CLEARWATER -- An organization that says it wants to reform the Church of Scientology has followed through with its plans to open a headquarters at the epicenter of the Scientology world.
The group, led by New England millionaire Robert S. Minton, on Wednesday purchased a small office building at 33 N Fort Harrison Ave., just 30 feet from a major Scientology building downtown. Minton and a five-member staff say they plan to educate local residents -- including existing Scientologists -- about abuses within the church. Scientology reacted Wednesday with strong words.
"These guys are nobodies," said church official Marty Rathbun. "They bring absolutely nothing to this community."
He compared it to the Ku Klux Klan opening an office in North Greenwood, a Clearwater neighborhood with mostly black residents.
He said the notion that a group of outsiders needs to reform Scientology is absurd. Support for the church is higher than ever among its members, Rathbun said. He also said Scientology has worked hard to normalize relations in Clearwater, where city officials have included the church in discussions about downtown redevelopment for the first time since its controversial arrival in Clearwater during the late 1970s.
Today, Clearwater is Scientology's "mecca," a destination for church members who come from throughout the world to engage in Scientology counseling.
"There's been a lot of progress made, and this just detracts from that," Rathbun said.
"The reason they're here is to harass people," he said. "They know better than anybody that any existing Scientologist isn't interested in their information."
Minton's group has a different view. He and a staff that includes four former Scientologists say they have been embraced by locals, including some current church members.
"Everywhere I go I've met people in the community saying, "Thank God you're here,' " said Stacy Brooks, a former Scientologist who will help Minton lead the new group. "People are starved for information about Scientology: "What are they doing? Why do they act so secretive?' "
At a closing Wednesday afternoon, an enthused Minton agreed to pay $325,000 for a two-story, 7,500-square foot building. The phones were hooked up and an Internet Web site was to be installed this week.
A neighboring restaurant owner who supports Minton welcomed him to the block with a festive basket of bruschetta and a 1998 bottle of merlot. The new headquarters is two doors north of Scientology's Clearwater Building, a renovated bank facing Cleveland Street that was one of the church's first land purchases in the mid-1970s.
It is home to the church's public affairs offices and two large dining halls that feed more than 1,000 uniformed Scientology staffers every day. On Tuesday, the church offered to buy the building out from under Minton, but the seller, CPA Scott Brauer, declined.
Rathbun said the church was concerned about Minton's presence but generally would try to ignore him.
The new group, called the Lisa McPherson Trust, is named for the 36-year-old Scientologist who died in 1995 while in the care of Scientology staffers. Her death has resulted in criminal charges against the church and a wrongful death lawsuit by McPherson's family.
Minton, a 53-year-old retired investment banker, is financing the lawsuit and says he has donated $2.5-million to anti-Scientology efforts. He said the trust has no quarrel with Scientology's beliefs. "What we are opposed to," Minton said, "is the way they handle criticism."
He also said the church's ethics system is abusive and harmful to members. Minton said several existing Scientologists are working with him and are interested in reforming the church. He declined to name them, saying they feared retribution from the church.
Rathbun rejected that claim, saying the church's ethics system is the "foundation for a clean, happy spiritual life" that no Scientologist would think of abandoning. The system is so fundamental to the practice of Scientology that it could never be separated out, he said.
Those who don't want to adhere to the ethical code can reform it from the inside or leave the church, he said, adding it was presumptuous of an outsider like Minton to attempt such a thing.
Rathbun also said that some of Minton's followers, including Stacy Brooks, are no longer in Scientology because they could not measure up to Scientology ethics.
He noted that Minton has twice been arrested during encounters with Scientologists.
Rathbun and other church officials also allege that Minton and his staff are in Clearwater to violently "deprogram" Scientologists. Minton and his staff say the church is exaggerating. They say they want to provide information and "exit counseling" for church members who come to them.
Minton said he hopes to prod Scientology into "acting like a church."