Earlier today I posted the 14 part 1980 Pulitzer Prize winning series by Charles Stafford and Bette Orsini under the thread: "The Scientology assault on Clearwater continues."
The following article was Eugene Patterson's introduction to the series telling about the long struggle to crack the wall of mystery surrounding Scientology. At the time, Patterson was editor and president of the SP Times.
Today, the same wall that has always surrounded Scientology is filled with holes and has crumbled in many places around the world. Yet the same criminal behavior in Clearwater that was so newsworthy in 1980 continues, albeit in a more insidious and sophisticated way. But where are the investigative journalists? Don't worry, they'll be here in Clearwater soon.
Shedding light on Scientology's darkside
by EUGENE PATTERSON
St. Petersburg Times
When a strange new force imbeds itself clandestinely in this community and sets out to harm people who raise questions about it, a newspaper has a particular duty to resist intimidation itself and inform citizens fully of what is going on.
For four years The St. Petersburg Times has printed fragments of the Scientology story as our reporters painstakingly pieced it together in the face of unending obstacles. Now Staff Writer Charles Stafford is pulling together the whole story in one coherent presentation?or as near to coherence as the cockeyed facts of the matter will permit.
We know now that The Times was placed at the top of the cult's "enemies" list shortly after the Scientologists started buying up millions of dollars worth of property in downtown Clearwater ? vast tracts of the sparkling little city. They moved a major headquarters off a ship at sea and landed it in our county seat.
BUT WE WERE NOT particularly surprised to discover this No. 1 designation for The Times in the documentary evidence that is sending nine of the church's leaders to jail after conviction in a Washington, D.C. federal court. We've felt the heat for many years now as our reporters have toiled to answer the community's question: What is this Church of Scientology, and what is it doing in Pinellas County?
Our reporters, and particularly Bette Orsini, came under attack by the Scientologists from the very start when their inquiries pierced the deceit of a front name and forced the church to identify itself as the secret cash buyer of the Fort Harrison Hotel.
Church officials harshly denigrated Mrs. Orsini and other Times reporters in public and slandered them to their editors because they were insistent on printing the truth. Their investigations of the church's past practices elsewhere in the world had prepared the reporters, though. They knew it was a practice of this peculiar organization to try to ruin persons it perceived as unfriendly.
The record showed it was also a practice to try to intimidate newspapers and other publications with threats of expensive lawsuits if they did not spare Scientology their critical scrutiny.
HAVING ALREADY observed the harassment of its reporters and the efforts to stain their professional reputations, this newspaper fully expected the church's' threat of a baseless libel suit when it landed oh our desks. We were not dealing with an organization that played by ordinary rules. So The Times took the extraordinary step of suing them before they could make good on their threat to sue us. We asked a court to enjoin the church from continued efforts at harassment and intimidation of our reporters. We felt the need for an injunction to protect them as they went about their task of trying to inform the public about the cult that was setting out to control Clearwater. They needed it.
Now you will know what happened next. By infiltration or burglary or both, operatives of the church stole communications between The Times and its attorneys, both its St. Petersburg lawyers and its Washington law firm. They were reading our mail. Theft was being practiced by members of a group calling itself a church.
The amateurish vilification directed at Times executives by the church's Clearwater publication, Freedom, was to be expected. The late chairman of The Times board, Nelson Poynter, was falsely accused of being a CIA agent (Scientologists alternately considered smearing him as a communist, their documents show.) This writer was falsely called an FBI informant. So far as my wife knows, she never received the telephone call a Scientologist plotted to make to her in an effort to get her on tape saying, unwittingly, some uncomplimentary things they could use against me.
Unable to find a yielding pressure point inside The Times, church operatives went to an incredible length. They went after reporter Bette Orsini's husband.
The fact that he had done nothing wrong did not deflect a poison-pen campaign against him. He was not even a newspaperman. He was the able director of a small charity in Pinellas County. An anonymous letter accompanied by a bale of state documents about his conduct of the charity, supposedly showing criminality, landed on The Times' city desk and showed up at two or three other Florida newspapers. Our prompt, in-depth investigation of the allegations showed Mrs. Orsini's husband was innocent of any wrongdoing.
She, then, was assigned to discover who had compiled those documents that accompanied the poison-pen letter aimed at her husband.
Within days this skilled reporter had nailed down the true identity of the man who had used false credentials to procure many of the documents from the state records office in Miami. He was a Scientologist.
As The Times built its case for an injuction to protect Mrs. Orsini and.her family from victimization such as this; it became clear that the innocent charity was going to be dragged into any court fight between the Scientologists and The Times with possible resultant damage to its, fund-raising capabilities, through no doing of its own, and through no wrongdoing by its, director. Rather than permit an innocent third party to be even threatened with damage by airing of tip Scientologists' false allegations, The Times dropped its lawsuit.
But the newspaper and Mrs. Orsini did not drop the reporting effort to illuminate the dark corners of the church's operations in Pinellas County. Documents now available show she had badly shaken the church "Guardians" confidence that they could prevent her from cracking their whole clandestine spy system. If she could catch the Scientologist in Miami as she had done, they knew she was doggedly following the right track toward the truth about them all.
BUT AT THAT point, the U.S. government, after years of investigation, found a Scientology burglar who was ready to turn whistleblower and tell the truth. Armed with his testimony about wholesale theft of documents from government buildings (which Mrs. Orsini detailed in this newspaper last year), FBI agents obtained search warrants from courts and made raids that produced the staggering volume of incriminating documents that have now sent nine Scientologists to jail.
Far more important than those conviction though, is the light the documents themselves now permit us to shed on operations of the church. In ignorance of what is happening, a community might submit uncertainly to being terrorized. A newspaper's job is to make plain the nature of what is happening, even if it takes years to piece it together, so that information can guide citizens in their judgments.
Now after four frustrating and at times painful years, we are able, in Charles Stafford's series, to give you the story. The cult is still here but the uncertainty about the facts is forever gone.