Who Can Stand Up?

Editorial by Frank Rich

March 16, 1997

"Can anyone stand up to the Church of Scientology? "

Such was the plaintive question asked by The St. Petersburg Times in an editorial last week, and with good reason. The great American religious saga of the 1990's may be the rise to power of a church that has successfully brought the Internal Revenue Service, the State Department and much of the American press to heel even as it did an end-run around the courts.

As Douglas Frantz reported in The New York Times a week ago, Scientology in 1993 suddenly metamorphosed from a controversial and highly lucrative organization, with an extensive history of criminal activity in the 1970's, into a bonafide nonprofit religion -- at least as far as the U.S. Government was concerned. That's when the I.R.S. turned its back on 25 years of its own rulings and gave Scientology the tax-exempt legitimacy it had long craved. What made this decision startling was not only the I.R.S. 's contradiction of both itself and various court decisions on Scientology's tax status, but also the mysterious circumstances that brought on the about-face. Scientology's victory was set in motion in 1991 when two of its leaders dropped by the I.R.S. 's Washington headquarters unannounced and somehow secured an audience with the agency's then Commissioner, Fred Goldberg Jr.

Why did Mr. Goldberg afford some of the I.R.S. 's most ferocious longtime antagonists the red-carpet treatment John Q. Taxpayer would never receive? He isn't saying, and the fateful meeting was not even recorded in his appointment calendar. Nor do we know what is in the agreement that the I.R.S. and Scientology subsequently negotiated -- since the I.R.S. also acceded to the church's demand for secrecy. What we do know, thanks to Mr. Frantz, is that the settlement followed years of costly Scientology litigation against the I.R.S. and an extensive investigation of I.R.S. employees by Scientology -hired gumshoes.

Scientology will stop at little to try to silence its foes. Time magazine had to spend $7 million to successfully defend itself against libel -- a decision now under appeal -- after its 1991 expose of Scientology as a "hugely profitable global racket." The Cult Awareness Network, a Chicago-based organization that battled cults, was driven to financial ruin by litigation brought by Scientologists and their associates; now it's in the hands of a Scientologist and proselytizes for the church. The Tampa Tribune, The St. Petersburg Times and the Clearwater, Fla., police department are currently under vicious attack by the Scientology magazine, Freedom; that's the price they must pay for pursuing the mysterious 1995 death of a 36-year-old Scientologist who had been planning to leave the church.

Those who police Scientology as if it still might be a racket -- most harshly Germany, which regards the church as a "pseudo-science" sowing psychological and financial ruin -- are invariably labeled Nazis by its leaders. Because of the I.R.S. decision, Scientology complaints about foreign governments are now treated officially as human-rights grievances by the State Department. Madeleine Albright, who has already raised the issue with Germany, may eventually have to take other allies to task as well. The Washington Post reported on Jan. 27 that a Greek judge closed a Scientology church center in Athens for "medical, social and ethical practices that are dangerous and harmful" and that an Italian court ordered jail terms for 29 Scientologists found guilty of "criminal association."

Perhaps these governments are Nazis, too, and the I.R.S. , whose senior officials defended the legal merits of the agency's decision in conversations last week, is right: maybe Scientology, which charges its followers tens of thousands of dollars for the mandatory counseling sessions it calls "auditing," is indeed a benign nonprofit organization entitled under tax law to be underwritten by American taxpayers. But given the cost of this decision, shouldn't all the circumstances surrounding it be revealed? And where are the network TV interviews with David Miscavige, the Scientology leader whose casual visit to the I.R.S. in 1991 brought such blessings? No one can say he isn't newsworthy. As the head of an empire that purports to have eight million followers, he is the spiritual ruler of the most successful new religion to be founded in this century.


Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company