"We were born. We grew up. We escaped."
So reads the motto of ExScientologyKids.com , a Web site launched in recent weeks by young women raised in the Church of Scientology who are speaking out against the religion. Their Web site accuses the church of physical abuse, denying some children a proper education and alienating members from family.
One of the women, Jenna Miscavige Hill, is the niece of David Miscavige, the head of the church. Kendra Wiseman is the daughter of Bruce Wiseman, president of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, a Scientology-sponsored organization opposed to the practice of psychiatry.
The day before ExScientologyKids.com launched, another inflammatory allegation about the church began to circulate virulently online. "L. Ron Hubbard Plagiarized Scientology," read a headline at the Internet culture blog BoingBoing. The post linked to images of a translated 1934 German book called "Scientologie," which critics say contains similar themes to Hubbard's Scientology, which he codified in 1952, according to a church Web site.
These were just the latest in a series of Scientology-related stories to burn across the Internet in recent weeks, testing the church's well-established ability to tightly control its public image.
The largest thorn in the church's side has been a group called Anonymous, a diffuse online coalition of skeptics, hackers and activists, many of them young and Web-savvy.
Blogger and lawyer Scott Pilutik recently posted a story noting that Scientology was yanking down eBay auctions for used e-meters, the device the church uses for spiritual counseling.
Within a day, Pilutik's blog had gotten more than 45,000 visitors – so much traffic that his site crashed completely.
Facing a steady stream of negative publicity and a growing number of critical voices, Scientology has found itself on the defensive. The church has referred to Anonymous as a group of "cyber-terrorists" and, in a statement, said the group's aims were "reminiscent of al-Qaida spreading anti-American hatred and calling for U.S. destruction."
"These people are posing extremely serious death threats to our people," church spokeswoman Karin Pouw said in a phone interview. "We are talking about religious hatred and bigotry."
Reporters tread carefully when writing about Scientology, fearful that lawsuits would follow any story that Scientology did not like. But that might be changing.
"Before this Internet onslaught," said Douglas Frantz, a contributing editor at Portfolio magazine who covered Scientology for the New York Times in the 1990s, "they were always able to go after their critics and do a good job of being able to discredit or intimidate them."
Angry former church members perceive a safety in numbers afforded by the Internet, and more are coming forward to share their stories.
"People have been scared out of their minds to speak out about Scientology," said Hill, Miscavige's niece. "Nobody should have to be that scared to speak out about a church."
The current wave of anti-Scientology activity began in January when a video of actor Tom Cruise extolling the religion's tech-based approach to enlightenment was leaked onto YouTube, where users holding it up to ridicule copied and recopied it.