By THOMAS C. TOBIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 15, 1999
TAMPA -- In a ruling Tuesday that stunned the Church of Scientology
and its attorneys, a Hillsborough County judge allowed Scientology's
worldwide leader, David Miscavige, to be named as a defendant in a
lawsuit over the 1995 death of church member Lisa McPherson.
Miscavige's authority in Scientology is limited to ecclesiastical
matters, according to church officials. But the lawsuit, filed by
McPherson's family in 1997, has been amended to say that he "totally
controls" and "micro-manages all of Scientology," and that his
ecclesiastical role is part of an elaborate set-up to shield
Scientology and its leaders from liability.
The lawsuit also says Miscavige's subordinates informed him of
McPherson's deteriorating condition and were acting on his orders as
she became psychotic and was "imprisoned" for 17 days while in the
care of Scientology staffers in Clearwater.
McPherson died on Dec. 5, 1995, as church staffers took her in a van
to see a Scientologist doctor at a New Port Richey emergency room.
The addition of Miscavige as a defendant adds more intensity to a
3-year-old case, which already was hotly contested. Miscavige is
revered in Scientology circles, and the church's attorneys indicated
his involvement would only strengthen the church's resolve to defend
Church attorneys told Hillsborough County Circuit Judge James S. Moody
that his ruling could add two years to the case after Miscavige hires
a separate legal team that likely will include Gerald Feffer, a
Washington, D.C., lawyer in the same firm that last year defended
President Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Feffer also worked
with Miscavige for years to help secure Scientology's long-sought tax
exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service.
Church attorney Eric Lieberman said the addition of Miscavige raises
constitutional questions involving religious practice that will need
to be litigated at length. "This case will be off the rails for
years," he told the judge.
Intense and charismatic, Miscavige was only 26 when he took the reins
of Scientology during a time of internal strife in the early 1980s.
Now 39, he is credited with improving the church's operations,
updating its materials and finally securing the IRS's ruling.
A five-week trial has been scheduled for June, but Scientology
attorneys said there was "zero" chance of it happening with Miscavige
as a defendant. Ken Dandar, who represents McPherson's family, said he
saw no reason why the trial shouldn't proceed as scheduled.
In a 1998 interview with the Times, Miscavige said he was out of the
loop regarding McPherson's care.
"I would have heard about it sometime around the time period that she
died," he said.
"No. No," he answered. "That doesn't come to me."
He added: "At the time I don't think it was really thought to be that
significant an issue. She died. People die."
Mike Rinder, a top Scientology official, predicted Tuesday that
Miscavige would be removed as a defendant when the church moves to
dismiss parts of the lawsuit in January. He said the effort to bring
Miscavige into the fray was "just a sham" by Dandar and Bob Minton,
the New England millionaire who is funding the case as part of an
Moody ruled after a hearing that focused on a 1997 agreement in which
Dandar pledged to limit the lawsuit to the Church of Scientology in
Clearwater, and not to sue other Scientology entities or their
But Dandar said Tuesday the pact did not prevent him from suing
Miscavige. The hearing focused on the definition of an entity.
In addition to being chairman of the Religious Technology Center -- or
RTC, the ecclesiastical arm of Scientology -- Miscavige also heads the
The "Sea Org," as it is known, is a fraternal order of Scientology
staffers who adhere to military-style rules and sign billion-year
contracts, believing they will live many more lives.
Lieberman said the agreement was clearly intended to include the Sea
Org as well as Miscavige in his role as RTC chairman. He also said
Miscavige was covered in the agreement under Dandar's own scenario,
which portrays Miscavige as the head of a single Scientology entity.
But Moody said he was persuaded by Dandar's argument, which featured
Scientology's own description of the Sea Org to the IRS in 1993. In
that document, the church stated the Sea Org was not incorporated, had
no management structure, no assets and "does not have any need to
operate as an entity."
-- Scientology's gate is down. --