On March 30, the Tampa Bay Times published an eye-opening story concerning the Church of Scientology’s reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the piece, journalist Tracey McManus reported that members of the Sea Org, the more militant wing of the church, were “still packing buses as they moved from living quarters to church buildings” and “sitting shoulder to shoulder” around Scientology’s Flag Building—or Spiritual Headquarters—in Clearwater, Florida. Furthermore, she quoted Clearwater City Councilman Mark Bunker who claimed, “It’s not a healthy situation. I’ve heard from a lot of family members, families who have been (estranged) from their kids in the Sea Org and they are worried to death about the conditions they are living in.”
The Tampa Bay Times piece came on the heels of a March 24 story by Tony Ortega, the world’s leading Scientology reporter, who’d obtained a March 13 letter from Scientology leader David Miscavige to his adherents referring to the COVID-19 crisis as “the current hysteria” and “planetary bullbait.”
“You can see he was totally being denialist about the whole thing,” Ortega told The Daily Beast. “Their big thing is ‘good works,’ or trying to make a show that Scientology helps society. The thing they came up with is they decided they have these chemicals that are the best at disinfecting the environment, and they’ve created these yellow-jacketed sanitation teams who go door-to-door offering to sanitize offices. They’re trying to turn it into some sort of public relations campaign.”
The Church of Scientology says it’s using an “ozone water system” and “Decon7,” a cleaning agent, to combat the spread of the virus. (The Environmental Protection Agency told The Daily Beast that Decon7 “is currently included on EPA’s List N: Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-CoV-2”; they declined to comment on whether an “ozone water system” would have any effect on the virus.)
When The Daily Beast reached out to the Church of Scientology for comment on the safety precautions (or lack thereof) they were taking to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, we received a series of threatening letters from the church and their attorneys.
A letter from the church called the Times piece “a litany of baldfaced lies” before boasting they “have been doing more than any other religious or nonreligious organization to respond to the threat,” including banning mass gatherings, distributing literature, sanitizing spaces, providing masks and gloves, and practicing social distancing.
Then things got strange. They proceeded to accuse The Daily Beast of possessing a “perverted agenda,” adding, “If you actually look at what we have done, you will wish The Daily Beast had the protocols our Church leader put in our Churches. We are working to help others get through this—and that even includes you.” (Italics theirs.)
The following day, another letter arrived from a Jeffrey K. Riffer, attorney for the law firm Elkins Kalt Weintraub Reuben Gartside LLP. It read, in part:
The world would be in a better condition today had governments and other organizations timely followed Mr. Miscavige’s lead.
The undisputed written evidence, physical evidence and millions of masks and gloves in Scientology evidence prove that Mr. Miscavige implemented massive proactive state-of-the-art actions before governments and other organizations. So, you have no story.
Now that you are on written notice that your story is 100% false, any publication exposes you to the end of your career and The Daily Beast to the end of its existence (as happened when the jury awarded $140 million in a defamation lawsuit against Gawker, driving Gawker into bankruptcy). We hope that is not necessary.
If that weren’t enough, we received yet another letter from an Anthony M. Glassman, who works for the law firm Bergeson, LLP, which bills itself as “one of the Silicon Valley’s leading litigation law firms,” threatening that they would “file a lawsuit for defamation” if we published any story claiming that the Church of Scientology was not in compliance with the current COVID-19 guidelines.
We reached out to the City of Clearwater for comment on Scientology’s COVID-19 practices and they forwarded us an email from Daniel Slaughter, chief of the Clearwater Police Department, who said that after speaking with Councilman Bunker and receiving a number of calls about Scientology’s compliance with CDC guidance concerning COVID-19, he personally “monitored the unloading of buses” to and from Scientology centers and found that they were “less occupied than normal”; that he spoke with a Scientology staffer who “advised he felt they were using best practices” concerning disinfecting; and that he did not witness “any violations of social distancing requirements,” although these “requirements would not extend inside of a residential unit.”
Chief Slaughter also said he observed activity in and outside the Flag Building, and that they appeared to be in compliance with social distancing, though their dining halls were “not regulated by the Governor’s executive order” because they “were exempt as a religious organization.” And, while he did not inspect Scientology’s auditing sessions himself, he said he spoke with a staffer there who “advised that they had created distance between the auditor and the parishioner, and the sessions involve two people.” Overall, Chief Slaughter determined that he didn’t see any “compliance issues.”
“I just look at it and I go, all of these things are cosmetic,” says Mike Rinder, a former senior executive of the Church of Scientology and Sea Org turned whistleblower, on the church’s COVID-19 practices. “Scientologists believe that the only reason someone gets ill, or catches a virus, is because they’re what’s called ‘PTS.’ They’re connected to a ‘suppressive person.’ And as long as you’re not connected to a ‘suppressive person’ and you’re not ‘PTS,’ you will not get sick.”
Got a tip? Send it to The Daily Beast here