St. Pete Times tackles Scientology leader

The St. Petersburg Times, which in 1980 won a national reporting Pulitzer for a series on the Church of Scientology, is at it again with a series based on the first public reckonings of a handful of departed church executives. The sources were key colleagues of the man who has led the organization since 1987, David Miscavige. As the paper puts it, the defectors were “Haldeman and Ehrlichman to his Nixon,” and now they have come forward to describe a culture of intimidation and violence within the church’s highest ranks.

Intimidation is certainly something that the series reporters, Joe Childs and Thomas C. Tobin, became familiar with in their reporting on the church, which maintains its “spiritual headquarters” in Clearwater, Florida. Here is a choice passage from an article they wrote describing meetings the church arranged to give response to the defector’s allegations:

In 25 hours of meetings with reporters, the two church lawyers and two spokesmen extolled the accomplishments of David Miscavige and attacked the credibility of the defectors.

From that article’s lede:

The Church of Scientology pressed vigorously Friday (June 19, 2009) to delay publication of the Times’ Scientology story…

Church spokesmen, executives, attorneys and others flew in from around the country to meet with reporters in Clearwater. The parade started with ex-wives of the three male defectors. All three are Scientologists still. Each praised Miscavige’s visionary leadership and said their ex-husbands can’t be trusted…

Hubbard biographer Danny Sherman told a story of Miscavige spotting an injured sparrow, talking to it and checking back later to see if it lived. “It was immensely tender.”…

After eight hours, when reporters readied to leave, church spokesman Tommy Davis brought in nine senior members of the management team. They stood shoulder to shoulder in front of the exit and insisted they be heard. Marc Yager, Guillaume Lesevre, Ray Mithoff, Mark Ingber, all said Miscavige never struck them.

“I stayed up all night, scribbled notes on a piece of paper of things I had to tell you,” Lesevre said. “And obviously you don’t want to hear me. Fine. I want it on record that you don’t want to hear what I’ve got to say.”…

Greg Wilhere, yelling, said, “Mr. Miscavige never hit, abused anyone. And I know it better than anyone because I’ve been by his side more than Rinder, Rathbun and the rest of them.”

David Bloomberg: “Do you not think that you are perhaps being used as a pawn in a very sick game?”

Lyman Spurlock: “What they want to do is extort money from the church. And right now the St. Pete Times is their extortion vehicle. … you’re just their lackeys. They’re using you.”

The whole series, and links to the paper’s Pulitzer winning-coverage, can be found here.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.