At first glance, the handsome Georgian mansion in the heart of the Sussex countryside could easily be mistaken for a National Trust property. Indeed, at this time of year, Saint Hill Manor would not look out of place in a BBC costume drama; lawns are manicured and greenhouses stocked with abundant produce.
Only the presence of stern-faced young men sporting pristine black naval uniforms and white flat caps indicate Saint Hill's true calling. The cadets are members of the Sea Org, the 6,000-strong unit within the Church of Scientology that is run along quasi-military lines and which is treated with a degree of respect that borders on fear by some of its followers.
Many members are little more than children who have signed contracts pledging to perform a billion years of service for the fledgling church which was set up in 1954 by the former pulp fiction writer L Ron Hubbard, and is famed for its celebrity followers.
Banned from having children while part of the group, Sea Org members are considered the Scientology elite, shock troops to be dispatched to the church's trouble spots. Hubbard declared that they had "unlimited ethics powers".
One of the Sea Org's earliest recruits at Saint Hill, a major Scientology training centre, was David Miscavige, a Roman Catholic raised in New Jersey who joined at the age of 16, having spent several years attending the church's courses which his father hoped would cure his asthma. Miscavige was quickly selected as one of only a handful of people allowed to work directly with Hubbard, who impressed upon his apprentice the powerful role the media played in promoting religion.
By 17, he had become Hubbard's director of photography, producing Scientology's first training films. Groomed for greatness from such a young age, it seemed inevitable that Miscavige would replace Hubbard when the Scientology founder died in 1986 at the age of 74, leaving behind an organisation that claims to have "millions of members in 167 countries".
Not that Miscavige, 52, saw his mentor's demise as creating a void. Invoking the sci-fi-rich language that peppers Hubbard's voluminous Scientology tracts, Miscavige pronounced that Hubbard had "moved on to the next level" and declared that he had "discarded the body he had used in this lifetime".
This obsession with progress runs through Scientology. In its dianetics courses, Scientology followers are promised that they can attain ever higher levels of self-knowledge and self-worth. In fact, there is nothing dianetics cannot do, according to its supporters. A single course, for example, can massively inflate a person's IQ. It is estimated that to complete a full series of dianetic courses, and achieve the highest levels within the church, costs several hundred thousand dollars, a claim rejected by Scientology whose transformation into a sophisticated multinational organisation is largely down to Miscavige.
Small-framed, sharp-featured and with an unnerving gaze, Miscavige's official title is "chairman of the Board of Religious Technology Centre", a stand-alone organisation whose remit is to "preserve, maintain and protect the Scientology religion". According to the church, the centre "holds the ultimate ecclesiastical authority regarding the standard and pure application of L Ron Hubbard's religious technologies".
What this means in practice, according to those who have quit the church, is that Miscavige wields absolute power over Scientology's followers.
It was this power that reportedly proved too much for Katie Holmes who, reportedly fearing the church's influence over her husband, Tom Cruise, and their six-year-old daughter Suri, filed for divorce. This triggered a tsunami of negative headlines for Scientology at a time when it was already battling lurid allegations on a number of fronts, many focused on Miscavige himself.
Today, Miscavige rarely gives interviews, making it difficult to substantiate or reject some of the claims levelled against him. In the few interviews he gave in the Nineties, he appears in sharp suits, coiffured, coiled and barely able to contain his frustration at the questions to which he is subjected.
What is undoubtedly true is that Miscavige enjoys a close relationship with Cruise, 50, who has been a Scientologist for almost half his life. Described as the "third person" in Cruise's marriage, Miscavige was best man at Cruise's lavish wedding to Holmes in Italy in 2006.
Two years earlier, in a special ceremony at Saint Hill, Miscavige had presented Cruise with Scientology's Freedom Medal of Valor, describing the actor as "the most dedicated Scientologist" he knew. The appreciation is mutual. Cruise has referred to Miscavige as unusually intelligent and compassionate.
That the church – and Miscavige – should prize Cruise so assiduously is no surprise. Hubbard knew the value of celebrity and exploited it to full advantage from the start, declaring "a culture is only as great as its dreams and its dreams are dreamed by artists".
This maxim has been applied with vigour as the church, under Miscavige, has expanded dramatically, becoming a multimillion dollar global operation in just four decades. In addition to Cruise, other high-profile supporters include John Travolta, Cheers star Kirstie Alley and the musician Beck.
But while the church's obsession with stars has helped it attract followers, pushing religion through the prism of celebrity carries an exacting price. The church has been subjected to an avalanche of negative stories disseminated across the internet which, by their sheer number, have made them difficult to deflect.
Scientology claims the abuse it receives is typical of the treatment meted out down the centuries to any new religion. But a plethora of lawsuits alleging that Scientology has harassed its critics, humiliated and beaten its followers and forced family members to break off contact with their loved ones, all denied by the church, have conspired to leave a sinister impression.
There is also unease over the apparent disappearance of Miscavige's wife, Shelly, another former member of the Sea Org, who was responsible for introducing Holmes to Cruise and who has reportedly not been seen in public since 2007.
In a letter to the Observer, Jeffrey K Riffer, a lawyer who acts for Shelly Miscavige, denied claims his client was missing. "Mrs Miscavige has been working nonstop in the church, as she always has."
Once it was the case that the church could rely on its internal disciplinary mechanism to ensure negative publicity was kept to a minimum. According to lawsuits, contested by the church, followers were threatened with manual labour if they spoke out about harsh treatment. The ever-present threat of being rejected by the church and having all links with it broken off, was enough to make even sceptical Scientologists stay silent.
But this fear no longer holds sway – even among Miscavige's own family. "My experience in growing up in Scientology is that it is both mentally and at times physically abusive," his niece, Jenna Miscavige Hill, told the Hollywood Reporter. "We got a lousy education from unqualified teachers, forced labour… not to mention the mental anguish of trying to figure out all of the conflicting information they force upon you as a young child… As a mother myself, I offer my support to Katie and wish for her all the strength she will need to do what is best for her and her daughter."
Even those who are supportive of the church are tired of Miscavige's influence. Last New Year's Eve, Debbie Cook, a high-profile Scientologist, emailed the church's followers, urging them to reject its demands for money. Under Miscavige, Cook said, Scientology had become too focused on luxury buildings and was holding more than $1bn in reserve instead of spending it on spreading the religion, claims denied by the church. Miscavige, Cook claimed, had dismantled the internal checks that were supposed to prevent the church from being led by a single person.
There are claims that several of Scientology's former followers have briefed the FBI on Miscavige's lifestyle. It is alleged that he owns numerous vehicles, flies in corporate jets and has five stewards and two chefs at his disposal – claims denied by the church.
It is ironic that Miscavige, who by masterminding Scientology's successful claim for tax exemption from the US Internal Revenue Service in 1993 transformed the church's fortunes, now finds himself its biggest liability.
Shortly before he died, Hubbard described how Miscavige had "cleaned" Scientology of "rogue staff" who had been trying to seize control of the church. "Trust and friendship are things forged in fire and pounded out on the anvil of life," Hubbard told Miscavige. "We have been through a lot together. I trust you as you trust me." It was the messiah bestowing a blessing on his disciple. It could have been Miscavige talking to Cruise.
Comments will be turned on at 10am BST The Miscavige file
Born 30 April 1960, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Raised in New Jersey as a Roman Catholic, until his musician father became interested in Scientology. Aged 12, he started attending Scientology courses at Saint Hill Manor in West Sussex.
Best of times Becoming chairman of the board of Religious Technology Centre in 1987 at the age of 26; he has been credited - or otherwise - with turning Scientology into a highly efficient operation.
Worst of times The sudden disappearance from public view of his wife, Shelly, in 2007.
What he says "We come to the first momentous page of this church's new history. Needless to say, it's not a tide of history on which one merrily floats. On the contrary, it must be a history unlike any ever told before, a history of supreme competence, great passion and perfect adherence to our technology."
What others say "I have never met a more competent, more intelligent, more tolerant, more compassionate being outside of what I've experienced from [founder of Scientology] L Ron Hubbard." Tom Cruise