Scientology: Still The Same

Source: St. Petersburg Times
Date: December 27, 1988

Is the Church of Scientology a more forthcoming, law-abiding outfit today than it was a troubled decade ago?

"Just the fact that they're quiet doesn't mean that they're not active," former Clearwater Mayor Gabe Cazares told St. Petersburg Times reporter Stephen Koff recently. "The nature of the beast has not changed."

Cazares should know. Few Tampa Bay residents have felt the sting of the Scientologists' venom as sharply as Cazares, who reacted with understandable concern in the mid-1970s when the secretive, California-based organization started buying up his town. To date, the group has purchased 12 parcels of property, with a taxable value of more than $21-million.

The Scientologists don't pay taxes, though. The group has ignored its Pinellas County tax bill since 1981, claiming it should share the tax exemption meant for traditional religious organizations. The bill now stands at a whopping $2.84-million, but the Church of Scientology doesn't seem worried. While the lawyers haggle, the group's various local enterprises draw an estimated $1.5-million to $2-million in revenues weekly. At that rate, the Scientologists could easily make good on seven years' worth of delinquent taxes in two weeks.

To do so, however, downtown Clearwater's largest property owner would have to concede that it is less a religion than a ruthless, intricately structured network of profit-making enterprises. A federal court has already dampened the credibility of its tax claim by finding that L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology's late founder, pocketed millions from the sect's California operations.

Revenues and taxes are only two of the many issues that make Floridians uneasy about the secretive organization with headquarters in Clearwater's massive Fort Harrison Hotel. Over the years the Scientologists have been charged with a variety of bizarre crimes. In Canada, for instance, federal authorities are bringing the sect to trial for stealing 2,000 government documents. In Spain, 11 Scientologists are out on bail, facing the possibility of charges that include coercion and fraud.

Closer to home, a California man won $30-million after claiming that the Scientologists drove him "nearly insane." Then the man's lawyer allegedly became the target of a Scientology smear campaign, so distressing the sect's own lawyer that he quit. Now the Scientologists are suing him, claiming he failed to keep privileged legal matters confidential. In another California case, two former Scientologists are charging the group with false imprisonment, infliction of emotional distress, conspiracy, fraud - to name just a few of the 11 counts.

By its own deeds, the Church of Scientology has shown itself to be a hydra of formidable, if elusive, proportions. Minimally, the group should be made to pay its taxes. More important, however, it should remain the focus of vigilant surveillance by both federal and local officials, lest more of those who dare to differ with its policies and practices get hurt.