Church suddenly drops its bid to muzzle couple

San Anotnio Express-News/February 11, 2012

A day after enduring hours of lurid and highly damaging court testimony by a former Church of Scientology official who is being sued by the church, the church's lawyers abruptly threw in the towel Friday.

"We have elected to withdraw our request for an injunction at this time," Scientology lawyer George Spencer Jr. told Judge Martha Tanner as the second day of the hearing on the church's request for a temporary injunction began.

"Going forward in the case this way will prevent the defendant from using the court as a pulpit for false statements," he added.

The church had sued Debbie Cook and her husband, Wayne Baumgarten, in January, claiming they had violated a nondisclosure agreement made when they left the church by sending a lengthy email to other Scientologists in late December.

The hearing this week was over a temporary restraining order that basically forbade the pair from talking to anyone about the case or Scientology.

It quickly became clear that the church's strategy of suing Cook had backfired, as numerous media outlets quickly published detailed accounts of her Thursday testimony about serial abuses.

Cook, 50, spent 29 years with the church. She was its official in Clearwater, Fla., the church's spiritual headquarters, for the last 17.

After signing the nondisclosure agreements and accepting $100,000 from the church in late 2007, she and her husband moved to San Antonio, and for five years kept quiet.

But after they sent the December email, saying the church had strayed from the teachings of its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, the church sued, claiming they had violated their nondisclosure contract.

In court Thursday, Cook's lawyer Ray Jeffrey argued that the contracts were void because they were imposed under "extreme duress."

In her testimony Thursday, Cook described beatings, confinement and forced confessions of church officials who had fallen out of favor with church leader David Miscavige.

She also testified about being held against her will by church officials on at least three occasions, including a horrific seven-week stint in "The Hole," where detainees slept on the floor, ate slop and were beaten and degraded.

As the case developed to include matters beyond contract law , it quickly drew widespread attention within the media and the worldwide community of Scientologists.

And it was clear from Spencer's remarks that the church had no stomach for more.

Later Friday, the church released a statement accused Cook of conducting a "bitter hate campaign" against it, of wanting to extort money and of "extreme falsity" in her testimony.

It also accused Cook and Baumgarten of "improperly using the court proceeding to entangle the court in fundamental ecclesiastical matters that it must avoid under the First Amendment."

Afterward, Yvonne Schick, 63, of Austin, a former church member, said she was not surprised by the church's decision to end the proceeding.

"They miscalculated by letting things get to the point where Debbie Cook got on the stand and testified, although I don't know that it could have gotten any worse than it was yesterday," she said.

"Because of how well-known and respected she was by people inside the church, this will be bad for morale and cause more people to exit," she said.

Freed to speak to the media, Cook and her husband later cautiously fielded questions with her lawyer at her side.

"I would really like to get across to you that I have grown up with Scientology my whole life. I feel Scientology and Hubbard are kind and caring and wonderful. I really don't want people to hear the things that went on that reflect badly on Scientology," she said.

She also dismissed the church's accusation of her giving false testimony.

"I take very seriously being under oath. I absolutely told the truth," she said.

"These horrible things are coming from one person. How many times in history has it happened that you get a tyrant in charge of a group," she said of Miscavige.

While not declaring victory, her lawyer said things boded well for his client.

"They are not going to get a summary judgment, and if this case goes to trial, it would be a much larger affair. If a jury heard this set of facts, they would be outraged," said Jeffrey.

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