Abuse, confinement alleged in Scientology suit

San Antonio Express-News/February 10, 2012

In a closely watched case, the inner workings of the Church of Scientology were laid bare Thursday in state district court as a former top church official testified about serial abuse and the enforced confinement of church officials.

"Mrs. Cook was beaten, she was tortured and she was degraded beyond belief. And she was confined in inhumane conditions," Ray Jeffrey, representing Debbie Cook, stated as the hearing opened before Judge Martha Tanner.

Cook, 50, a long-time top official of the church in Florida, is being sued here for allegedly violating an extensive nondisclosure agreement that she signed in October 2007, when she finally left the church.

She and her husband, Wayne Baumgarten, moved to Texas later that year.

The hearing that began Thursday is over a highly restrictive injunction imposed last week forbidding the pair from talking to almost anyone about the case or about Scientology.

The basis for the litigation was a Dec. 31 email the pair sent to several thousand other Scientologists that took issue with various church practices, including constant fundraising and questionable treatment of church executives.

And while Cook said the missive was meant to be constructive and she considers herself to be a good Scientologist, the church reacted by suing her and her husband, claiming they had broken their nondisclosure contracts.

"It's simply about the defendants being required to live up to agreements they made back in 2007. They were made freely and knowingly. The agreements were that they would not disclose information about the church and would not disparage the church," said George Spencer Jr., representing the church.

And, he told the judge, each of the two had accepted $50,000 from the church as part of the agreement. The church is seeking at least $300,000 in damages from the couple.

Jeffrey, however, told the judge that Cook's signature, and that of her husband on a similar 10-page agreement, were the result of "extreme duress and undue influence," making the contract unenforceable on numerous grounds.

Ironically, in trying to silence Cook about fairly minor matters, the church inadvertently ungagged her by putting her on the witness stand. And on Thursday, she testified for four hours about bizarre and disturbing practices she claims she both witnessed and suffered.

At times tearful, Cook told of spending seven weeks in "The Hole," at the church's Los Angeles international headquarters in early 2007. She said she was sent there with about 100 other church officials who had displeased church leader David Miscavige.

"It had bars on the windows and the one entrance was guarded by security guards," she explained, when asked why she didn't leave.

At "The Hole," she testified, people slept on the floor, were denied medical attention and were given watery "slop" served from a big pot. She described how those kept there were forced to confess to things they hadn't done and sometimes were beaten.

"It had very heavy spiritual and mental effects," she said.

In her case, she said, she once was forced to stand for 12 hours in a garbage can, while having cold water poured over her and people shouting at her, because she refused to confess falsely that she was a lesbian.

"You felt completely degraded, very terrified that you'd have to go through the confessions or be beaten. And because you hadn't been sleeping, you were in a horrific mental state," she said.

She named one man who she said was beaten and then forced to lick a bathroom floor clean after objecting to violence against others.

Asked by e-mail to respond to Cook's allegations, church spokeswoman Karin Pouw wrote, "The defendants and their lawyer are trying to divert the court with false claims and wild tales to excuse her willful breach (of the contract.)"

"The Church treated Ms. Cook with dignity and respect during her tenure on Church staff," she said, adding, "Ms. Cook is now clearly bitter and is falsely vilifying the religion she was once part of."

By the time Cook's testimony wrapped up late Thursday afternoon, she had told of escaping from Scientology's facility in Clearwater, Fla., in fall 2007 by commandeering a church vehicle.

But, she said, the church tracked her to South Carolina, and then tricked her into returning.

Back in Florida, she said, she and her husband again were held against their will at a guarded facility for three weeks and were told they had to make confessions.

"I freaked out very severely. I called my mother and told her if I wasn't out in three days to call police," she said. She said she also threatened to commit suicide if she was not released.

The threats persuaded church officials to relent, but at the time she signed the contract, Cook testified, she would have agreed to anything.

"I had no thoughts about it. I knew I had to sign the papers," she said.

Earlier in the Thursday hearing, Spencer had played a video that showed Cook signing the nondisclosure documents that had been brought by a church lawyer from California.

Crying at times on the video while answering the lawyer's questions in a subdued voice, Cook agreed with almost everything the lawyer stated, including that she was leaving the church voluntarily and for medical reasons.

She's also heard on the video expressing her gratitude for the $50,000, although the lawyer also mentions that he had to persuade her to accept it.

In her testimony Thursday, Cook said she had understood the money to be a gift from the church, and not part of a legal agreement.

When all the paperwork was done, the lawyer was heard on the 2007 video wishing her well, and saying, "Hopefully it's a continuing nonrelationship relationship."

In attendance were other former Scientology officials who left under adverse circumstances, as well as reporters from Florida, where Scientology has its spiritual headquarters, New York and elsewhere.

The hearing is set to continue today, and among the witnesses that Jeffrey may call are Mike Rinder and Marty Rathbun, both former high church officials who now are harsh critics of Miscavige.

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