The Top 25 People Crippling Scientology, No. 5: Joe Childs and Tom Tobin

The Top 25 People Crippling Scientology, No. 5: Joe Childs and Tom Tobin

On August 5, we started a countdown that will give credit -- or blame -- to the people who have contributed most to the sad current state of Scientology. From its greatest expansion in the 1980s, the church is a shell of what it once was and is mired in countless controversies around the world. Some of that was self-inflicted, and some of it has come from outside. Join us now as we continue on our investigation of those people most responsible...

The Top 25 People Crippling Scientology

#5: Joe Childs and Tom Tobin

I don't know Joe Childs and Thomas C. Tobin. I have never spoken with them. I sent them each an e-mail a while ago. I heard nothing back. What little I know about each of these members of the St. Petersburg Times staff is what I've read in their stories, and by talking with Mike Rinder and other sources who have spoken with them.

I do know enough about them to be pretty certain that they will not be happy at all to be included in this list.

Childs and Tobin are the Mantle and Mays of Scientology reporting. They have produced devastating exposes of the church, one after the other, for many years. Another epic series, I hear, may be imminent.

It will no doubt land with the force of an H-bomb on the world of Scientology watching.

We're still reeling over the last major blast from the duo. Their 2009 series, "The Truth Rundown" changed entirely the way Scientology was talked about in the media. Suddenly, a secretive church with celebrities became a toxic, ailing organization with a strange little man in charge who, his former employees said, regularly beat on his subordinates in frequent rages.

For that series, Tobin and Childs convinced several high-ranking Scientologists who had defected in recent years to speak out for the first time. These were not low-level grunts in a church that places huge emphasis on rank and power; these were men like Marty Rathbun, formerly the second-highest ranking executive in Scientology, and Mike Rinder, the man who ran the Office of Special Affairs -- the church's spy wing.

Only two years later, with Rathbun speaking out at his blog, with Janet Reitman's book on Scientology rightly getting a lot of attention, and with many other ex-Scientologists coming forward, it may be a little hard to remember how much impact that 2009 series had.

Thankfully, I'm on record for saying, at the time, that the series deserved a Pulitzer. (An overused refrain from some, perhaps, but I've never said that publicly about any other piece of journalism.)

With my own toe in the pool of Scientology reporting, I know how much research goes into Tobin and Childs articles, how thorough they are, how often they form the bedrock of research that so much other writing on Scientology is built up from.

So if that's the case, if they're so good that they deserve to be number 5 on this list, why do I say that they would rather not be recognized here?

Unlike your narrator, who likes to joke around and have some fun, Tobin and Childs do their jobs with deadly seriousness. Scientology would love to say that they are part of some secret-handshake journalism buddy system team-tagging the church. In fact, they are scrupulously fair, bending over backwards to provide balance, to push for Scientology's side of things, and to avoid any appearance that they have an interest in the fortunes of the church, one way or the other.

The last thing they need is some joker patting them on the back for "crippling" Scientology.

Sorry, fellows, but there's no mistaking it: reporter Tom Tobin and editor Joe Childs have paired up to uncover gem after gem about Scientology, providing the basic content that so many arguments and protests and investigations are built upon. They have made the St. Petersburg Times the paper of record on Scientology. And for that, they rank very high on this list.

But what is it like to be interviewed by them? I asked that of Rinder, who only reluctantly agreed to help them out (at first, anyway) with "The Truth Rundown."

"If there's anyone I know who is well versed in the subject of Scientology, it's those guys. Because they've been doing it for so long, and they've talked to so many people. So they have a very good ability to sort the wheat from the chaff. And there is a lot of chaff when it comes to Scientology," Rinder told me.

"Joe has a little more of a hard edge to him than Tom does. He's just a bit more the cynical newspaper editor, and Tom is just a nice guy -- I don't know how else to describe Tom Tobin. He is so inoffensive, it kind of blows me away the way Tommy Davis treated them, yelling at them. They're the last people anyone would want to yell at. Joe and Tom are not provocative. They are inquisitive, but not provocative."

Rinder paid them another compliment, of sorts: "The usual handling for reporters is taking them on tours of the facilities and showing them videos. But the church doesn't even bother with that with Tom and Joe," he says. Tobin and Childs already know all the facilities too well. "They've given up giving those guys tours.

"They have the luxury that virtually nobody else has, which is working for the SP Times. So they can spend an inordinate amount of time putting together stories. Nobody else really has that," he noted.

After dealing with them as the spokesman for the church, Rinder remembers meeting them for the first time after he'd left Scientology.

"They came to Denver. I went and picked them up at the airport. It was like picking up an old buddy you haven't seen for a long time. It was very friendly right from the outset. At that time, I was not willing to be on the record with them. They knew that, and they weren't very happy about it. Joe must have asked about 30 times. 'Sure you don't want to be quoted about this?' But it was somewhat cathartic, for both sides, and a bit like the Caberta visit for Marty and Ursula," he said, referring to Marty Rathbun's recent trip to Germany.

If Tobin and Childs have worked on major series for the paper, other Scientology stories have appeared in recent years at the St. Pete Times under the bylines of writers like Jonathan Abel, Barbara Behrendt, Mike Brassfield, Mike Donilla, Robert Farley, and Rita Farlow. This is a newspaper on a mission -- to watch closely the odd religious movement that took over a town in its coverage area.

When that happened, in the mid-1970s, the Times had reporters named Bette Orsini and Charles Stafford who watched that story like a hawk. For their efforts, they won a Pulitzer in 1980. Orsini also was the target of harassment. Here's what the Times obit of Orsini said about that when she died this March at the age of 85:

With Mrs. Orsini as the prime source of stories about Scientology's financial and social structure, the church tried repeatedly to get her fired. Around the same time, an anonymous letter accused her husband, Andrew, of tax malfeasance in his role as head of the Pinellas County Easter Seals Foundation. The late payment, the result of a wrong billing address, was soon paid.

A group calling itself the Guardians of Scientology called their plan to "restrain Orsini" Operation Bunny Bust.

"When she got on the story, she could not be shaken off of it by pressure or complaint or difficulty," said Eugene Patterson, former editor of the Times. "She stayed with it. Of course, Scientology tested her to the max."

Her family felt the strain.

"It was definitely a difficult set of circumstances," said Candi Orsini, her daughter. "The closeness of the family and the strength of the family got us through those times."

I asked Mark Bunker for his own memories of St. Pete Times coverage when he lived in Florida during another crucial period of Scientology coverage -- the Lisa McPherson debacle.

When I lived in Clearwater back in 2000 and 2001, the St. Pete Times would frequently write stories about Scientology and the Lisa McPherson Trust. Deborah O'Neil or Tom Tobin were most likely to be the reporters on the beat. Both seemed incredibly nice and both were always very fair in their reporting. I had read their stories before moving to town. It was through their reports that I almost felt like a resident before I even moved to Clearwater.

One of the byproducts of us opening up shop right next to Scientology's Office of Special Affairs is that we created a lot of Scientology related news. When Bob Minton and Stacy Brooks met with city manager Mike Roberto about what we were trying to accomplish in Clearwater, he told them point blank that he had tried very hard to keep Scientology off the front page of the St. Pete Times and with our arrival they were right back there in big, bold headlines. He wasn't at all happy about that. It's not like we were trying to generate stories but Scientology's attacks on us just made for interesting reading. There was the time Jeff Jacobsen and I were banned from a Scientologist-owned restaurant.

Or when a group composed largely of Scientologists who were redesigning a small alley next to a Scientology building refused to sell Jeff a brick in memory of Lisa McPherson.

Or when Scientology set up Jesse Prince on marijuana charges.

It was after Jesse's trial that the St. Pete Times published one of their most memorable editorials on Scientology, saying it was "not like any church we know."

What was most frustrating about the St. Pete Times is that they knew the lengths to which Scientology would go but even after publishing damning editorials about them, they would then publish what many would consider puff pieces about the group. They knew how Scientology behaved. They knew what they were capable of. Why not expose the abuses going on just a couple blocks away from the newspaper's offices? With the string of amazing articles in recent years by Tobin and Childs, they're once again doing just that and they're jaw-droppingly good at it.

OK, Joe and Tom, we're braced for the next bombshell. Let's have it!

The Top 25 People Crippling Scientology #1: L. Ron Hubbard #2: David Miscavige #3: Marty Rathbun #4: Tom Cruise #5: Joe Childs and Tom Tobin #6: Anonymous #7: Mark Bunker #8: Mike Rinder #9: Jason Beghe #10: Lisa McPherson #11: Nick Xenophon (and other public servants) #12: Tommy Davis (and other hapless church executives) #13: Janet Reitman (and other journalists) #14: Tory Christman (and other noisy ex-Scientologists) #15: Andreas Heldal-Lund (and other old time church critics) #16: Marc and Claire Headley, escapees of the church's HQ #17: Jefferson Hawkins, the man behind the TV volcano #18: Amy Scobee, former Sea Org executive #19: The Squirrel Busters (and the church's other thugs and goons) #20: Trey Parker and Matt Stone (and other media figures) #21: Kendrick Moxon, attorney for the church #22: Jamie DeWolf (and other L. Ron Hubbard family members) #23: Ken Dandar (and other attorneys who litigate against the church) #24: David Touretzky (and other academics) #25: Xenu, galactic overlord

Tony Ortega is the editor-in-chief of The Village Voice. Since 1995, he's been writing about Scientology at several publications. | @VoiceTonyO | Facebook: Tony Ortega

Keep up on all of our New York news coverage at this blog, Runnin' Scared


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