson's relatives by showing up at her funeral in Texas and insisting she wanted her body to be cremated. They accused Clearwater police of harassment. They sent a private investigator to the home of the former associate medical examiner who performed the autopsy. And they lashed out against Wood, a 22-year veteran respected by prosecutors and defense attorneys.

This is not the appropriate response from an organization that wants to be welcomed into the community. The Church of Scientology is not above the law. Their bullying tactics should not deter law enforcement officials from finding out what really happened to Lisa McPherson.

Copyright 1997 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.

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