Debra Cook was once a doughty defender of Scientology, helping it to contest critics' claims that it is a ruthlessly run moneymaking cult based on bogus science. But on New Year's Eve Ms Cook, who spent more than 17 years in the organisation's leadership, wrote an explosive e-mail to 12,000 members, complaining that its chairman, David Miscavige, is mismanaging its finances and breaking its internal rules.
A Scientology spokesman dismissed Ms Cook as a "squirrel" (the organisation's term for a heretic), insisting that she has had no position in the church since 2007, "having left for medical reasons". An ex-Scientologist, Mark Rathbun, says Ms Cook once underwent a gruelling interrogation at an internal disciplinary facility, where she was accused of lesbianism (which Scientology sees as a grave disorder). Among other mistreatment, he says, she "was made to stand in a large garbage can and face one hundred people screaming at her demanding a confession".
Even if true, that appears not to have dented her loyalty. Ms Cook says she is "completely dedicated" to Scientology, and praises its "stunning and miraculous" results. That may make her attack, which is studded with quotes from the group's founder, L. Ron Hubbard, all the more telling.
Her first criticism is of an excessive focus on fund-raising, a distraction from the proselytising efforts that he regarded as the priority. Moreover, she claims, a billion dollars raised in membership fees are sitting idle, instead of being used for advertisements and other promotional activities. Too much money goes on lavish buildings—again, something that Mr Hubbard would have disliked. She also accuses the headquarters of overselling courses to members.
But her fiercest criticism is of Mr Miscavige, for turning the "complete and brilliant" structure he inherited into, in effect, one-man rule. Those who fall foul of him, she claimed, face "long and harsh" discipline. She urges Scientologists reading her letter to circulate it, to refuse to carry out "off-policy" actions, and to demand explicit justification from Hubbard's writings for all instructions.
Scientology's leaders have withstood numerous legal, official and other onslaughts in past years. But disgruntled true believers may prove to be the most potent enemy of all.