The Unperson

Scientologists who cross their religion can be declared suppressive persons, shunned by peers and ostracized by family.

St. Peterburg Times/June 24, 2006
By Robert Farley

Religions have always penalized those who betray the cause.

Catholics excommunicate, barring the wayward from church rites. The Amish, Jehovah's Witnesses and some orthodox Jewish sects shun their nonconformists.

In the Tampa Bay area's burgeoning Scientology community, members abide by a policy considered by some religious experts extreme: Scientologists declare their outcasts “suppressive persons.”

Another Scientology policy — called “disconnection” — forbids Scientologists from interacting with a suppressive person. No calls, no letters, no contact.

An SP is a pariah. Anyone who communicates with an SP risks being branded an SP himself.

Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard wrote the policies four decades ago, church leaders say, not as a tool to oust members but to provide those going astray with a mechanism to return to the church's good graces. That aligns with Scientology's tenets of improving communication, strengthening relationships.

But SPs who have felt the sting and other church critics say the suppressive person policy is a sledgehammer to keep marginal members in line — and in the flock.

Whatever Scientology’s motivation, its suppressive person policy results in wrenching pain, say a dozen SPs interviewed by the St. Petersburg Times.

Some have gone years without seeing or talking with sons, daughters, mothers, fathers — all of whom abide by Scientology's no-contact requirement.

For a Scientologist thinking of forsaking the church, the decision is grueling: stay in or risk being ostracized from loved ones and friends.

It left Caroline Brown in Cincinnati, weeping at the sight of a basketball court.

Like so many Scientologists, Caroline and her family came to Clearwater in 1991 to escape the “wog” (non-Scientology) world.

By 1998, she was divorced and living with her teenage daughter, Darby ­Zoccali. Her ex-husband and son lived together just a few miles away.

Caroline was unhappy, depressed. Her drinking strained her relationship with Darby.

Mother and daughter agreed Caroline could give her life new purpose by taking a Scientology job in Ohio. As a church staffer, her Scientology counseling would be free.

Darby, who just turned 18, stayed in Clearwater in her own apartment.

But the counseling in Cincinnati didn't help, Caroline said. Depressed and having anxiety attacks, she was flat broke and crying herself to sleep.

Walking past a basketball court one day, she burst into tears.

Her son played basketball. What was she doing in Cincinnati, working 14 hours a day, seven days a week, a thousand miles away from her son and daughter?

Caroline decided to bolt — from Cincinnati and from Scientology — even though she knew she almost certainly would be declared a suppressive person.

Hers was an “unauthorized departure,” akin to going AWOL. To leave church service in good standing, Scientology staffers must complete “sec checks” — short for security checks.

They are like confessionals. Scientologists spell out transgressions to “feel better about them and take responsibility for them,” Clearwater church spokesman Ben Shaw said. “It is one of the most invigorating experiences you can imagine.”

The process can take months. Fellow church staffers pose questions to the out­going member seeking to discover “crimes” deemed to be the source of suppressive acts.

Questions include whether an SP has made statements against Scientology to friends or to the media, but the sec checks can be extremely personal, according to church documents obtained by the Times. Questions can probe possible drug use, history of theft or nonpayment of taxes, or ask about masturbation or homosexuality.

A staffer who leaves without routing out through sec checks violates a signed church contract, Shaw said, and likely will be declared an SP.

That's what happened to Caroline. After she returned to Clearwater, the Scientology community turned its back. She bumped into an old Scientology friend at a Dollar Store. Without so much as a hello, the woman said, “Go handle it. You go fix it. Handle it.”

Darby wrote her mother a disconnection letter, and helped her brother, then 14, write one too. The letters are clear: Until you get back on good terms with Scientology, Mom, we’re disconnecting.

Darby says her decision to disconnect from her mother had nothing to do with Scientology. She says her mother doesn't need to become a Scientologist again for them to have a relationship. But she needs to do the sec checks to remove the SP label.

Her message for her mother: “All you have to do is fix it. So do it. It's not that horrible.”

Now 23, Darby is a Pilates instructor and a service broker for her boyfriend's telecom company. She took her first Scientology class when her mother was in Cincinnati.

“Every time I used it, my life got better,” she said. “I'm not going to give that up for someone who created so much pain.”

Her mother knew the consequences of walking away.

“It's more like she disconnected from me,” Darby said.

When Caroline got her son's disconnection letter, she called a lawyer. Her parental rights trumped Scientology's disconnection doctrine. She and the boy met at Cody’s Roadhouse in Clearwater.

“I love you more than any other human being on the planet,” she told her son.

He lit up, she said. She now sees him regularly. But not Darby.

“My heart is still broken about not having my family,” Caroline said. “I'm the one who got her (Darby) in it. I'd like to be the one who gets her out.”

Remarried now, Caroline attends St. Petersburg College, hoping to become an art teacher.

“It's fun creating a new life,” she said. “I just wish the ones I love more than anyone in the world could be part of it.”

The suppressive persons who spoke to the Times were declared SPs because they publicly and repeatedly challenged the church. They also faced the church's regimented internal justice system.

The process typically begins with a Scientologist writing a “knowledge report” about another church member, outlining alleged transgressions. The accused may be directed to undergo ethics counseling or ordered to face a “committee of evidence,” a tribunal of church staff members who, acting as jurors, determine if the person has committed suppressive acts.

Suppressive acts must be renounced, and suppressive persons must atone. Failing to comply carries heavy consequences, as Randy Payne discovered.

For two decades, Payne, 53, was a dedicated Scientologist. He and his wife published a Scientology newspaper in Clearwater. He paid tens of thousands of dollars for Scientology training.

He expanded his Clearwater private school, Lighthouse, which incorporated L. Ron Hubbard's study techniques, and opened sister schools in Scientology’s target markets of Hungary, the Czech Republic and Italy.

To use Hubbard's “tech” and materials, Payne agreed to pay 10 percent of his schools' revenues. He paid the fee initially, but stopped in 1997 because he said his curriculum had evolved to a point where Hubbard's techniques were used only marginally.

The church threatened to declare him an SP.

“It's the ultimate weapon for them because no one can talk to you,” Payne said.

He pleaded his case through four committees of evidence — two held in Clearwater, two in Los Angeles. He formally was declared a suppressive person on May 11, 2003. The order said Payne “spread false and derogatory statements to others about Scientology and Church staff.”

Scientology agents sought to cut off Payne's ties to the church community. A church ethics officer told an employee at Payne's school that he needed to quit, according to a note the employee wrote to Payne. Church staffers informed Payne's students who were Scientologists that Payne had been declared and that they should leave the school, he said.

The suppressive person policy was used against him as a form of extortion, Payne said, to get him to pay the fees.

He wrote legislators and met with law enforcement officials, asking they investigate his claim of extortion.

Last October, Payne made a more public protest that could happen only in Clearwater. During the opening moments of a Clearwater City Council meeting, when residents typically complain about parking problems and potholes, Payne stood and with TV cameras recording his every word, complained about the Church of Scientology:

“It is my belief that this church's leadership has created a corrupt internal justice system to enforce its money-making scheme on individuals and businesses.”

Council members sat mute.

Extreme? Perhaps. Effective? Definitely.

That's the view of many religious scholars who say the motive behind Scientology's suppressive person doctrine is clear: keep members from breaking ranks.

“That's the way the church keeps discipline,” said J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion, a think tank in Santa Barbara, Calif., that focuses on smaller groups. “For them, that's an internal control mechanism.”

Scientology's disconnection requirement is far more extreme than the severing practices of most modern religions, Melton said.

“I just think it would be better for all concerned if they just let them go ahead and get out and everyone goes their own way, and not make such a big deal of it,” said Melton. “The policy hurts everybody.”

Church spokesman Shaw suggested the Times interview two other professors who have testified in Scientology's behalf in legal cases.

“It is rather strict,” said the first, F.K. Flinn, adjunct professor of religious studies at Washington University in St. Louis. It also is characteristic of a young religion, he said.

“It has to do with feeling threatened because you're not that big. You do everything you can to keep unity in the group.”

Scientology is not as controlling as were the early Christians, Flinn said. Its SP practices are akin to the shunning of the Amish and Jehovah's Witnesses. Some Amish communities allow contact with close friends and families; Jehovah's Witnesses cut off all communication except in cases of family business or emergency.

The second expert Shaw suggested, Newton Maloney, a professor at the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., characterized Scientology’s disconnection policy as “too extreme,” particularly as it affects families.

“Some people I've talked to, they just wanted to go on with their lives and they wanted to be in touch with their daughter or son or parent. The shunning was just painful. And I don't know what it was accomplishing.

“And the very terms they use are scary, aren't they?”

Shaw says the church’s policy is far from extreme. Doesn’t everyone distance themselves from negative influences?

“Prisoners are disconnected from society,” Shaw said. “Employees are fired, spouses scorned and divorced by their partner.”

Unethical lawyers are disbarred. Discriminatory businesses are boycotted. Journalists who fabricate stories are fired, he said.

“All of these actions represent the practice of disconnection in cases where an anti­social person will not reform or restrain their destructive actions.”

The suppressive person and disconnection policies are a last resort, Shaw said.

“The only reason to declare someone a suppressive person is to give them a road map to their own salvation.”

And many SPs have returned.

Hubbard once wrote that SPs were “fair game," meaning that they could be “tricked, sued or lied to or destroyed.”

Hubbard canceled the “fair game” policy in 1976, saying it was never intended to authorize “illegal or harassment type acts against anyone.”

Church critics, however, remain wary.

Potential Trouble Source. No Scientologist wants to be called that. PTSs can't take classes or get the spiritual counseling called auditing. But if you maintain contact with a suppressive person, that's what you are.

Two recorded messages left last year on the answering machine of Creed Pearson illustrate just how serious this can be.

The caller: Scientologist Kathy Feshbach, a major contributor and founder of a Scientology mission in Belleair.

The first call was placed on March 2.

“Hi … this is Kathy Feshbach. … Ah, George Mariani is running for mayor again in Belleair, called us; wants us to have all our friends over on Sunday at our house at 4 for him to talk. It's really important because No.1, he is reaching for us, the Scientologists. So that’s really a good indicator. So I really want to have a big showing for him. … So, anyway, it's a big deal that the mayor called us so I really want you guys to come over.”

What Feshbach did not know was that Pearson — a Scientologist for 25 years and big church donor — had been declared a suppressive person the previous month. Pearson, 50, said he was declared because he told his friends in Scientology that the religion was being altered by current management. He also said L. Ron Hubbard had lied while ticking off his accomplishments during a speech.

Four days later Feshbach called Pearson back and left a second message. It was clear she had learned he was a suppressive.

“Hi, Creed, this is Kathy Feshbach. Sunday morning … I just heard that you were under some kind of ethics cycle. So, you are not invited to our house today. I am sure you understand. So, ah, thank you very much for understanding. Please do not attend the event. Thank you very much for understanding.”

As the community of Scientologists has grown to an estimated 10,000 in the Tampa Bay area, so too has the number of declared SPs increased, according to church officials and former members.

Shaw said there are only about 40 SPs in the bay area. Former Scientologists say the number of suppressive people is much higher.

Thousands of SP declare files are kept at the church's administrative headquarters in California, said Astra Woodcraft, who worked there for three years ending in 1998.

Now, she is in those files herself.

The Woodcrafts are a family divided. The mother, a son and grandmother are Scientologists. The father and two daughters left.

The two sides do not speak.

Raised with her brother and sister in Scientology, Astra Woodcraft spent two years in Clearwater as a teen, living in a church-owned motel on U.S. 19 and serving as a Scientology cadet.

Her family later moved to Los Angeles and at 14 she joined the Sea Org, the legion of church staffers who dedicate their lives to church service. Woodcraft was assigned to the ethics security team, which tried to keep people from leaving Scientology.

One month after turning 15, she married a 22-year-old fellow Sea Org member. A few years later, she traveled to England to attend her grandmother’s funeral. Enthralled with “the outside world,” she stayed on for a time in England and decided to leave Scientology.

Her husband wrote her from Los Angeles: “What really will happen if you decide not to come back and get declared? I will have to disconnect from you, and so will the rest of your family — your Mom, your Dad, Grandma, Matt and Zoe. Or, you come back and standardly handle the situation, with whatever decision you have made.”

Woodcraft, pregnant, filed for divorce. She was 20. She returned to the church in L.A. in April 1998 and did her sec checks. It took a month. She signed a document admitting to trying marijuana at age 13 and once stealing a pair of pantyhose.

Then she left. Scientology hit her with a “freeloader's bill” for $80,000. Sea Org staffers get Scientology courses and auditing for free. But leave, and you are billed retro­actively. She refused to pay.

Later, Woodcraft's younger sister, then 15, also left Scientology. She was in the Cadet Org, living with her mother, then a church staffer in Clearwater. She called her father, who had been declared an SP years earlier. He picked her up at the Clearwater Library and spirited her away.

Shaw provided the Times a letter from Astra Woodcraft’s mother, Leslie Woodcraft.

“While not happy about it, I could have accepted her (Astra's) decision to leave church staff,” Leslie Woodcraft wrote. “But what is very, very upsetting is that she reverted to her old, dishonest ways.”

Astra became a “puppet of vested interests and her 'story' — lies and false accusations really,” Leslie stated, likely made as a way to seek attention.

The letter ended, “Still, I have not given up hope that one day Astra will realize that she made a decision that, as final as it may appear to her now, can be reverted.”

Astra says she left “not hating Scientology,” but the church's reaction left her wanting nothing to do with it.

“The hardest thing for me is explaining to my daughter why she can't see her dad,” who did not contest Astra getting sole custody. “I don't want him to see her. I don't want Scientology to touch her in any form.”

But she wishes she could speak to her brother and mother and grandmother, all of whom remain Scientologists.

“I really love my mom and I miss her a lot,” Astra said. “I would love for her to see my daughter.”

Some Scientology terms

Here is how Scientology defines some of the terms used in this story:

Suppressive person: "Those who are destructively antisocial. A person who possesses a distinct set of characteristics and mental attitudes that cause him to suppress other people in his vicinity. Or one who actively seeks to suppress or damage Scientology or a Scientologist."

Disconnection: "A self-determined decision made by an individual that he is not going to be connected to another. It is a severing of a communication line."

Auditing: Scientology counseling "which helps an individual look at his existence and improves his ability to confront what he is and where he is."

Potential Trouble Source: "A person who is in some way connected to and being adversely affected by a suppressive person." So called because "he can be a lot of trouble to himself and to others."

Sources: "Introduction to Scientology Ethics" and "What Is Scientology?"

SP Profiles

Karen Pressley of Atlanta and her then-husband Peter Schless - a musician and composer who wrote the hit song On the Wings of Love - became Scientologists and later joined staff. Pressley mostly worked for the church's international organization in Los Angeles, but she spent six months in Clearwater. She said she designed the new uniforms still worn by staffers today.

Pressley left Scientology in 1998 and refused to come back for sec checks. She has publicly denounced "substandard" child care at church facilities around the world and criticized the church for the "condition of poverty" that staffers lived in. After she left the church, her husband "faithfully applied the rule (of disconnection)," she said.

She calls the suppressive person declare "a form of psychological terrorism. It obliterates families. ... People who leave are afraid to talk about Scientology."

In a letter to the Times, Peter Schless - who works for the church's Golden Era Productions - states that Pressley was unfaithful in their marriage, and that she came to resent his success. He said she walked out on him in 1998, took his BMW car, left him with $17,000 in credit card debt and "insisted on taking half (his) income." If someone did that to you, he wrote, "you probably wouldn't be too interested in speaking to your ex-wife either - and it would have nothing to do with whether you were a Christian, Buddhist, Jew or Scientologist."

Tom Smith, 49, of Clearwater, was declared an SP in August 2005 after he repeatedly challenged the validity of a "patter drill" in which he was instructed to read passages of a course to a wall. Smith insisted the drill was not based on Hubbard teachings.

A year and a half earlier, Smith attended a charter review committee meeting to express his opposition to the county plan to fluoridate the drinking water. Smith followed committee chairman Ed Armstrong to the parking lot and aggressively argued the issue should be put to voters.

Soon after, Smith was summoned to the Fort Harrison Hotel, the locus of Scientology operations. A church ethics officer confronted him with a report, written by Ben Shaw, criticizing Smith for being rude to Armstrong. It noted that Armstrong is an attorney for the church.

"You are going to be declared," Smith says the ethics officer warned him. The message was clear, to Smith: Back off.

Shaw said he wrote the report, but said it's ridiculous for Smith to contend he was threatened with a suppressive person declare over it.

Grace Aaron of Los Angeles was declared a suppressive person five years ago after she wrote several internal reports insisting that current church management had altered some of L. Ron Hubbard's directives. She said church officials tried to convince her husband of 28 years to divorce her and said he had to make a choice: his wife or his religion. He stayed with her and was declared a couple of months later.

Their son, Zachary, then 22, was on staff at the Beverly Hills mission and living with his parents. She said the church also gave him an ultimatum: move out within 24 hours and sever all ties with his parents or he would be kicked out of Scientology himself. He went with Scientology.

"I don't think that any religion has a right to disrupt a family," she said. "It may not be illegal. But when it comes to human rights and morality, I consider it immoral."

In a letter to the Times, Zachary Aaron wrote that he has no interest in speaking to his mother.

"Her actions were calculated to attack the Church, she knew exactly what she was doing, she was told multiple times exactly what would happen and she refused everybody's efforts to help her sort things out.

"So very simply, I've refused to speak to her until she becomes a member of the Church again. And she could do this very easily! ... All she has to do is apologize and make up for any damage that she's done. That's all! But she won't do it."

Aaron took her story to local cable TV two years ago and put out an appeal to Zachary: "Daddy and I really love you," she said. " ... We want to share in your life to some extent. We don't want to control you or to force our realities on you. We just want to see what you're doing."

Church spokesman says Times report is unfair

When the Times told officials at the Church of Scientology in Clearwater about plans to write a story about its suppressive person and disconnection policies, Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw aggressively sought to refute the story and persuade the newspaper not to tell it.

Shaw provided numerous articles about the ways other churches deal with apostates, including one in which a Catholic bishop in Nebraska excommunicated every member of one church. "I don't see how you can do a fair article on this subject unless you are willing to throw in similar accusations about virtually every other religion," Shaw said.

He said it's also unfair to focus on a single Scientology policy. "It is almost impossible to really get a conceptual understanding of the practice of disconnection, or the practice of declaring someone a suppressive person, without a full understanding of volumes of texts and recorded lectures by Mr. Hubbard which express the theory and philosophy underlying them," Shaw said.

"That is the problem with both the media who write about this, and the apostates who they get the 'story' from - they don't understand it. And if they did, it is so uncontroversial, no reporter in his reporteresque mind would ever write about it."

Shaw provided the names and phone numbers of a handful of Scientologists who attested to the ways they say Scientology helped them improve relationships with family members and spouses. That, he said, is the big-picture story about the Church of Scientology.

Finally, Shaw took aim at the credibility of some of the suppressive persons who spoke to the Times.

Regarding Creed Pearson, Shaw provided: a police report about a party at his home in which police found marijuana paraphernalia; a Pinellas sheriff's report that deputies arrested him in September on charges of battery and possession of marijuana; notarized affidavits from two Scientologists who worked for Pearson and say he made racist and anti-Semitic statements; and a letter from Pearson's ex-wife, who stated that he had "terrorized" his family for years.

Pearson was never arrested in the paraphernalia case and said the party was thrown by a young man living with him as he slept upstairs; in the battery and possession case, prosecutors elected not to pursue charges; he acknowledged that he made racist and anti-Semitic statements, but not since he left Scientology and learned his mistake; he denied that he ever terrorized his family. Pearson said he expected the church to attack him.

Regarding Randy Payne, Shaw provided affidavits from several people who said Payne was physically abusive. Shaw said that was one of the reasons Payne was declared an SP. Payne vehemently denied the charges of violence, noting that there have never been any police reports to substantiate them. He said the church doctored documents that accuse him of violence.

Regarding another Times source, Tom Smith, Shaw said police reports would show he had a history of obstructive behavior with police. Shaw said Smith also brought a handgun into a counseling session in the church and said he did not have a license to carry the gun. Smith noted that he has never been arrested, and records show that he had a license to carry the gun. Smith said he was a jeweler at the time.

"He (Shaw) is grabbing for anything he can do to smear," Smith said.

Shaw, however, called the Times' story irresponsible "when you are getting your 'facts' from disgruntled ex-members who have an ax to grind against their former Church, and when they are the ones who caused the harm that brought about their expulsion and disconnection."

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