TAMPA -- In a ruling Tuesday that stunned the Church of Scientology and its attorneys, a Hillsborough County judge allowed Scientology's worldwide leader, David Miscavige, to be named as a defendant in a lawsuit over the 1995 death of church member Lisa McPherson.
Miscavige's authority in Scientology is limited to ecclesiastical matters, according to church officials. But the lawsuit, filed by McPherson's family in 1997, has been amended to say that he "totally controls" and "micro-manages all of Scientology," and that his ecclesiastical role is part of an elaborate set-up to shield Scientology and its leaders from liability. The lawsuit also says Miscavige's subordinates informed him of McPherson's deteriorating condition and were acting on his orders as she became psychotic and was "imprisoned" for 17 days while in the care of Scientology staffers in Clearwater.
McPherson died on Dec. 5, 1995, as church staffers took her in a van to see a Scientologist doctor at a New Port Richey emergency room. The addition of Miscavige as a defendant adds more intensity to a 3-year-old case, which already was hotly contested. Miscavige is revered in Scientology circles, and the church's attorneys indicated his involvement would only strengthen the church's resolve to defend the lawsuit.
Church attorneys told Hillsborough County Circuit Judge James S. Moody that his ruling could add two years to the case after Miscavige hires a separate legal team that likely will include Gerald Feffer, a Washington, D.C., lawyer in the same firm that last year defended President Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Feffer also worked with Miscavige for years to help secure Scientology's long-sought tax exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service.
Church attorney Eric Lieberman said the addition of Miscavige raises constitutional questions involving religious practice that will need to be litigated at length. "This case will be off the rails for years," he told the judge. Intense and charismatic, Miscavige was only 26 when he took the reins of Scientology during a time of internal strife in the early 1980s. Now 39, he is credited with improving the church's operations, updating its materials and finally securing the IRS's ruling. A five-week trial has been scheduled for June, but Scientology attorneys said there was "zero" chance of it happening with Miscavige as a defendant. Ken Dandar, who represents McPherson's family, said he saw no reason why the trial shouldn't proceed as scheduled. In a 1998 interview with the Times, Miscavige said he was out of the loop regarding McPherson's care.
"I would have heard about it sometime around the time period that she died," he said.
"No. No," he answered. "That doesn't come to me."
He added: "At the time I don't think it was really thought to be that significant an issue. She died. People die."
Mike Rinder, a top Scientology official, predicted Tuesday that Miscavige would be removed as a defendant when the church moves to dismiss parts of the lawsuit in January. He said the effort to bring Miscavige into the fray was "just a sham" by Dandar and Bob Minton, the New England millionaire who is funding the case as part of an anti-Scientology crusade. Moody ruled after a hearing that focused on a 1997 agreement in which Dandar pledged to limit the lawsuit to the Church of Scientology in Clearwater, and not to sue other Scientology entities or their officers.
But Dandar said Tuesday the pact did not prevent him from suing Miscavige. The hearing focused on the definition of an entity. In addition to being chairman of the Religious Technology Center -- or RTC, the ecclesiastical arm of Scientology -- Miscavige also heads the Sea Organization.
The "Sea Org," as it is known, is a fraternal order of Scientology staffers who adhere to military-style rules and sign billion-year contracts, believing they will live many more lives.
Lieberman said the agreement was clearly intended to include the Sea Org as well as Miscavige in his role as RTC chairman. He also said Miscavige was covered in the agreement under Dandar's own scenario, which portrays Miscavige as the head of a single Scientology entity.
But Moody said he was persuaded by Dandar's argument, which featured Scientology's own description of the Sea Org to the IRS in 1993. In that document, the church stated the Sea Org was not incorporated, had no management structure, no assets and "does not have any need to operate as an entity."