Three days after more than 2,000 Scientologists crowded into the historic Ybor Square courtyard to celebrate the opening of the Church of Scientology Tampa's new home — a landmark 88,000-square-foot former cigar factory in Ybor City — Creative Loafing editor David Warner and I found ourselves in a COS conference room facing several of the Church's top-ranking public relations officials. They were decidedly not happy with a blog post I'd written that quoted a handful of protesters from the group Anonymous who'd appeared at the grand opening.
Present were Peter Mansell, director of external affairs; chief spokesperson Pat Harney; Lisa Mansell (Peter's wife), the community relations director; Erin Banks, in from COS in Los Angeles; and Paul Wilson of St. Petersburg's Wilson Media, hired by the Church to handle advertising and other local media matters.
All to discuss one 590-word blog post.
As is well-known by now, Creative Loafing's offices are part of Ybor Square, and COS became our landlord when the church purchased the complex for $7 million in May of last year. The Church had told us its March 13 opening ceremony would not be open to media coverage, but I'd wandered by anyway and happened to spot four Anonymous protesters standing across the street in front of the Noriega parking garage on 13th Street and 9th Avenue. They told me, without going into specifics, about threats and assaults they claim to have suffered because of their Scientology protests. Although I called the Church for a comment the following day, I published without hearing back.
And now here we were.
Mansell expressed hurt and anger that, just as the relationship between this newspaper and his organization was about to begin, CL (in his eyes) had come out blazing with a negative attack featuring a handful of critics from their longtime nemesis. Wilson — brother of actor Patrick Wilson and Fox 13 news anchor Mark Wilson, son of Fox 13 anchor John Wilson, and, he pointed out, not a Scientologist himself — then handed me a 34-page document containing information about what COS calls "the hate-group known as Anonymous."
(Ironically enough, while Warner and I were undergoing this tribunal, a large posse of CL staffers was at the same time touring the facility; Todd Bates' photographs from that tour were in CL's Photo Issue March 24.)
We left with the mutual agreement that I'd write a follow-up to the blog post (but would not take it down from the site, which was the Church's initial request). So, early last week (13 days after that group encounter in the conference room) Peter and Lisa Mansell met me again at the new facility in Ybor Square, which is considered an "Ideal Org." (The term, coined by founder L. Ron Hubbard, connotes an ideal organization that can house all the functions a Church of Scientology can provide.) After a short tour of what is known as the Public Information Center, which features multimedia displays providing an overview of the Church's work on human rights and drug education, Peter and I talked some more.
He first expressed some regrets. He said that he and other COS officials had done considerable outreach to the Ybor community in the days leading up to the grand opening, but had failed to invite CL that day or immediately afterwards. (Mansell and other COS representatives had met with Warner in the months since the purchase, and with the present and former publishers of CL, but had never contacted me.)
We went on to discuss matters of press coverage. The Church has, no question, stirred controversy over the years. The St. Petersburg Times' investigations go back more than three decades, including a 1980 Pulitzer Prize-winning report by the late Bette Orsini on the Church's handling of perceived enemies. In 2009, the Times published a series of reports questioning the leadership of David Miscavige, who took over the organization in 1986 after the death of L. Ron Hubbard. In the series, former Church officials accused Miscavige of physically beating subordinates, a charge he and other officials denied. In February of this year, former Scientologist Paul Haggis, director of the 2006 Oscar-winning film Crash, delivered some more bad PR when he told Pulitzer prize-winning New Yorker journalist Lawrence Wright how he'd become estranged from the Church, saying that his daughter had been ostracized by Scientologists when she told them she was a lesbian.
To Peter Mansell, those articles aren't a big deal. When asked about the Haggis story, he replies, "Who reads The New Yorker?" As for the 2009 Times series, he reports general indifference among people he queries about it. "I'm not kidding you when I tell you, you would not believe how hard it is to find anybody who reads those articles."
In a later email, he elaborated. When asked about critical news reports, he says, he points to the availability of Scientology texts in 50 languages; the Church's expansion since the mid-1990s from 2,660 to 9,000 facilities; and the "nearly one million square feet of new Church space currently in design, planning or construction."
Adrian Wyllie was not mentioned. He is running for Governor.
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