Scientology showdown reveals claims of torture, abuse of dissenting members

Current, Texas/February 15, 2012

By Michael Barajas

Debbie Cook had already spent seven weeks confined in a facility known ominously as "The Hole" inside a small room with barred windows where she says she was forced to sleep on a bug-infested floor and served only bowls of inedible "slop." There, Cook claims she endured mental and physical torture at the hands of leaders within the Church of Scientology. When she fled, church officials tracked her down, warning they'd shun and excommunicate her and her husband — or declare them "suppressive persons," in Scientology speak — cutting them off from family, friends, everyone they held dear.

In the fall of 2007, leaders dragged Cook and her husband back to Clearwater, Fla., Scientology's spiritual mecca, where she spent three more weeks in confinement, in and out of forced confessions with church officials, hoping for a path out. Then the church provided one: by signing a sweeping non-disclosure contract, agreeing to never speak ill of the church, she could leave. "I would have signed I stabbed babies over and over again and loved it. I would have done anything at that point," Cook said in sworn court testimony last week. "If I had refused to sign the agreement, then I wouldn't have been able to leave."

Effectively pushed out of the church and exiled in San Antonio since 2007, Cook and her husband are now being sued by the Church of Scientology for supposedly breaking their contract with the church by sending out an email to thousands of fellow Scientologists this past New Year's Eve criticizing the church's controversial fundraising tactics and its leadership while urging reforms. In what close Scientology-watchers have called one of the most remarkable court hearings in the fiercely litigious history of the religion, Cook testified before a Bexar County judge last week about what she called her systemic and routine harassment, imprisonment, and physical abuse under the leadership of longtime Church of Scientology leader David Miscavige, saying she had no option but to sign whatever the church drafted and escape.

The case against Cook, once a high-ranking, well-respected church leader, is making deep ripples within the insular world of Scientology. Crammed inside the courtroom last week were so-called "independent" Scientologists, those defected from the official church who still practice the religion, a team of reporters from the Tampa Bay Times known for scathing investigations about the institution, an independent documentary crew, and longtime scientology watcher and Village Voice editor-in-chief Tony Ortega, who flew down to watch the sparks fly (Ortega's comprehensive Scientology primer is a must-read for anyone just diving into the complex, unconventional religion and its history).

For 17 years, Cook led the church's internationally known multi-million-dollar operation in Clearwater, Fla. The church, founded six decades ago by sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard, focuses largely on spiritual advancement through "audits," or costly counseling sessions for its members. The IRS recognized Scientology as a religion in 1993 after years of legal wrangling.

As a church executive in Clearwater, Cook says she oversaw the audits of thousands of members.

In suing Cook and her husband, Wayne Baumgarten, for $300,000, the church also secured a sweeping court order early this month effectively silencing the couple, keeping them from talking to virtually anyone about the case or Scientology. "It's one thing to have a private dispute between two parties over a contract, and it's another thing to have a court order in place that, if violated, you can be fined and even possibly thrown in jail," said Ray Jeffrey, Cook's lawyer.

The church asked for the court to extend the gag order throughout the trial, prompting a hearing on the matter last week. With high-profile celebrity members like John Travolta and Tom Cruise, the church has become the object of intense media scrutiny, church attorney George Spencer Jr. argued, insisting there's "an environment where the news media and certain newspapers will, because of a fascination with the church, sensationalize even the most minor controversies and criticisms." He said he asked for the injunction to shield the church from "scrutiny we do not want or desire."

But the church's legal strategy appears to have had the opposite effect. In pushing for a hearing on the injunction, Cook was forced to air scathing allegations in a public forum.

It's a legal tactic the church has used successfully in the past, says Marty Rathbun, a former high-ranking Scientology member turned scourge of the official church. Rathbun says he helped pioneer the church's use of the sweeping non-disclosure agreements before he himself defected in 2004, moving to Ingleside on the Bay outside Corpus Christi. "The whole thing is orchestrated to create a tremendous amount of duress to get them to sign, then you produce something the church can use to say there was no duress," Rathbun said.

The video church attorneys showed in court last week of a quiet, murmuring Cook signing her agreement alongside church lawyers is an event that's often rehearsed, Rathbun says, standard practice so the church can use it for cover in court. He added that when a former member steps out of line, the church sues, rushing to file for temporary restraining orders and preliminary injunctions to crush, punish, and muzzle them. The drawn-out litigation may very well bury and bankrupt former members. "The purpose was to strike fear into the hearts of the people that were leaving and to shutter them into silence forever so they would never think about uttering anything about what they'd seen inside."

The church, he says, is notoriously unforgiving of people who "bust," or leave the church, and those inside the church call them "Squirrels," a pejorative label for someone who the church cites as touting false doctrine. He and Cook both spoke of sweeping teams sent out by the church to intercept and recover errant members.

Rathbun rose to the highest levels in the church after joining at age 20, serving under only Miscavige himself from 1998 until his abrupt departure. He claims to have been the personal counselor for celebrity Scientologists like Cruise, Travolta, and Kirstie Alley. And Rathbun himself is no stranger to alleged harassment by the church. He kept a quiet, low profile on the Texas Gulf Coast until about 2009, when he started his own blog for "independent" Scientologists critical of the official church. He stepped out of the shadows to give lengthy, shocking interviews with CNN, The New Yorker, and others, alleging the Church of Scientology, in its current form, is more akin to cult than religion.

Last year, Rathbun was hounded around Ingleside by groups of men wearing odd helmets, toting cameras and wearing shirts emblazoned with a "Squirrel Busters" logo. The group, reportedly sent by the church, began distributing "Neighborhood Alerts" around town, calling Rathbun a violent criminal, mentally imbalanced, and part of a "cult-like hate group."

Still, what's remarkable about the San Antonio case, Rathbun says, is how Cook confirmed, on the stand, much of what he and others have long been saying about the Church of Scientology. "The church tried to squash her, and in the process she went and verified and even went beyond everything people like me have been saying for years."

When asked for a response to Cook's allegations, this is how church spokeswoman Karin Pouw described her: "Ms. Cook is now clearly bitter and is falsely vilifying the religion she was once a part of. … The defendants and their lawyer are trying to divert the court with false claims and wild tales to excuse her willful breach."

On the stand last week, Cook gave a detailed, eerie account of how she was first thrown into "The Hole." While she was working from an office at the church's California campus, Miscavige berated her for poor performance over the phone. Then there came a pounding on the door. She stayed fixed to the receiver, and, when the knocking stopped, two men pried open the office window and climbed inside. "Are they there?" Miscavige asked. When she said yes, he replied, "Goodbye." She was off to "The Hole," what she described as a series of double-wide trailers at the church's sprawling compound in the California desert. She went on to detail some of the treatment she faced during her seven weeks at the facility. "I was put in a trash can, cold water poured over me, slapped. Things like that. One time it went on for 12 hours," she said, fighting back tears. She recalled an instance where one church executive who spoke out against the abuse was forced to lick a bathroom floor for a half hour. "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." Some were beaten and accused of being gay. Leaders accused Cook of being a lesbian.

By last Friday morning, the church had enough. It pulled its request for a temporary injunction, and Cook's damning testimony ended. Rathbun, Cook's husband, and one other former Scientology official, all of whom had been scheduled to testify, would no longer take the stand. "Going forward in the case this way will prevent the defendant from using this court as a pulpit for false statements," Spencer, the church's attorney, said.

The church claims it has ample evidence to prove Cook and her husband entered willingly into their non-disclosure contracts and then broke them, saying both defendants accepted and deposited $50,000 checks from the church when they left. Spencer says the church has more than enough ammo to seek a summary judgment, forgoing what could likely be a trial with equally messy testimony. With so much in dispute between the two parties, Jeffrey insists there's virtually no chance for a summary judgment at this point — as of Tuesday, the church had yet to file for one.

"I'm still shocked they let her get on the stand and testify," Yvonne Schick of Austin, a former church member, remarked after the hearing. There was a growing consensus among those inside and outside the courtroom that the church's strategy had clearly backfired.

"They literally forced her to disclose their crimes in a public forum," Rathbun later said. He went on to call Cook's testimony the tip of the iceberg. "It's hard to really explain how significant this is for the church. ...This is sign of a serious meltdown, this is huge."

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.