THE RELIABLE SOURCE

By Lloyd Grove
With Beth Berselli
Tuesday, January 4, 2000; Page C03

Scientology's Funny Photos

The Church of Scientology insists that more than 14,000 of its faithful packed the Los Angeles Sports Arena for a millennial celebration of Scientology's first 50 years and the "triumph of spirituality over materialism." To bolster that claim, the church's PR operation posted four panoramic color photographs of the Dec. 28 event--for use by the news media--on the Scientology Web site. But then Arlington resident Arnaldo Lerma entered the picture, reports The Post's Richard Leiby.

The 49-year-old Lerma--an ex-Scientologist who has tangled repeatedly with church officials since he quit 23 years ago, and today owns an audio-video and computer business--immediately thought he spotted something fishy: He says the crowd scenes were doctored extensively. In one shot he found repeated images of some attendees--apparently added to fill empty seats. The touch-up work left one doppelganger parishioner with no head. In another shot, a bald man who had been replicated magically grew hair.

On Friday, Lerma shared his discovery with the media and posted his findings on an online Scientology discussion group, and on New Year's Day the church removed two photos altogether and considerably cropped the remaining two. Yesterday, when Leiby asked church spokeswoman Janet Weiland for an explanation, she said there was no intent to inflate the head count. "That was just a goof when they put it up on the Web," she said. "It was later corrected." She maintained that the celebration was "absolutely packed . . . there wasn't an empty seat."

Lerma--who left the church after what he describes as an unsanctioned romantic involvement with one of church founder L. Ron Hubbard's daughters--vehemently disagreed. "It wasn't a mistake--we think it took many hours of work," he said. "They didn't just clone people; they squished their heads and drew hair on them. It's only a goof because we noticed it." Later, Scientology's Weiland phoned Leiby back to offer further explanation. "Someone made an independent decision over the holidays to fill in a hole around the camera crew for aesthetic reasons, and when we found out about this, the photos were pulled," Weiland said. "That wasn't okay." (Lerma's analysis of the offending photos, complete with helpful diagrams, can be found at www.lermanet.com)

Church PR operatives also said in a press release that President Clinton was "among those sending congratulations" on the church's "half-century of spiritual leadership." That much is true. In a Dec. 22 letter of "warm greetings," Clinton expressed gratitude to the Scientologists for "all your efforts to promote [religious freedom] and to build just communities united in understanding, compassion and mutual respect."


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