CLEARWATER -- What would Lisa McPherson have wanted? That question burns at the center of yet another battle between the Church of Scientology and its critics. Both sides say they have McPherson's best interests at heart, yet each is using her name to oppose the other. McPherson was a veteran Scientologist who died in 1995 while in the care of church staffers in Clearwater.
On one side, Scientology's top critic said Monday he is financing a new foundation that will reach out to disaffected members of the church and educate the public about what he says are the harmful effects of Scientology.
Robert S. Minton, a retired investment banker from New England, said a full-time staff is being assembled in Clearwater. They hope to find downtown office space as close as possible to the Fort Harrison Hotel, a retreat that Scientologists around the world consider their "mecca."
The Fort Harrison also is where McPherson, 36, suffered a severe mental breakdown for 17 days before she died of a blood clot in her left lung. Her treatment is the subject of a wrongful death lawsuit in Tampa and criminal charges against the church in Pinellas County.
The new foundation would be a safe harbor, providing "exit counseling" for people wanting to leave Scientology, said Minton, who has spent about $2.5-million over the past three years fighting the church.
Incorporation papers for the Lisa McPherson Educational Foundation are expected to be filed this week.
On the other side are local Scientologists who last week registered two corporations bearing McPherson's name in an attempt to head off Minton's effort. They acted after news of Minton's plan leaked out on the Internet. The leader of the group is Bennetta Slaughter, a Clearwater businesswoman and a Scientologist who was McPherson's boss and longtime friend. Slaughter said Monday that her group -- either the Lisa Foundation Inc. or the Lisa McPherson Foundation Inc. -- would work as a kind of Anti-Defamation League to stand up against the "hate-mongering" and "religious intolerance" of Minton and his allies.
Each side reacted to the other's effort with outrage.
Mike Rinder, a top Scientology official, called Minton's plan "despicable and disgusting" and said it "brings nothing positive to the city." He added: "Bob Minton never met Lisa McPherson. If he had, he would have spit in her eye."
Slaughter said she and McPherson had known each other since 1984 and spent every day together, celebrating birthdays and holidays. She said McPherson was a dedicated Scientologist who never would have wanted her name affiliated with Minton's cause.
"I am sick and tired of this," she said.
Equally passionate was Tampa lawyer Ken Dandar, who has alleged that Slaughter was partially responsible for McPherson's death. Dandar represents McPherson's estate in the wrongful death case and is helping Minton form his foundation. "We did not kill her," Dandar said. "They have no business using that name."
He said Slaughter's action was "like O.J. Simpson forming a foundation in the name of Nicole Simpson. It just is ludicrous, brazen and shameful." Dandar said it was the dying wish of Fanny McPherson, Lisa's mother, that some effort be made to educate the public about Scientology and reach out to its "victims."
But Slaughter and top church officials say they believe he is lying. Slaughter said Fanny McPherson attended many church functions with her daughter over the years.
Scientology is trying to deflect the central issue, which is that "Lisa McPherson died in a most grisly and horrible way," Minton said.
He said he planned to continue his effort "for the long haul."