Man continues crusade against church
By Tom Tiede
The Frederick Post, Frederick, Maryland, U.S.
5 March 1981
CLEARWATER, Fla. (NEA) — Alex Cornell's quarrel
with the Church of Scientology goes back to 1970. He was a
teen-ager then, suffering from an advanced form of
Hodgkin's disease, and he joined the church because its
leaders told him they could show him the way to cure himself of
the cancer. Well, he says, they didn't. Instead they introduced
the worried youngster to abstract theories regarding self help,
for which they charged $900, and they tormented him with the
notion that he was to blame for his condition — indeed,
that he was such an errant, woebegotten creature that he
Thus disillusioned, Cornell quit and demanded the return of his
money. The church said he was crazy, a hopeless rebel, and countered by
placing him in what it called "a
condition of treason." Members put a black mark on Cornell's cheek,
a sign of an outcast, and refused to give back the $900.
Cornell says one thing led to another, and soon he was threatening to
sue and tell the newspapers. After that, he notes, the church got nasty:
"They put me on their enemy's list, which meant I was
fair game. They said if I ever
said anything bad about Scientology they would find me and
As it happened, the warning had no effect. By that time Cornell's
cancer had gone into remission, the result of conventional healing, and
he thought that if he could beat Hodgkin's disease he was a match for
anything. And so he began an extraordinary personal campaign to expose
the Church of Scientology.
Today, a decade later, that campaign continues here on the propitious
and perhaps providential west coast of Florida. The Scientologist
organization has established its "world retreat center" in
which happens to be Cornell's home.
Cornell is now 29, a thin man with bushy hair and a deep anger. He
says the Church of Scientology is not a church, but a business, and a
fascist business at that. He vows he will not rest until it is driven in
shame from this community.
The church, of course, has other ideas.
This latest episode in Alex Cornell's argument with Scientology had
its beginnings in 1975. That was when a group of polished businessmen
came to Clearwater and promptly purchased a downtown landmark, the
Harrison hotel, a stuccoed remnant of the halcyon days of Gulf Coast
The businessmen said they represented something called Southern Land
Sales and Development, and they paid $2.3 million for the old hotel and
its glass chandeliers. The town was delighted with the profit. It was
even more delighted when the businessmen paid cash for another building
The early enthusiasm soon faded, however, when area newspapers
discovered that Southern Land Sales was a corporation without a history,
and its money came from a
bank in Luxembourg. Suspicion replaced delight — and eventually it
was learned that Southern Land Sales was, in fact, the Church of
The disclosure hit like a brick in the bathtub. Scientology's
reputation had preceded it. The church had a controversial history of
religious and secular squabbling. And Clearwater, a conservative town of
90,000 people, a third of whom are over 65, did not like the idea of
cohabiting with a cult.
The Scientologists were quick to deny even the hint of impropriety.
But rumors and news stories were overwhelmingly negative. For example:
residents learned that the church was founded by a one-time science
fiction writer, L. Ron Hubbard,
who reportedly demanded loyalties usually reserved for sultans.
Hubbard, born in Nebraska in 1911, created his church in 1954. His
bible was a book of his own writing called "Dianetics."
The book advocated self help through philosophy and therapy, and Hubbard
rooted his religion in the Eastern thesis that man — and not God — is
the center of the universe.
Clearwater learned that Scientologists hold no formal worship
services, and instead seek deliverance by way of classroom instruction.
Members pay for the instruction. A single course can
cost more than $10,000. Hence
Cornell's claim that it's a business; the church is said to be worth
The church is also said to be jealous of its prosperity, and does not
easily suffer criticism. So, when
outrage grew in Clearwater, church members decided to strike back. They
organized an operation to infiltrate community power centers, and, at
one point, they hoped to completely take over the town.
That operation was exposed in 1979, when, following a series of
confrontations, the FBI raided the cult's Los Angeles offices. The
federal agents confiscated 50,000 documents in the raid; some of the
documents were merely bombastic memos, but others detailed
schemes to subjugate Clearwater.
One scheme involved a plant in a local newspaper office. Another
resulted in the sacking of a radio talk show host who was hostile to the
church. The Scientologists even framed the city's former mayor,
Gabriel Cazares, and created a
bogus scandal that may have cost him a 1976 election to Congress.
And so, enter Alex Cornell. A businessman here, he has criticized the
Scientologists since their arrival, but the information in the documents
galvanized his efforts. He says the church has engaged in a kind of "Clearwatergate,"
and he's formed a group of fellow residents to "Stamp Out Scientology."
Cazares has given his blessing to the movement. And so has Cornell's
friend and sometimes business partner, Richard Tenney. The latter has
used his discontent with church members to win a seat on the city
commission; residents who appreciate his stand gave him the largest
local vote in commission history.
Actually, Cornell says Tenney's election was no surprise. To be
against Scientologists in Clearwater is akin to opposing Russians in
Afghanistan. "The town wants them to pack up and go. Nobody trusts them,
many people won't even speak to them. Each time I go by Fort Harrison
and see them I just feel sick."
Until recently, Cornell has gone by Fort Harrison often. Over the
summer and into the autumn he led daily demonstrations outside the
Scientology headquarters. He asked motorists to honk if they disliked
the church members, and he thereupon turned the occasions into happy,
Not everyone has appreciated the demonstrations, however. Cornell was
once arrested for displaying his Stamp Out Scientology directive;
Florida law prohibits the public denigration of religions. He has also
been arrested, along with several others, for disturbing the peace while
Yet he still feels he's on the side of angels. Given the
circumstances, he submits that a rap sheet is a badge of honor: "It's
not just that Scientology abused me. It abuses everyone. Remember the
at Jonestown? I
think Scientology is potentially worse. It will stop at nothing."
Cornell says the Scientologists' relationship with Ron Hubbard is the
same as was that between Temple members and
Jim Jones. He says
many Scientologists are forced to sign contracts that give loyalty to
Hubbard for a "billion years," and if they change their minds they are
A former member named Tonja Burden
can testify to the intimidation. She is suing the church for allegedly
holding her against her will. She maintains she was forced to work 13
hours a day on Hubbard's ship, Apollo, and was not allowed to resign.
Sometimes, she adds, she was kept
under lock and key.
Burden says Cornell's accusations against Scientology are all too
true. In one affidavit,
she writes that some church members are forced to follow Hubbard around
to catch the ash from his cigarettes. She also writes that she once saw
a boy chained to the boiler
room pipes at Fort Harrison.
"Can you believe it?" Cornell asks, "it's like slavery. They call
themselves religious but they do not practice decency. They take your
money, they mess up your mind, and then if you disagree slightly they
threaten you. That's why I'm against them, and that's why I want to
crush them if I can."
But can he?
Cornell is optimistic. Or at least he thinks he's making [progress].
The community has been turned against the church, and the weight of
adverse publicity has been immense. The Scientologists are also pestered
by various legal harassments; in addition to Miss Burden, Gabe Cazares
is now suing the church.
On the other hand, Cornell has undergone setbacks as well. For one
thing, he has been stung by charges that he has mismanaged money
contributed to his movement. And, too, he has been compelled by other
complications to call off the street demonstrations and restructure his
Meantime, the church seems to be holding up well. It owns four local
hotels, and three office buildings, for a total of $8 million in
property. People say the members, who come here to study, are clean,
friendly and law abiding, and the guess is they inject $100,000 into the
area economy each week.
The Scientologists are even trying to change their image. They are
sponsoring blood drives and raising money for outside charities:
likewise, they explain that past excesses were merely the result of an
overzealous few. "We like it in Clearwater," says spokesman Milt Wolfe,
"we are here to stay."
Yet Alex Cornell presses on. He is now a candidate for city
commission, while his partner, Tenney, is running for mayor. They think
their election would add new muscle to the struggle. They feel there
must be a law, or a loophole, "that protects a community from being
conspired against by crazies."
Until it's found, Cornell says his best weapon is public education.
So he continues to use his personal experience to rap the enemy. He says
he's never had a relapse of Hodgkin's disease, but he still has a
cancer; as long as the Scientologists are here, he suggests, everyone in