St. Petersburg Tattler-Tribune May 23, 2003 By EARL CAMEMBERT
CLEARWATER - Earlier this spring, as the Church of Scientology prepared for its biggest trial in recent history, professional researchers combed Tyrone Square Mall asking Pinellas residents what they thought of the church.
"A cult," said person after person. Strangely, none of those persons could be contacted for this article.
"Scam," said one. "Crooks," said another. Large men in badly-fitting suits then trailed the respondees around all day.
The researchers, hired by the church, questioned 300 people. Their findings were grim: Four out of five had unfavorable things to say about Scientology. The fifth person quickly invoked the Fifth Amendment and ducked into the local Kwiki-Mart.
The church concluded that the negative opinions Pinellas residents hold toward Scientology are so deep and widespread, it could not get a fair trial here.
Fictional spokesperson Myron Fenderhoft said " We have great relations with the local community. Just not with the people who live here."
This week, it took the unusual step of asking the court to move the civil trial to the nation of Z'Tongo in West Africa, because:
a) none of Z'Tongo's residents have ever heard of Scientology;
b) none of Z'Tongo's residents speak English;
c) none of Z'Tongo's residents read newspapers.
d) The severely impoverished nation is in desperate need of money.
(Attempts were made in the late 60's by various missionary groups to bring civilisation to the tiny nation. Residents interviewed at the time pronounced the missionaries "Tasty".)
" This is the perfect venue for this trial," said Fenderhoft, "because there is absolutely no chance of the jury being influenced by all this unfair media coverage. In fact, every civilised nation in the world is unsuitable for this trial, because they all hate us . Here in Z'Tongo, we can engage in lucrative dialog with representatives of the local judiciary, plus, if things go bad, we won't have any nasty extradition issues."
The church commissioned the research project, anticipating it would go to trial this year to defend itself in the wrongful-death lawsuit filed by the estate of former Scientologist Lisa McPherson, who died in 1995 after being cared for by church staffers. , Researchers excluded anyone who had direct contact with the church, they said, because they " just stood there, looking at us with this smug, superior expression on their faces".
The motion for a change of venue comes in a related matter, a countersuit against the McPherson estate and its attorney Ken Dandar. The church alleges that Dandar improperly attempted to add Scientology leader David Miscavige as a defendant in the wrongful-death suit. When asked what this actually has to do with the cause of Lisa's death, Fenderhoft replied with the following bizarre tirade:
" We completely underestimated the lengths that some bigoted individuals would go to to print lies and slander about this case. We have proved that every negative statement about the McPherson Case is a lie by repeating that it's a lie over and over and over. What more can we do? The community prejudice has been fueled by an ongoing barrage of negative media comments, principally by the St. Petersburg Tattler-Tribune and the local television stations, who insist on printing their version of the truth without letting us correct it for them first."
Dandar, who has represented McPherson's family for six years, called the allegation "a bunch of baloney" and another delay tactic by the church's formidable legal team.
Tattler-Tribune editor and resident AA spokesperson Larsen E. Pettifogger defended the paper's coverage.
"The Church of Christ Scientist remains a big and important institution in the Tampa Bay area and we're going to .Oh. Never mind."
Church-hired researchers began their work in January, convening a focus group of 25 potential Pinellas jurors. By May, unable to get the desired results, they were forced to let the focus group out of the basement.
The group was asked what one word first came to mind when they heard "Scientology." Their responses: cult, despicable, lost souls and evil, mind controlling. Every one of the 25 offered "a strongly negative, vitriolic response."
The church widened the net, but was still unable to catch enough favorable residents in it to change the survey results.
Among the highlights:
Of the 262 survey respondents who admitted to having read or heard about either the Scientology religion, Flag or the wrongful-death case, 82.4 percent offered one or more unfavorable comments about Scientology.
Only 11.8 percent had anything favorable to say about Scientology. Toxicology tests are still pending.
100 percent thought " Battlefield Earth" was the worst movie in recorded history.
Asked what one word comes to mind when you hear Scientology, only two of the 300 provided a favorable word. Of course, "favorable" is a relative term, and we can't print what the word was in this paper.
One person responded with the word "Run." Asked to explain, he said, "That's what you should do if anyone offers you a Free Personality Test."
The "vicious, almost obsessive hatred" expressed in research "is exactly what can happen when papers like this one are allowed to print verbatim court transcripts, unedited statements and factual accounts of events. Things like that shouldn't be allowed in a city we've already bought and paid for many times over."
Last month, the case was reassigned from Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer, who sat through weeks of hearings last year, to Senior Judge Robert Beach. Chief Circuit Judge David Demers made the move after Schaeffer recused herself from handling a counterclaim.