Sunday, December 25, 1994
"People who attack Scientology are criminals."
-- L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology
ONE DAY in November, Arnaldo P. Lerma, an audio-video technician from Arlington, opened his front door and encountered two unsmiling men in dark suits. He tensed up; he recognized them as the strangers who had been tailing him as he drove into town that morning.
"We represent the Church of Scientology," one of the men said. Lerma hurriedly shut the door.
The pair wedged a three-page, legal-looking document inside the screen door. It was titled "Declaration of Arnaldo Pagliarini Lerma," but Lerma hadn't written it and in fact had never seen it before. He left Scientology in 1978, after serving several years as a low-level staffer. The document amounted to a confession, with a line left blank for Lerma's signature.
"I engaged in taking illegal drugs," it read in part, "and eventually left the Church entirely because I could not maintain a high enough ethical standard . . . .
"I wish to make it known that I have been involved in trying to denigrate the name of Scientology and some of its leading members . . . . I wish to recant these statements in full . . . ."
Lerma, 44, the son of a Mexican agriculture official who grew up in Washington, felt intimidated. A few hours later, an anonymous fax arrived. "CEASE AND DESIST YOUR ACTIVITY AGAINST THE CHURCH AND WE WILL TAKE NO FURTHER ACTION," the fax stated.
Now Lerma felt outraged. Was this some kind of threat? He contacted his lawyer and the FBI, which took a report. Then he mailed a letter to The Washington Post, enclosing a computer disc labeled "Inside Scientology."
"Something has to be done," Lerma wrote. "This is America -- isn't it?"
What had Lerma done to earn the attention of a church he left 16 years ago? He had engaged in freedom of speech. A frequent user of the Internet, Lerma had posted public records -- documents from court cases involving Scientology -- on the global computer network and on the America Online commercial service. The documents included testimony from former church officials who describe Scientology as a dangerous cult that brainwashes and blackmails its member and harasses defectors and critics.
In the church's eyes, Lerma -- who once signed a "billion-year contract" to serve Scientology as a member of its quasi-military "Sea Organization" -- was now an enemy.