Gifts of cash fuel battle of principle

Hub man's aid to Scientology critics draws fire and rhetoric from church

By Diego Ribadeneira, Globe Staff

December 9, 1997

A retired Beacon Hill investment banker has provided $1.25 million to critics of the Church of Scientology, triggering harsh denunciations from church members, who have handed out leaflets to the banker's neighbors accusing him of using ''KKK-style'' tactics.

Robert Minton said he decided to fund church critics because he believes Scientology abuses some of its members and uses unfair, strong-arm tactics to intimidate its detractors.

Minton, who is not a Scientologist, became aware of the church's activities through the Internet. He said he does not question Scientology's beliefs.

But, he added, ''I am trying in a rather helpful way to force this organization to reform. If they want to be a good member of the world's religious communities, then they need to act like one.''

Minton's tangle with the Church of Scientology began more than two years ago after the church took legal action against several people who were posting internal church documents on the Internet. The church charged that the postings violated copyright laws.

Minton, who says he viewed the struggle as a free speech issue, was alarmed at what he considered the extremes to which the church would go to quash dissent. He became one of many activists around the world campaigning for change within the Church of Scientology.

Eventually, Minton said, he decided to ''put my money where my mouth was and help individuals and organizations who were having problems with the church.''

Earlier this year, Minton contributed $100,000 to plaintiffs in a Florida lawsuit filed against the church involving the death two years ago of a Scientologist, Lisa McPherson.

The lawsuit, filed by McPherson's estate, charges the church with holding the 36-year-old woman against her will while she slipped into a coma and eventually died. An autopsy revealed that McPherson died of a blood clot caused by severe dehydration. Florida authorities are conducting a criminal investigation into her death.

Minton said he donated the $100,000 because the church had a formidable defense team and had greater resources than the plaintiffs.

Last week, Minton took part in a demonstration in front of the church's religious headquarters in Clearwater, Fla., marking the two-year anniversary of McPherson's death. Minton said he has pledged to provide an additional $250,000 to help finance the Florida lawsuit against the church.

He also has provided money to former Scientologists in Washington state and an anti-Scientology activist in California.

Church officials accuse Minton of harboring hatred toward Scientology and attempting to foment internal dissent. On Friday while Minton was in Florida, several church members passed out fliers on Beacon Hill with his picture, denouncing him.

Frank Ofman, a spokesman for the Boston-area branch of the Church of Scientology, said church members distributed the leaflets to highlight Minton's bias.

''The face of religious bigotry your neighbor, Robert Minton is not all what he seems,'' read the fliers, which were not identified as coming from the Church of Scientology. ''This week he is leading a KKK-style rally against peaceful members of a religion. When he's not stirring up hatred in the streets, Minton is poisoning the Internet by filling it full of religious bigotry and intolerance.''

''I don't mind people picketing but handing out these leaflets is a little bit unethical,'' Minton said.

Church officials acknowledged that they have conducted their own investigation into Minton's funding practices. ''This is an extremely shady character because he covertly engages in a campaign to harm our religion,'' said Kurt Weiland, director of external affairs for the church. ''It's immoral and quite frankly perverse.''

In addition to helping fund the Florida lawsuit, Minton two months ago purchased a $260,000 home outside Seattle for two former Scientology members who run a cat shelter in west Seattle.

The couple, Vaughn and Stacy Young, who have testified against the church in several court cases, claim they were evicted from their home after their landlord was pressured by Scientology officials.

Minton also contributed $5,000 to a defense fund set up for Dennis Erlich, a California man who has been accused by the Church of Scientology of posting internal church documents on the Internet.

The Church of Scientology, which claims among its members Hollywood stars John Travolta and Tom Cruise, has been a lightning rod for criticism since its founding 43 years ago by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard.

Critics say the church charges exorbitant fees to members who take Scientology courses and tries to harass its foes into silence by, among other things, hiring private detectives to dig into their private lives.

Last month, Elliot J. Abelson, a Los Angeles attorney representing the Church of Scientology, wrote Minton a scathing letter.

''You are ... fostering a climate of hatred'' toward the church, the letter said. ''The church will not tolerate such conduct. I demand that you immediately withdraw all financial support for such matters and am warning that you and those you're funding have crossed the threshold of legality.''

After consulting with his attorneys at Hale and Dorr, Minton did not respond to Abelson's letter. ''What I was doing was protected free speech,'' he said.

The church's vocal attacks against Minton are typical, said religious scholars who study the Church of Scientology.

''If you take them on, you have to be ready for a battle,'' said James T. Richardson, a professor of religion and judicial studies at the University of Nevada at Reno.

''The church is very aggressive in court and out of court,'' said J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion, an independent research organization based in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Richardson noted that Scientology, far more than any other new religious movement, has been targeted by anti-cult activists. ''There is really a lot at stake in terms of the right of minority religions to practice their faith and even exist in some countries,'' Richardson said.

But, Melton said, Scientology's tactics have given them a black eye. ''They have a tendency to fight until they win and to try and punish their opponents,'' he said.

This story ran on page B01 of the Boston Globe on 12/09/97.
© Copyright 1997 Globe Newspaper Company.