Boston Man Wages Costly Fight With Scientology

December 21, 1997


    Leaving her home in Boston one morning early this month, Therese Minton was shocked to find her husband's photograph on fliers stuck to cars and trees in their Beacon Hill neighborhood. Beneath the photo was text that began: "The face of religious bigotry. Your neighbor Bob Minton is not all that he seems."

    A few nights later, as children arrived for the birthday party of one of the Mintons' two young daughters, three Scientologists picketed quietly outside the home, handing out the same flier.

    And the same night of his daughter's party, Minton was among about 40 anti-Scientologists marching in front of the church's spiritual headquarters in Clearwater, Fla., to mark the second anniversary of a Scientologist's death, for which the protesters blamed the church.

    These are among the latest skirmishes in an escalating war between the Church of Scientology and Robert S. Minton Jr., a retired investment banker, who has spent $1.25 million to finance some of the church's most outspoken critics. Minton became a dedicated foe of the church after learning of what he considered its heavy-handed efforts to silence the critics.

    The battleground in this conflict is varied, running from the streets of Boston and Clearwater to the Internet, and its oratory is a clear illustration of the fervor on both sides.

    In addition to the fliers, the church has private investigators digging through Minton's past, and Minton says he suspects that two men he saw following his school-age daughters twice in October were church operatives, though he says he has no proof.

    "I realize that these are the tactics that this church uses to try to intimidate people it can't control," Minton said. "They do intimidate me. I'm not a total fool. But I'm not going to walk away either."

    Church officials vehemently denied authorizing anyone to follow Minton's children and said that he made up those incidents to get press attention. But they acknowledged picketing his house and using private investigators to examine his background. They said both steps were legal and necessary.

    "Sometimes it requires aggressive litigation and investigation to uncover the depths of the nefarious plots that have been attempted to destroy Scientology," said Michael J. Rinder, a director of the Church of Scientology International.

    Rinder and other church officials questioned Minton's motives and contended that his actions and those of the people he is helping constitute hate crimes that would not be tolerated against another religion.

    "The people that we know of whom Minton has funded have expressed their intentions to destroy the Church of Scientology, not merely to 'criticize,"' Rinder said. "If he wants to fund it, fine. He will have to live with the bigotry he foments and be accountable for the harm he enables to occur."

    In a letter to Minton last month, a church lawyer demanded that he stop financing opponents of Scientology and warned that his actions had "crossed the threshold of legality."

    After consulting his own lawyers, Minton said he was told that he had done nothing illegal. He said he remained determined to continue his financial campaign.

    Minton seems an unlikely participant in this battle over the nature and practices of Scientology. He retired in 1992, at age 46, after earning a fortune trading in the debts of Third World countries. He and his wife had planned a quiet life with their two daughters. He is an assistant Little League coach and is active in raising money for his daughters' private school.

    Minton said he had never heard of Scientology until the spring of 1995 when he learned of the church's activities through the Internet. Although he said he did not question Scientology's beliefs, he said he objected to its treatment of some members and its efforts to silence critics on the Internet.

    "The more I learned about the Church of Scientology," he said, "the more I couldn't believe that this organization existed in the United States."

    What Minton said particularly struck him as excessive was a series of court-authorized raids by church lawyers and U.S. marshals on private homes in 1995. Computers and related material were confiscated from former Scientologists who had published high-level church scriptures on the Internet. The raids were part of copyright-infringement suits filed by the church against the former members.

    Though Scientology disseminates much of its voluminous scripture to the public, certain high-level documents describing its religious techniques are copyrighted and protected by extensive security. The church won a $2,500 judgment against one person whose home was raided and preliminary injunctions to stop publication in the other cases.

    Scientologists believe that people live many lifetimes and accumulate many traumas. They believe that counseling courses, known as auditing, can clear away those old traumas and help Scientologists lead more productive lives. Church members often pay substantial fees for the sessions, which has generated debate about the church's mission.

    In the spring of 1996, Minton posted a $360,000 reward on the Internet for information leading to the revocation of the tax exemption that Scientology received in 1993 after a two-year inquiry by the Internal Revenue Service determined that it was a bona fide church. The reward expired unclaimed that fall, but by then Minton was committed.

    "He's a man of principle and a very tenacious person," said Robert P. Smith, a Boston financier, who worked with Minton on many business deals.

    Over the objections of his wife and former business associates, Minton decided to finance some of the most vocal and persistent opponents of Scientology. He lent $440,000 to a former Scientologist who has been trying for a decade to collect a civil judgment he won against the church. Minton and his wife bought a $260,000 house on an island in Puget Sound and provided it to two former Scientologists who are persistent critics of the church.

    Some recipients of Minton's largesse operate Internet Web sites that are fiercely, and sometimes profanely, opposed to Scientology. Church officials say that some of those people have advocated violence against Scientologists.

    But the payment that seems to have angered Scientology officials and lawyers most is the $100,000 that Minton gave recently to Kennan Dandar, a lawyer in Tampa, Fla., who represents the family of Lisa McPherson in a wrongful-death civil lawsuit against Scientology.

    Ms. McPherson's death two years ago after a 17-day stay under the care of Scientologists in a church-owned hotel in Clearwater has become a rallying point for church critics. It was her death that Minton and others marked with their protest march earlier this month, and he was among several participants whose neighborhoods had been posted with leaflets. The local prosecutor is expected to decide in the coming weeks whether anyone will be charged in connection with the death.

    Minton, who said he promised to provide another $250,000 for the McPherson case, if necessary, said the money was intended to level the playing field between Dandar, who runs a small law practice with his brother, and the church, which has hired a small army of lawyers.

    The judge in the McPherson case said Scientology's lawyers were permitted to explore the motivation for the financing of the case. The church's lawyers said Minton's role taints the litigation by substituting Minton's agenda for that of the McPherson estate.

    "This is no longer a case about Lisa McPherson," said Laura L. Vaughan, a church lawyer. "It is an improper attempt to put the entire religion on trial."

    Dandar said that he contacted the Florida Bar Association before accepting the $100,000 and was told it was permissible as long as the family approved it and Minton did not control any aspect of the case. An ethics officer with the bar group said in an interview that Dandar's interpretation was correct.

    But church officials see Minton as the latest in a long line of people who have unfairly attacked Scientology since its creation in 1954.

    J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion, an independent research group in Santa Barbara, Calif., said Scientology had probably received the most persistent criticism of any church in America in recent years. But he said the Scientologists bear some of the responsibility.

    "They don't get mad, they get even," Melton said. "They turn critics into enemies and enemies into dedicated warriors for a lifetime."