Scientologists urged to end pregnancies?

Talk about explosive allegations: In a mammoth two-day investigative series totaling more than 10,000 words, the St. Petersburg Times reports that the Church of Scientology repeatedly pushed members of its religious order, the Sea Organization, to have abortions “for the greatest good.”

Women who declined to end pregnancies faced threats and intimidation, according to former members interviewed by the Times. In riveting front-page stories, reporters Joe Childs and Thomas Tobin methodically lay out the facts and allegations yet go out of their way to seek the church’s side of the story.

The church denies all the former members’ accounts — a fact made clear as the Times repeatedly allows space for the church’s response to specific claims. Be sure to read Sunday’s part one and Monday’s part two.

Here’s the top of the first story:

Laura Dieckman was just 12 when her parents let her leave home to work full time for Scientology’s religious order, the Sea Organization. At 16, she married a co-worker. At 17, she was pregnant.

She was excited to start a family, but she said Sea Org supervisors pressured her to have an abortion. She was back at work the following day.

Claire Headley joined at 16, married at 17 and was pregnant at 19. She said Sea Org supervisors threatened strenuous physical work and repeated interrogations if she didn’t end her pregnancy. She, too, was back at work the next day.

Two years later she had a second abortion, this time while working for the church in Clearwater.

A St. Petersburg Times investigation found their experiences were not unique. More than a dozen women said the culture in the Sea Org pushed them or women they knew to have abortions, in many cases, abortions they did not want.

Some said colleagues and supervisors pressured them to abort their pregnancies and remain productive workers without the distraction of raising children. Terminating a pregnancy and staying on the job affirmed one’s commitment to the all-important work of saving the planet.

Often, we complain at GetReligion about stories that raise allegations against religious organizations without citing adequate details.

In this case, the St. Petersburg Times provides a tractor-trailer load full of reporting on the strikingly similar stories told by former church members. The incredible two-day package strikes me as journalism at its best — tough but fair. The reporters tell a difficult story with precision and balance. And the Times supplies more than enough facts and context for readers to draw their own, informed conclusions.

What do I mean by balance? Consider this section of the Sunday story:

(Church spokesman Tommy) Davis denied pregnant Sea Org couples were shunned or called “degraded beings.”

To the contrary, those wanting children are helped, Davis said. “They receive assistance from the church, including immediate prenatal care, medical care, financial assistance and even help in finding housing and employment upon departure from the Sea Org.”

The Times asked to interview church officials, including church leader David Miscavige, about the accounts of former Sea Org members who described the pressures to have abortions.

Davis responded in writing. He also provided the sworn declarations of 10 former and one current Sea Org member who said the church and their colleagues comforted and supported them during their pregnancies, allowing naps, giving gifts and creating flexible work schedules.

“I received lots of care and support from the staff and at no time was I made to feel guilty for wanting to have a child,” said Kathryn Reeves, who left the Sea Org in 2009 with her husband and has a baby daughter she said has a cheerful disposition.

“I am sure that part of her being so happy is that my pregnancy was very calm, very sane, and completely free of upset,” Reeves said in her declaration.

Besides the allegations, the reports provide insight into Scientologists’ beliefs. For example, Sea Org members sign billion-year contracts, “symbolizing a commitment to serve in this life and coming ones.” Also, Scientologists believe life consists of eight dynamics, or channels, including procreation — unless that conflicts with broader dynamics, according to former members.

The St. Petersburg Times’ package, of course, follows an engrossing three-part series on the Church of Scientology by the same reporters last year. Nearly a year ago, Mollie highlighted that series, which marked the first time a major paper had dealt substantively with claims of physical and mental abuse by Scientology’s current leadership.

A later GetReligion post focused on a piece by New York Times religion reporter Laurie Goodstein, who spoke with two other former Scientologists who raised a separate complaint about the church.

I urge you to read the latest stories and share your observations and questions in the comments section. Remember, please, that we are interested in journalistic issues.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Joel

    As usual, the Times has turned out a well-researched, well-written piece on a very tricky subject to cover.

  • Bobby

    I agree, Joel.

  • Jerry

    Obviously this is very explosive material and therefore the highest journalism standards are called for. I’m glad to see light rather than heat in these stories.

  • Crimson Wife

    Why can’t this kind of balance be the standard for newspapers?

  • Bobby

    Good question. Space and time constraints probably play a key role, but bias and ignorance contribute as well.

  • Julius

    Bias and ignorance are major factors contributing to the lack of balance in reporting. In fact, there is not much reporting going on at all.

    Jonny Jacobsen at Infinite Complacency does excellent work and filed 39 stories of original reporting on the Scientology Paris Fraud trial last year.

    Randy Sly has produced a series of articles at Catholic Online.

    Laurie Goodtein at the NYT did a good story on allegations of abuse.

    Other than these there are very few. I find with religious news writers a reluctance to look at Scientology’s dark side and a tendency to take at face value whatever is passed out by Scientology’s Office of Special Affairs.

    There is also reluctance to tackle the tough issues of the status of Scientology as a religion at law and in public opinion and the teachings of Christian churches for many of whom it is a dangerous cult.

    There is much good reporting local religion editors can do since Scientology is all over the place. Every major city has Scientologists and Scientology victims.

    There is also significant international news about Scientology and Catholics which has been ignored by mainstream religious new writers and only covered by blogs.

    Cardinal Ouellet criticizes Scientology in Quebec:

    Scientology threatens to sue the Daughters of St. Paul in Italy:

    Archbishop Rivas of St. Lucia devotes the last third of his Easter homily to denouncing infiltration by a Scientology front group:

    Scientology is an issue of increasing importance since Sharron Angle’s support for Scientology programs has become an issue in the Angle vs Reid race for the US Senate.

    We will definitely need more good reporting.