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Scientology Forces 'Sophie's Choice'

Sara Goldberg climbed to the top level of Scientology, and her husband Sheldon achieved that level, too. Sara's children from a previous marriage, Nick and Ashley Lister, grew up in the church, as well. 

They were a close family. But as the Tampa Bay Times'Joe Childs reports (paywall alert), they were torn apart last summer over church practices.

Nick had started questioning Scientology's rules and looking up information on the Internet, which is forbidden. Church leaders ordered Sara and Sheldon Goldberg to "handle" him.

When their efforts were unsuccessful, Nick was ousted from the church, called a "suppressive person." The Times reports that the family was ordered to "disconnect" from Nick, all of them: Sara and Sheldon Goldberg, Ashley and her husband and daughter. Ashley and her family disconnected.

Sara and Sheldon Goldberg were brought before a Scientology tribunal, separately. When Sara Goldberg was ordered to shun her son, she refused, according to the Times, even though she knew it meant she might never see her daughter and granddaughter again.

"You're asking me to make a choice between my son and my daughter," she reportedly said. "And I love them both very much."

In her interview with the Times, Sara Goldberg likened it to "Sophie's Choice," a famous fictional story of a Jewish woman sent to a concentration camp by Nazis and forced to choose which of her two children, a boy and a girl, would live.

After the Goldbergs' tribunal, there was a delay of several months. But in July, the Scientology judge sent the Goldbergs a letter saying their refusal to disconnect from her son made them "suppressive." The Times reports that Sara Goldberg has not seen her daughter or granddaughter since. Nick says his father Gale Lister, also a Scientologist, has disconnected him.

Scientology spokesmen and website,,  say the church does not require disconnection, that it is a voluntary decision. The letter, which the Times published, undermines the claim.

The practice of shunning exists in a few other religions, including Jehovah's Witnesses. Courts have said it falls under protection of the freedom-of-religion clause of the Constitution.

Nevertheless, the case adds weight to claims of former Scientologists that they were forced to leave families and friends when they questioned church doctrine. Scientology is defending itself in civil courts against a number of allegations, including spying on and harassing church defectors.

(Editor's note: Health News Florida posts links to major articles about Scientology because of the church's general opposition to psychiatry, psychotropic medications and other aspects of traditional approaches to mental illness.  The church was started by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in the 1950s; its spiritual headquarters is in Clearwater.)

Originally founded in December 2006 as an independent grassroots publication dedicated to coverage of health issues in Florida, Health News Florida was acquired by WUSF Public Media in September 2012.