Pet lovers and Scientology critics converge on Clearwater

St. Petersburg Times/April 12, 2008

Clearwater - Clearwater's petite downtown district was primed for the perfect storm on Saturday.

On one end of downtown, 135 masked members of the group Anonymous began gathering at about 10 a.m. to protest the Church of Scientology.

Just a few blocks away, animal lovers brought their dogs for Clearwater's annual pet fair, which was unrelated to the church.

The dark-suited, boisterous protestors might have disrupted the owner-pet look-a-like contest and other festivities, but the two groups stayed apart. And Saturday's daylong protest - about half the size of the two preceding ones - ended with no arrests.

Anonymous, a loosely organized group that formed on the Internet, used the demonstration to target what it calls the church's "cruel and inhumane" policy. The group says that Scientology requires church members to disconnect from friends and relatives who have left the fold.

The group rented out the Royalty Theatre downtown and two former Scientologists - Mike Henderson and Creed Pearson - spoke about the pain they suffered from not being allowed to contact relatives still in the church.

"I can't speak to my brother or my four sisters," Henderson said in a tearful speech. "I have attempted to speak to my son and my daughter and my mother, to no avail."

After the presentation, Anonymous members, whom the church has likened to terrorists and Ku Klux Klansmen, retired to Coachman Park for pizza and cake.

The group made three circuits of downtown, shouting slogans and drawing honks from passing cars.

Scientologists sitting in front of Starbucks said they didn't care for the protesters.

"It's a group that just spews hate. Who has time for it?" said Dwight Matheny.

"They're like the barking dog at the wheels of a fire engine going to a fire," said Bob Johnson, 56, a Scientologist visiting from California.

Church spokeswoman Pat Harney said Henderson and Pearson, not the church, are to blame for their broken family relationships.

"If they want to take responsibility for past wrongs and repair their relations with their families," she said, "the church would be more than happy to help."

The protest wrapped up just before 5 p.m. The group plans to return to Clearwater next month.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.