From here to Scientology: Worldwide leader David Miscavige's Philly-area roots

Posted: January 03, 2012

THE SOUTH Jersey suburb where David Miscavige grew up was utopian by design, a prefab paradise where footballs and fireflies floated over lush, green lawns and parents played pinochle long after the ice cubes melted in their cocktails.

Miscavige's middle-class Catholic upbringing in Willingboro, N.J., abruptly changed four decades ago when his childhood asthma led the family to another utopian vision - that of L. Ron Hubbard.

Miscavige, 51, a high-school dropout, today is the worldwide leader of the Church of Scientology, which Hubbard founded. The church says Miscavige has touched the lives of "billions" since his days as a young Scientology prodigy.

But some ex-members have alleged abuses under his command. Some have called Miscavige a dictator who isolates followers from their families and uses his fists to touch people's lives.

Miscavige (pronounced Mis-kav-ij) has never been charged with assault, and the church has denied the accusations. In fact, the church says, Miscavige has been at the "helm in an era of expansion" into 165 countries. In 1993, he won a fight to gain tax-exempt status for the church from the Internal Revenue Service.

And when Tom Cruise, Scientology's most-visible face, married Katie Holmes, he chose Miscavige as his best man.

"I have never met a more competent, a more intelligent, a more tolerant, a more compassionate being outside of what I've experienced from LRH [Hubbard]," Cruise once said of Miscavige.

Over the past three months, church officials said Miscavige was either out of the country or busy with church functions and unable to talk. Most of his relatives either declined to comment to the Daily News or didn't return requests for comment.

Still, from interviews with former neighbors and former church members, a picture emerges of a South Jersey boy who went from playing in Pennypacker Park to becoming the top player in Scientology.

A taste for scrapple

Born in Bucks County in 1960, Miscavige spent his first 12 years in Willingboro, one of three mass-produced Levittowns built on the East Coast after World War II.

By all accounts, Miscavige lived an idyllic life in a two-story colonial on Peartree Lane in Willingboro's Pennypacker Park neighborhood. He played baseball and, like older brother Ronnie - whom he idolized - he also suited up for the Pennypacker Park Patriots football team.

Ronnie Miscavige apparently has not spoken publicly about Scientology or his younger brother since leaving the church in 2000.

But Paul Elliott, who grew up across the street from the Miscaviges, said his parents played cards with Miscaviges' parents on weekends. He and his brothers once rigged an Erector Set, propped up with string and a dose of childhood hope, from their bedroom window to the room where Ronnie and "Davey" slept, hoping to pass secret messages in the dark, he recalled.

Elliott said Davey looked up to Ronnie, who in turn was protective of his diminutive younger brother. Elliott recently attended a Phillies game with Miscavige's brother, but they didn't discuss Scientology.

"I asked him about Davey," Elliott recalled, but Ronnie said he hadn't spoken to his brother in a long time.

Long after both families moved away, a coincidental connection remains.

"It's funny that you came here," a woman, who asked not to be identified, said at the red colonial where the Elliotts once lived.

"My husband is interested in Scientology. He just got audited," she said, using the church's term for spiritual counseling.

The church told the Daily News that Miscavige has been back to the Philadelphia area infrequently since 1976, but that decades in California had not diminished his fondness for it.

"He has retained a taste for the local food, including Philly cheesesteaks, scrapple and perogies," a church spokeswoman wrote in an email.

Miscavige still follows Philly sports, the church said, and in 1981 he drove from California to New Orleans to watch the Raiders beat the Eagles in Super Bowl XV.

Marty Rathbun, an ex-church member and former close associate of Miscavige's, said they drove 32 hours in a Datsun to meet up with members of Miscavige's family at the Super Bowl. Afterward, the Miscaviges got into an argument at a buffet with about 20 Oakland fans who were gloating over the win, he recalled.

"That's how die-hard-Philly they were," Rathbun said.

In 1993, Miscavige attended two Phillies World Series games. He sometimes catches a spring-training game in Clearwater, Fla., the home of Scientology's spiritual headquarters.

Summers at the shore

The Miscaviges spent summers at the Jersey shore, mostly in Brigantine, Ocean City, Wildwood and Atlantic City - where his sisters, Lori and Denise, performed on "Tony Grant's Stars of Tomorrow" show on the Steel Pier, the church said. In the winter, the family rented cabins in the Poconos and went skiing at Camelback and Big Boulder.

According to the church, Miscavige has fond memories of Pennypacker Park Elementary School, in Willingboro. Former neighbors recall him, as well.

"He has a personality that you kind of remember, not good or bad," said Jeffrey Wirth, a former Pennypacker Park resident who knew the Miscavige family as a boy. "You just remembered him."

Former neighbors alluded to Miscavige's asthma, which they said often cut his days short with bouts of wheezing.

After many doctor visits and trips to the emergency room, Ronald Miscavige Sr. took his son to see a man who practiced the teachings that Hubbard espoused in his book Dianetics.

"From that moment, Mr. Miscavige knew he had found the answer to both his ailment and what he would make his life's pursuit," the church told the Daily News. "That is his personal story of how he began in Scientology."

Elliott said some kids in Pennypacker Park had a hard time understanding this transformation.

"I remember when they started," Elliott said. "He would say they know the truth, that 'this is this' if you really believed it."

The family studied Scientology in South Jersey briefly. In 1972 they abruptly sold their house, packed up and moved to England to delve deeper into the religion.

Having been a Scientology prodigy before high school, Miscavige now became one of the church's youngest "auditors."

The Miscaviges moved back to the Philadelphia area in 1973, then back to England briefly, and finally to Broomall, Delaware County, where David and his sister Denise attended Marple Newtown High School. According to the St. Petersburg Times, David was disgusted by drug use at Marple Newtown.

The Florida paper said Miscavige dropped out of high school on his 16th birthday with his father's blessing and moved to Clearwater to work in the church. A few dozen former classmates reached by the Daily News didn't remember him.

Miscavige was in California by 1979 and soon was working directly under Hubbard. He took over after the church's founder died in 1986, and is known to Scientologists as "DM" or "COB," short for chairman of the board of the Religious Technology Center.

'Philly attitude'

Ronnie's daughter, Jenna Miscavige Hill, herself a former member of the church, says Scientology caused her to become isolated from her family while she was growing up - an unofficial church policy often referred to as "disconnection" - and she no longer speaks with many relatives still in the church.

"I feel that there is a good possibility that the Miscavige family would be better off if my grandpa had not found Dianetics," she told the Daily News in an email yesterday. "I can't say that if [he] didn't find that, then he wouldn't have found something else. But not a lot of other religions have a disconnection policy like [S]cientology does, so most likely I would at least be able to talk to my aunts and cousins."

Rathbun and some other church defectors say Miscavige is nothing more than a 5-foot-5 bully who has physically attacked underlings for no reason. Rathbun, who once defended Miscavige against such allegations, said that's the dark side of his "Philly attitude."

"He loves to use the Philly banner to play the tough guy," Rathbun said.

Tales of Miscavige's alleged violent outbursts have been recounted in the St. Petersburg Times, the Village Voice, on CNN and, most recently, in a lengthy piece in the New Yorker. The church has denied the allegations.

"Not one of the sources making these allegations is credible; all have admitted to lying and being dishonest," church spokeswoman Karin Pouw said in an email.

Miscavige, who the church says is married with no children, has given only two interviews since assuming command. In those interviews, he said almost nothing about his childhood or family unless it related to Scientology.

"His attention sticks to the discussion at hand, and his words shoot out machine gun-style, in the accent of the Philadelphia suburb where he grew up," the Florida paper reported in 1998.

When former neighbor Elliott saw Miscavige in a 1992 interview with Ted Koppel on ABC's "Nightline," he said the sharp stare, icy-blue eyes and overall demeanor brought back memories of Willingboro.

"It was like seeing his [Miscavige's] father again," Elliott said.

Miscavige's father met his mother, Loretta, in high school in the coal region of Northumberland County, Pa., and Miscavige still has relatives in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Charges against father

While Miscavige was rising through the ranks of Scientology in Florida and California, his parents and some siblings continued to live in Delaware County, eventually settling in a rowhouse in the middle of a steep Upper Darby street.

It was during this period in Upper Darby that Miscavige's father was charged with a sex crime in Montgomery County - a case that has fueled wild speculation on the Internet.

The known facts are that Ronald Miscavige Sr., a salesman, was charged in May 1985 with criminal attempted rape, indecent assault and other charges stemming from an alleged incident at a King of Prussia apartment complex on Oct. 9, 1984.

An Upper Merion police report says a woman working at the Kingswood Apartments claimed she was attacked by a man posing as a potential tenant. The woman kneed the man in the groin after he tore her blouse, and a sketch of the assailant was made after he fled, the report says.

In March 1985, women working in the office at another apartment complex, Gulph Mills Village apartments, alleged that the sketch resembled a man who had inquired about a rental there.

The women wrote down the license-plate number of the man's Honda Accord, the report says, and it turned out to belong to Ronald Miscavige Sr. The alleged victim was "pretty sure" he was the same man who attacked her, the report says, and he was charged.

But at a preliminary hearing a few weeks later, a judge found the evidence against Miscavige's father was insufficient and all charges were dropped. Neither the assistant district attorney who handled the case nor the Norristown attorney who represented Miscavige's father could recall much about it when reached by the Daily News. The alleged victim could not be located.

"I just remember the detective telling me, 'Don't worry, he's moving,' " said Kathleen Fear, who worked at the Gulph Mills Village apartments and later testified at the preliminary hearing.

The church, when asked to comment about the incident, said it was a "case of injustice" in which Miscavige's father was a "victim."

Miscavige's father, a former Marine who has played trumpet for the church, later joined Scientology's Sea Organization, a clergy group whose members sign a lifetime commitment and wear naval-officer uniforms.

He and Loretta later divorced, and he remarried in 1990. Scientology described Ronald Miscavige Sr. as a staff member and asked the Daily News not to contact him. The newspaper couldn't find a way to reach him. Loretta Miscavige, a former nurse, died in Florida in 2005.

Former and current neighbors in Delaware County didn't remember the Miscaviges at those old addresses in Broomall and Upper Darby, and the name disappeared from phone books in 1986.

But Miscavige's church has never left the region, and plans are afoot to have an ever bigger presence here.

At helm of fundraising

The church told the Daily News that about 10,000 Scientologists live in the "Philadelphia/New Jersey area." According to its website, the church has millions of adherents worldwide. About 50 Scientology properties are in "various stages of design and construction," the church said.

Some observers say the church's reach is dwindling.

Rick Alan Ross, who studies "destructive cults, controversial groups and movements" from an office in Trenton, said Miscavige is responsible for an aggressive "fundraising-and-acquisition campaign" but added that "Scientology seems to be shrinking."

"So despite the many glitzy new buildings, there is apparently no surge of people anxious to use them," Ross said in an email.

In 2007, the church paid almost $8 million for the 15-story Cunningham Piano building on Chestnut Street near 13th, which the church says will replace the 32-year-old Philly headquarters at 1315 Race St.

Pouw said the church is restoring the building and it could open by spring 2013. She said Miscavige would want to cut the ribbon if his schedule permits.

On New Year's Eve, Miscavige officiated in a year-end religious convocation shown in all Scientology churches in more than 30 countries, the church said, and this month he'll open three new churches. It's all part of a rigorous schedule that makes him unavailable for interviews, according to the church.

But one thing can be said with certainty:

It's a long way from Pennypacker Park.

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