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Sunday, December 28, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Church Of Scientology Hits Critics Where They Live

Knight-Ridder Newspapers

PHILADELPHIA - Rod Keller was shocked when he arrived home on a recent Sunday night. But he wasn't surprised.

He had spent the weekend at a demonstration in Clearwater, Fla., marking the 1995 death of Lisa McPherson, who died there after 17 days in the custody of the Church of Scientology.

This was Keller's seventh demonstration in five years against Scientology, a Los Angeles-based organization that presents itself as a therapeutic alternative to psychiatry and psychology for the relief of human suffering.

And Scientology is not a church that turns the other cheek.

When he got home from Clearwater, Keller discovered a flier had been posted in his Philadelphia apartment building.

`THE FACE OF RELIGIOUS BIGOTRY" read the headline.

Below it was a photograph of his face.

"Your neighbor Rod Keller is not all that he seems," read the text.

"This weekend he is leading a KKK-style rally against peaceful members of a religion."

The flier was unsigned, but he soon discovered that other demonstrators had returned from Clearwater to find nearly identical fliers, bearing their names and photographs, near their homes in Boston, Salt Lake City and Los Angeles.

The flier continued: "When he's not stirring up hatred in the streets, Keller is poisoning the Internet by filling it full of religious bigotry and intolerance.

"Keller's hatred puts families at risk.

"Next time you see this man, recognize the face of religious bigotry," the document said.

"A neighbor of mine took it (the flier) down," Keller, 36, said last week. "He just couldn't believe it. He doesn't know much about Scientology, but all he could say was, `This just isn't right.' "

Crusade called `campaign of hate'

Keller said he started his crusade against Scientology in 1992 after finding information on it on the Internet and then researching the organization's beliefs.

John Carmichael, president of the New York office of the Church of Scientology and its regional spokesman, acknowledged that Scientologists had posted the flier in Keller's apartment house.

"We would have sent one to you (The Inquirer) too, if we thought it was newsworthy," Carmichael said. "We are eager to get the message out."

Keller and the other Clearwater demonstrators are "a bunch of losers" whose "campaign of hate" has prompted violence against Scientologist property, according to Carmichael.

He said Web sites critical of the church are filled with "hate speech" against a "peaceful religion," and have prompted violence ranging from the petty (such as a brick through a Scientology storefront window in Boston) to the awful: a 1996 shooting at a Portland church that left one member paralyzed.

But Keller, a designer of World Wide Web sites who also publishes a Web newsletter critical of Scientology, insists he is "not opposed to them because of their beliefs, but because of their medical quackery and the ways they abuse their people."

His Web newsletter is one of many sites accusing the church of charging high fees to anyone wishing to learn its cosmology or therapeutic techniques. Keller also alleges the church makes a practice of confining and treating against their will members who show signs of mental imbalance.

That forced confinement, known in Scientology as an "Introspection Rundown," is a ritual isolation designed to effect a kind of exorcism. Critics speculate that Lisa McPherson's death was due to an Introspection Rundown gone wrong.

The Church of Scientology, whose spiritual headquarters are in Clearwater, denies the charge.

`I need help'

According to reports in the St. Petersburg Times, McPherson, 36, originally from Dallas, a longtime Scientologist who made a living selling Scientology services and products, began to act strangely in the latter part of 1995.

On Nov. 18 of that year, after a minor traffic accident, she got out of her car, removed all her clothing, and told paramedics: "I need help. I need to talk to someone."

She was admitted to the psychiatric wing of a nearby hospital, but an hour later members of the Church of Scientology arrived and told doctors her religion forbade psychiatric treatment. With McPherson's permission, the hospital released her to the care of church members.

McPherson was taken to the Fort Harrison Hotel, which serves as the church's worldwide spiritual headquarters. There, she spent the next 17 days.

But on Dec. 5, she fell ill, according to Scientology officials. She was put into a church van and driven to a hospital 24 miles away, where a Scientologist physician was on duty.

She was pronounced dead 20 minutes after her arrival.

An autopsy by the county medical examiner ruled that the cause of death was starvation and dehydration. It also found that she appeared to have cockroach bites on her body.

Death report challenged

Scientology officials have challenged the validity of the report, however, calling Chief Medical Examiner Joan Wood a "hateful liar."

McPherson's sudden death was the result of a "pulmonary embolism," according to Carmichael. "She would have died whether she was standing on top of Old Smokey . . ."

Scientology was created in the 1950s and is based on the extensive writings of L. Ron Hubbard, a Los Angeles science-fiction writer who died in 1986. It teaches, among other things, that humans suffer because the spirits of murdered space aliens cling to their souls. Ridding the soul of these spirits is a principal goal of Scientology.

In 1993, the Internal Revenue Service granted tax-exempt status to the church, which claims 8 million members. Critics estimate the membership at 50,000.

Although controversial in the United States, Scientology has prompted near-hysteria in much of Germany, where legislators talk of banning it entirely. The State of Bavaria obliges all civil servants to swear they are not Scientologists, and most major political parties in Germany do not allow Scientologists as members.

Tax authorities in France, Spain and Germany treat Scientology as a for-profit organization.

"I have no qualm with their beliefs," Keller said. "But when they do things contrary to logic, and people get hurt, I do object."

Carmichael insists, however, that it is people such as Keller who cause injury. "People should look at him," he said, "and ask: `Do we want to encourage religious bigotry at this time of the century?' "

Rod Keller's Web newsletter on Scientology can be found at www.alt.religion.scientology week in review

The Church of Scientology's official Web site is www.scientology.org

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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