With an out-of-court settlement and a confidentiality agreement that muzzles both sides, the Church of Scientology has succeeded in keeping a potentially explosive case from going to trial.
For seven years, the wrongful-death lawsuit against the church filed by the estate of the late Lisa McPherson ground through Pinellas County courtrooms, chewing up the time and patience of all involved. Details of the settlement that ended the case, including any money paid by the church to the estate, will remain secret.
Secrecy has been one of the hallmarks of the Church of Scientology and its dealings in Clearwater, where it maintains its spiritual headquarters. A trial, or even a settlement with terms disclosed, would have pulled aside a curtain that the church keeps firmly shut.
While the settlement will help free up the court calendar, an unfortunate consequence is that the public and current Scientologists will not learn through a trial more details about church policies and how they affected McPherson.
McPherson was an apparently healthy 36-year-old Scientologist in 1995 when she was involved in a minor traffic accident in Clearwater. When paramedics arrived on the scene, McPherson removed her clothes and told them she needed help. They took her to a local hospital for a psychiatric evaluation, but representatives of the Church of Scientology soon arrived and took her to the Fort Harrison, the church's headquarters in downtown Clearwater. After 17 days in a room there under the care of church staff members, McPherson died.
The McPherson lawsuit created numerous side issues that had to be handled by the court. As the years rolled by, the costs mounted and both sides grew weary of the bitter battle. Yet it is unclear whether an out-of-court settlement would have been reached without pressure from retired Senior Circuit Judge Robert Beach, who was assigned to the case last year.
Beach's role in forcing the case to a conclusion short of trial is interesting. While it is not unusual for judges to encourage litigants to solve their disagreements outside of the courtroom to save time and the public's money, Beach did a lot more than encourage. He insisted on another round of mediation before he would set a date for the trial. In courtroom lectures, he informed both sides that the court wanted the case to "go away." Beach even replaced the McPherson estate's lead attorney, Ken Dandar, with another attorney, saying, "I feel more secure with him guiding this case than I do you."
The McPherson case and the avalanche of negative publicity it brought down on Scientology may be over, but the questions her death raised remain. How did she die? Was she kept in the Fort Harrison against her will? Why wasn't she in a hospital? What doctrines and procedures of the Church of Scientology came into play during those 17 days?
There will be no answers to those questions in a Pinellas courtroom. Because of that, the speculation will go on.