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Judge: Suit Vs. Scientology Can Proceed

January 15, 2003 GMT

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) _ A judge has ruled that a lawsuit filed against the Church of Scientology over the death of a member can go to trial.

The cause and manner of Scientologist Lisa McPherson’s death in 1995 ``is legitimately an issue that needs to be decided by a jury,″ Judge Susan Schaeffer said Monday.

But the judge said she found no proof to support the McPherson estate’s allegation that the church’s worldwide leader, David Miscavige, decided to let McPherson die.

Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw said the church was ``completely vindicated of the false and scurrilous allegation that church leaders intended harm to Lisa McPherson.″

McPherson’s estate says she died from severe dehydration after 18 days in the church’s care. The church maintains McPherson died from a pulmonary embolism, the result of a traffic accident the day before she was brought to the church.

Police took her to a hospital after the accident, but she soon left with Scientology officials, who wanted her to avoid psychiatric treatment because it went against church teachings. Doctors had said McPherson was battling a severe mental breakdown.

The church had sought to have the suit dismissed, alleging that Tampa attorney Ken Dandar, who is representing McPherson’s estate, had urged a witness to lie under oath.

The witness, millionaire and church critic Robert Minton, gave Dandar up to $2 million over five years to bankroll the case against Scientology.

The judge ruled that Minton lied during a hearing last summer when he said the attorney urged him to claim the money came instead from unidentified Europeans who oppose the church.

Schaeffer said she believes Minton did not want to disclose a foreign bank account for tax reasons.

The judge said she would forward her order to the state attorney so Minton can be investigated for perjury.

Schaeffer also ruled Dandar could continue representing the estate. But she did not endorse the estate’s claim that the church extorted Minton’s testimony.

Minton’s attorney, Anthony Battaglia, said he disagreed with Schaeffer’s analysis.

``It should be pointed out that Minton is a witness, and not a party to this action, and we didn’t have the opportunity to be heard on behalf of Minton during these proceedings,″ he said.

The case against the church is set for trial before Schaeffer on Jan. 21, but that could be delayed if the church appeals her ruling.