Clearwater -- Earlier this spring, as the Church of Scientology prepared for its biggest trial in recent history, professional researchers combed Tyrone Square Mall asking Pinellas residents what they thought of the church.
"A cult," said person after person.
"Scam," said one. "Crooks," said another.
The researchers, hired by the church, questioned 300 people. Their findings were grim: Four out of five had unfavorable things to say about Scientology.
The church concluded that the negative opinions Pinellas residents hold toward Scientology are so deep and widespread, it could not get a fair trial here.
This week, it took the unusual step of asking the court to move a civil trial out of this area because, it says, potential Pinellas jurors have been prejudiced by negative media coverage.
The church commissioned the research project, anticipating it would go to trial this year to defend itself in the wrongful-death lawsuit filed by the estate of former Scientologist Lisa McPherson, who died in 1995 after being cared for by church staffers.
The motion for a change of venue comes in a related matter, a countersuit against the McPherson estate and its attorney Ken Dandar. The church alleges that Dandar improperly attempted to add Scientology leader David Miscavige as a defendant in the wrongful-death suit. That case is scheduled for trial July 7.
"(The church) has learned that the breadth and intensity of "community prejudice' against both the Scientology religion and Flag (the church's Clearwater entity) within Pinellas County is such that Flag cannot receive a fair trial in this venue," the 28-page motion states. "The community prejudice has been fueled by an ongoing barrage of negative media comments, principally by the St. Petersburg Times and the local television stations, including publication of inflammatory and unethical public statements by Kennan Dandar."
Dandar, who has represented McPherson's family for six years, called the allegation "a bunch of baloney" and another delay tactic by the church's formidable legal team.
Ben Shaw, the church's head of public relations in Clearwater, said the research findings do not undercut the church's belief it has made headway in recent years improving its image in the community. Researchers excluded anyone who had direct contact with the church, Shaw said, because they could not be potential jurors.
Rather, he said, respondents were residents whose perceptions were "created by the continuing onslaught of negative media coverage."
Times editor and president Paul C. Tash defended the paper's coverage.
"The Church of Scientology remains a big and important institution in the Tampa Bay area and we're going to continue our coverage, fully and fairly, even if sometimes the church officials object to that coverage," Tash said.
Dandar said he wasn't surprised by the survey's findings.
"They (church officials) are complaining about the newspaper reporting on the tragic death of Lisa McPherson when they are the ones who caused her death in the first place," Dandar said. "They are blaming everyone but themselves for their bad public relations image."
Church-hired researchers began their work in January, convening a focus group of 25 potential Pinellas jurors.
The group was asked what one word first came to mind when they heard "Scientology." Their responses: cult, despicable, lost souls and evil, mind controlling. Every one of the 25 offered "a strongly negative, vitriolic response."
The church widened the net, commissioning Dr. Robert C. Sorensen to conduct a more extensive scientific survey.
Among the highlights:
Of the 262 survey respondents who admitted to having read or heard about either the Scientology religion, Flag or the wrongful-death case, 82.4 percent offered one or more unfavorable comments about Scientology.
Only 11.8 percent had anything favorable to say about Scientology.
Asked what one word comes to mind when you hear Scientology, only two of the 300 provided a favorable word. Of the others, 44 answered "cult."
One person responded with the word "Run." Asked to explain, he said, "That's what they do when we try to swerve to hit them."
The "vicious, almost obsessive hatred" expressed in research "is astounding and a damning commentary on the citizens of this county and their willingness to buy into the publishings of the St. Petersburg Times and other media," the motion states.
Shaw said the decision whether to seek a venue change in the wrongful-death case will be left up to church attorneys. No trial date is set.
Last month, the case was reassigned from Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer, who sat through weeks of hearings last year, to Senior Judge Robert Beach. Chief Circuit Judge David Demers made the move after Schaeffer recused herself from handling a counterclaim.