Longform

Nightmare on the Net

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Church officials have vowed to vigorously defend the latest challenge to the AT writings. While declining to comment on the specific allegations raised in the counterclaims, RTC's Kobrin says the FACTNet team "is obviously attempting to litigate the case by derailing consideration of the merits and going off on wild-goose chases. We are confident that the magistrate judge will ensure that the discovery remains focused on matters that are related to issues raised by the pleadings."

Wollersheim exudes confidence, too. FACTNet's library and its audience are now bigger than ever, he says, thanks to the notoriety of the raid and the court case. At the same time, he isn't beyond slipping a pitch for donations into his boasting.

"We believe we'll have the money we need so that Scientology doesn't win this simply because they have more money," he says. "But it's going to be a struggle. Right now we have thirty to sixty days' financing. We really need people who feel strongly about the Internet to put their money into a project they all should defend. This is their fight, too. This is not Lawrence Wollersheim's fight with Scientology."

But many of FACTNet's former supporters have become suspicious of Wollersheim's crusade, because of either the ouster of Penny or the organization's overall shift in direction. In an apparent effort to broaden the group's donor base, the new FACTNet Web page focuses on far-ranging issues of privacy and free speech on the Internet, rather than being devoted solely to information about religious cults. Only gradually have some archives dealing with Scientology begun to surface on the site--but not fast enough to suit the church's avid critics.

"I can no longer support FACTNet nor encourage others to support it, since the organization, as originally conceived, no longer exists," one disgruntled Web-surfer complained to the newsgroup alt.religion.scientology.

"FACTNet is building in a new direction that honors its roots," Wollersheim says. "There are political and corporate threats that, in some areas of the world, are worse than Scientology. Scientology is a battle that's forced on us, but we need to get done with this and set up Web pages for people in the Third World to discuss abuse in their countries. Our long-term goal is to be a sister organization, technologically, to Amnesty International in the area of free speech, free thought and privacy."

Some Internet activists consider FACTNet's new emphasis to be redundant of efforts by more established groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, and the Center for Democracy and Technology.

"EFF, EPIC, CDT--there's a whole alphabet soup of these groups," notes Ron Newman, who operates an extensive Web site dealing with Scientology and the Internet. "I'm not sure it's useful to add one more, and I'm not convinced that FACTNet is adequately staffed to do this properly. If they're going to take on a new mission, then they should add six or seven people to the board and explain to what extent they're going to continue doing what they were previously doing."

At the moment, the hot button among anti-Scientology activists isn't the FACTNet lawsuit but the strange case of Lisa McPherson, a 36-year-old Scientologist who died late in 1995 after several days of being kept in isolation at the group's spiritual headquarters in Clearwater, Florida. An autopsy report concluded that the cause of death was blood clotting resulting from "bed rest and severe dehydration."

Church officials have challenged the autopsy results as well as news reports suggesting that McPherson was planning to leave the church; they insist she chose to be in "seclusion" and died of a staph infection. Three church members sought for questioning by Clearwater police have reportedly left the country. McPherson's parents recently filed a lawsuit against the Church of Scientology, accusing the group of allowing their daughter to lie in a coma for days without nourishment or water; a church attorney has denied the allegations.

FACTNet makes passing mention of the McPherson case in a contentious "briefing" posted on its Web site a couple of weeks ago, but it's been largely overlooked in the swirl of speculation and recrimination about her death found elsewhere on the Internet. Wollersheim and Lerma promise they will be putting up more Scientology-related materials soon. Whether or not the organization's voice in the cyber-debate will ever again achieve the kind of molten rage and defiance it reached two summers ago will depend on the outcome of the case before Judge Kane. At present, FACTNet has no liability insurance to safeguard its directors' actions.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast