They advanced to the Church of Scientology's highest spiritual level, to "Operating Thetan VIII," a vaunted realm said to endow extraordinary powers of perception and force of will.
But Geir Isene of Norway and Americans Mary Jo Leavitt and Sherry Katz recently announced they were leaving the church, citing strong disagreements with its management practices.
Isene left first, a decision that emboldened Leavitt, who inspired Katz. Such departures are rare among the church's elite group of OT VIIIs, who are held up as role models in Scientology. The three each told the St. Petersburg Times that they had spent decades and hundreds of thousands of dollars to reach the church's spiritual pinnacle.
All three stressed their ongoing belief in Scientology and say they remain grateful for how it helped them. Yet they took to the Internet - an act strongly discouraged by church leaders, who decry public airing of problems - to share their reasons for leaving. They said they hoped it would resonate within the Scientology community.
It did for Jack Airey of Palm Harbor, a Scientologist for the past 41 years. Just last year, the church selected Airey as the keynote speaker at a Scientology graduation and featured the 67-year-old in an infomercial that urged parishioners over 55 to become more active. Prompted by the public statements of Leavitt and Katz, Airey announced his decision to leave as well.
Marty Rathbun, Mike Rinder and other former executives went public this summer with allegations of abuse in Scientology's management ranks. Now the disengagement by the three OT VIIIs and Airey offers a look inside Scientology from the seldom-shared perspective of parishioners.
Responding for the church, Los Angeles lawyer Anthony Michael Glassman said it's "astonishing" the Times is giving "a public platform for the views of disgruntled and biased former members. ...
"All major religions, be they Catholic, Mormon, Jewish, etc., suffer the defection, on a regular basis, of once orthodox members."
The Times submitted nine questions to the church on Dec. 22 relating to statements made by the former parishioners. Glassman said the newspaper gave the church "inadequate" time to respond. "We will not be responding separately to each allegation contained in your letter, other than to unequivocally deny them."
Church spokesman Tommy Davis criticized the Times for singling out departures by Scientologists, which he called "textbook discriminatory coverage. . . .
"That being said, the Church of Scientology wishes any parishioner well in their pursuit of spiritual enlightenment. The same most assuredly applies to your sources."
The three OT VIIIs said they want reform of leadership. They pointed to the revelations by Rinder, Rathbun and others who told the Times that church leader David Miscavige resorted to violence to control and discipline key managers, assertions the church strongly denied.
"I want to stop the abuses," said Isene, who owns an Oslo-based software company. "I want the Human Rights Watch ... breathing down their neck."
Isene was a self-described nerdy introvert until Scientology changed his life. As a kid his world was physics and chemistry. He avoided class parties. Once, reading aloud to classmates, he hyperventilated.
He joined Scientology at 18 and developed communication skills and the confidence to host a popular radio show. He learned to structure his time, curing his chronic problem with punctuality, and he found his creative side, writing poetry and short fiction.
He is 43 now. FreeCode International, the company he started with his wife, Katrina, in 2004, has 50 employees and clients in Norway, Russia and two African countries.
Fluent in English, Isene (pronounced EASE-neh) traveled often to Clearwater, Scientology's worldwide spiritual headquarters, for training and auditing, the church's core counseling practice.
He says he spent about $200,000 progressing up the church's Bridge to Total Freedom and reached OT VIII in 2006 aboard the church's cruise ship, the Freewinds. OT VIII training is offered only aboard the ship, which the church describes as "a safe, aesthetic, distraction free environment appropriate for ministration of this profoundly spiritual level of auditing."
When Isene returned to Norway with his new rank - the country's only OT VIII - the Oslo church featured him in rallies and speeches. He said there are about 1,100 OT VIIIs worldwide.
Progressing to the top of the Bridge, OT VIIIs become masters of Scientology "tech," gaining special abilities to put "cause over life" - essentially, to will things to happen. They are revered as eminently trustworthy, virtuous and ethical.
For three of this elite group to break ranks and publicly criticize the church poses a dilemma, Isene said.
"Either the tech is not correct," he said, "and you have flawed beings. Or the tech is correct and church management is broken. Either way, something is broken."
For years, he had been troubled by what he considered heavy-handed practices by managers at the church facility in Oslo and at European headquarters in Copenhagen.
A top church leader screamed at him in 2004, he said, wanting to know why he and his wife walked out of a meeting the previous night when church officials were chiding Oslo parishioners for not contributing enough time and money. Isene said he explained that their young children were restless.
At the time, he chalked up the outburst to stress. But after meeting Miscavige for the first time two years later, he said he felt differently.
It was June 2006, two weeks after he completed OT VIII. Isene was to have a commemorative photo taken with Miscavige. Isene found him arrogant.
"I was coming into the room," he recalled. "I heard a voice that said, 'Where is the guy from Oslo?' I said, 'Here sir.' "
Miscavige extended his hand, saying: "So you are the next ED (executive director) of Oslo Org. Congratulations."
"I said, 'No, sir, I'm not.' "
Isene was taken aback by Miscavige's impetuousness. They had just met and the leader was ready to throw out the current director and put Isene in charge on the spot.
Isene ran a recruitment company from 1990 to 2000, and he says that was no way to do business.
Miscavige persisted, Isene said. "In the middle of the conversation, when he thought this was not going anywhere, he just turned around and just went out of the room. And I was like, 'Where is the hidden camera?' "
In 2007, the church's investigations division asked him to search the Internet for Norwegian journalists alleging that Miscavige physically abused staff. The request was unusual because the church directs members to steer clear of "nattering" on the Net and media coverage critical of Scientology.
Isene reported back that his search identified no such journalists in Norway. But he kept searching the Internet and was stunned to read the many allegations about Miscavige hitting staffers.
He researched for two years, for an average of 1½ hours a day, about 1,000 hours in all. He shared what he found with his wife, a Scientologist since 1993. Last year they decided it wasn't safe anymore for them to go to auditing sessions, which can be like confessionals. They had read too much.
In June, Isene read the St. Petersburg Times report, "The Truth Rundown."
"That was like, okay, now it's time to not sit and research anymore," he said. "Now it's time to really take this to a decision."
To further research allegations he read on the Internet, Isene worked up 50 questions that he hoped to pose to former Scientologists who worked for the church at its international base outside Los Angeles, where most of the abuses were said to have occurred.
As it happened, four former base staffers were to be vacationing in Copenhagen and renewing old ties. They met with Isene at a private home there, and Isene started down his list.
When was the first time you saw somebody hit someone?
Do you think reform is possible?
What must change?
Isene would not share their answers. But after four hours of conversation, "I came to the conclusion that, 'Okay, that's it.' "
On vacation in Turkey with his wife and three children, he wrote a lengthy statement and posted it on his personal Web site early in August:
"I have had an enormous amount of spiritual gain from my 25 years in Scientology. ... After two years of extensive research I have decided to leave the Church of Scientology. I am not leaving Scientology, only the church.
"In fact, I consider that the present management is not practicing its teachings, and that for me to continue practicing Scientology, I need to leave the church and its suppressive management."
Mary Jo Leavitt
Leavitt read Isene's post from her home in Glendale, Calif. An OT VIII with 26 years in Scientology, she had grown weary of what she considered the church's push for money.
Her concerns dated to 2006, when she started as a volunteer "OT ambassador." She spent 25 to 30 hours a week advising church parishioners in Latin American countries, rallying the scattered Scientology communities there.
For 2½ years, the bilingual Leavitt and her team pushed the church's message by distributing L. Ron Hubbard's Way to Happiness, his study technology and other works.
"That to me is what Scientology was," she said. "It was a series of tools that you could learn and apply in your life."
She came to the United States in 1981 after five years studying archaeology in England. She settled in New York, produced TV commercials for companies in her native Colombia and used drugs - until a friend turned her on to Scientology.
She paid $50 for an introductory course - The Ups and Downs of Life. She liked it and signed up for the Purification Rundown, which included a nutritional regimen and sauna treatments.
"I stopped using drugs right away, like, no problem," she said.
She married a Scientologist and with their 3-week-old daughter moved to L.A. She started training to become an auditor, thinking it would make her a better parent, and she kept taking church courses. She completed OT VIII training in August 2007.
In her years in Scientology, she said, she brought hundreds of recruits into the church. "You know, I was like the most, as they say, gung ho - one of the most gung ho Scientologists on the planet."
As she continued her long distance volunteer work with parishioners in Mexico, Central America and South America, she started hearing of problems. She said they told her that management pressed them to sell books and materials and to stage fund drives for new buildings, limiting their time to promote Hubbard's works and message.
Leavitt brought the complaints to the attention of top management by writing memos called "Knowledge Reports."
The practices she objected to were "away from actually helping people. It was really all about making money. And money to the degree it was hurting the person you were taking the money from."
Parishioners told her, for example, the down economy hit them especially hard, some even saying they heeded the church's call for more contributions by taking out second mortgages.
In June 2008, Leavitt joined about 250 other high-level parishioners aboard the Freewinds for the church's annual cruise commemorating the ship's maiden voyage as a religious retreat. She thought the Scientology staffers manning the ship looked gaunt, weary. "To me, it was like a human abuse point ... and that was a breaking point for me."
Home in California, she wrote more reports to higher ups, and she read "The Truth Rundown." One August evening, she noticed two men in her yard who looked to her like they were casing her house. She told them they were trespassing and they left.
About two weeks later a church staffer showed up with an "ethics summons." She was to report to church headquarters in Hollywood.
She didn't want to go but worried that if she didn't, the church might declare her a suppressive person, a designation that would prompt other Scientologists to shun her.
For an hour, an ethics officer posed questions while she held the metal cans of an e-meter, the electronic device used in auditing sessions.
Who are your friends?
How are your finances?
Do you have any money offshore?
"I'm sitting there trying to keep really calm and cool, and I'm going, 'This has gone completely gestapo.' "
She watched a two-hour video about the International Association of Scientologists, which raises money for church expansion efforts and sat three more hours with four church executives who she said pressed her to donate to the IAS.
"I kept telling them, 'I'm not putting money on a credit card.' "
She said she was told: You're not with the program. You're not keeping Scientology working.
No, she told them, I guess I'm not. "I just walked out."
Her 25-year-old son and 23-year-old daughter, exposed to Scientology their entire lives, waited nervously for her return. She told them: "I'm done."
Days later, she read Isene's announcement and contacted him to offer support. On Oct. 12, on an Internet site critical of the church, she announced that she was leaving. She posted an eight-page report that she had sent to top church officials, reporting that managers were redirecting staff in the field to do fundraising at the expense of other religious work.
She considered the activities counter to Hubbard's policies for expanding Scientology. "They are actually causing a contraction," she said. (The church disputes any notion it's losing members. "The last decade has been the most expansive in Scientology's history," church spokesman Davis said in an e-mail Wednesday.)
As exit strategies go, Leavitt's was a bold one. "It was the only box I could stand on to scream 'fire' loud enough. ... I wanted to create a shock. I wanted to create an effect of people looking at it.
"And, also for me, to have my own integrity. And, also, so they would leave me alone."
Leavitt, who is divorced, owns and runs a company that translates corporate documents into 16 languages. She said her children also consider themselves out of the church.
Katz was "nervous as heck" the day in the summer of 2008 when she typed "Scientology" into the search engine of her home computer. She knew it was taboo, but she was stressed out by recent sour experiences with the church.
"It was really a huge step," said Katz. "You read that first thing ... and once you start looking, you can't stop."
She explored ExScientologyKids.com, and remembers thinking to herself, Oh, my God, I know her. Amy Allen had described difficulties she encountered as a teenager serving the church. Intrigued, Katz looked elsewhere.
"I just looked at things from people I knew, court cases and stuff, and I came across a number of things that I had never been able to get the truthful information about. It was very eye-opening."
A Scientologist for 36 years, Katz estimates she spent at least $300,000 on church services and materials and donated an additional $120,000 to the IAS.
"I don't know how in the world I did it," she said. "I'm not in any way rich and never was. I just made it happen."
Scientology had taught her effective communication skills and to be comfortable in front of people. Advancing up the Bridge buoyed her feelings of accomplishment.
She completed OT VIII training in summer 2003. Wanting to be even more involved, she joined the staff of the church in Pasadena in January 2007.
The next 18 months she struggled to balance the demands of running an art studio and working at a gallery with her nights and weekends working as a paid church executive. By summer 2008, she said, she was dealing with church staffing shortages, incomplete projects and directives for new projects she viewed as unattainable.
Things got worse. Scientology had launched its push to sell the re-released, 14-volume sets of Hubbard's basic teachings, plus four additional texts and hundreds of hours of recorded lectures. The cost: $3,000.
"It was absolutely insane," Katz said. "You had staff members calling (parishioners) at 1 o'clock in the morning and 2 o'clock in the morning. Staff not getting any sleep. It was complete insanity. And it went on month, after month, after month, after month."
Katz said some parishioners changed their phone numbers to avoid the sales calls, which caused her problems when she couldn't reach them to schedule their auditing.
She said she wrote dozens of reports asking upper management to fix problems and told her supervisor at the Pasadena church that she couldn't go on. She said she told the supervisor, "I can't support this ... I consider it to be a squirrel organization," church-speak for a group improperly applying Scientology practices.
"I was in very bad shape, extremely stressed out," she said. "I was at the lowest point I had ever been at in my life from all the stress and everything that had been going on for the last year and a half, between staff and working two jobs to support everything."
Katz said: "I can say, honestly, I was pretty suicidal. I don't know if I would have actually carried it out. But I was really at that point where I felt like I had nothing to live for and I would be much better off dead."
How could this be? The church's OT VIIIs, Katz said, are purported to be "completely able to make whatever they want to have happen in life." She acknowledged the seeming inconsistency of feeling so lost after having attained the highest spiritual level in Scientology.
She said that away from the church, she felt in control, she felt like an OT VIII. But with anything that had to do with the "church agenda," she felt a loss of control. "It was like having two different lives."
She said it took her 13 years to complete the OT VII level, traveling to Clearwater every six months, often spending $7,865 for intensive auditing sessions.
As an OT VIII, she said she spent $16,385 for one 12½ hour, intensive auditing program. "And it didn't resolve the issue, which I was promised it was going to," she said.
In August 2008, she confronted another dilemma: She had a ticket to fly to the Caribbean and cruise aboard the Freewinds. Should she go?
She knew she would be stuck on board because the ship's crew routinely holds the passports of the cruising Scientologists.
"You can't just say, 'I've had enough, I'm going home.' You have to go on a routing form and you have to have everything in order, and you need to be given an okay to leave. I was at that point in such a poor mental state that I thought, this might not be a good idea."
She paid a surprise visit to her former sister-in-law, Nancy Many, a former Scientologist who published a book critical of the church this year. They talked for hours.
"I decided, after that, I'm not going to go," Katz recalled. "I'm not going to get on that plane tomorrow."
Katz, 58, is separated from her husband, also a Scientologist. She moved to Portland, Ore., and opened an art studio in her home. On Oct, 13, the day after Leavitt posted her statement, Katz followed with a post of her own, which said:
"I feel it is my duty to make it known that I cannot, in good conscience, any longer support the current management of the Church of Scientology."
The next day, she and Leavitt, old friends, talked for the first time in three years.
More than 40 years ago, a friend got Airey to read Hubbard's bestseller Dianetics. Intrigued, Airey visited church facilities in downtown L.A. and asked to be audited. He'll never forget what happened minutes after he left one of his first sessions.
"I actually went exterior to the body," he said. "I was walking across this parking lot and I had a newspaper and I was walking and reading, and all of a sudden I was about 9 feet above, looking at the top of my head, looking down at this newspaper. You go, Whoa!"
He was righted after a few steps - "Bam, you're right back in your body" - but he was different. "My whole universe, my perception of life had changed. My God, you can get out of your body. My God, we are spiritual beings."
Airey married, had three children and built a business selling copiers. He was a sporadic church participant through the 1970s and '80s. In 1988 he got into a billing dispute over $30,000 of auditing sessions. The church denied him more until he settled up. He never did.
To be near family, Airey moved to the Clearwater area in 2001. In June 2007, he joined other Scientologists at Ruth Eckerd Hall for the big announcement that Hubbard's basic teachings were being re-released after intensive editing. Airey said he signed up and studied two nights a week for 18 months.
Course presenters soon heard his stories of his early gains in Scientology, and they featured him in a promotional video targeting older people.
In the video, Airey said he had answered the church's call to try out the newly published volumes, and it made him a new man: "Now, after three books, I'm going to tell you folks, you better get down here right away because it'll change your life, it really will."
Home in Palm Harbor last summer, Airey read the Times' investigative reports and watched videos on the newspaper's Web site of former church staffers Marty Rathbun, Gary Morehead and Amy Scobee recounting incidents of staff being physically assaulted.
"What Marty talked about, what Morehead talked about, what Scobee talked about, these are things none of us had any inclination were going on," Airey said.
He investigated further. He read Internet blogs and posts he hadn't known existed. Then he found the posts from Isene, Leavitt and Katz.
"I said, I got to do something for these people. This is not right," Airey said. "I need to make a statement. I need to stand, I need to say something. Maybe I can ring a bell and help somebody."
Rathbun, who was Miscavige's right-hand man for years, left the church in 2004 and runs a blog for "Independent Scientologists." In October, Airey posted an item announcing that he was joining the defecting parishioners:
"This is my last day as a church Scientologist and I have no regrets. Tomorrow I join the world wide group called, 'Independent Scientologists' where honest, on source, LRH technology and exposing the out tech of current Church of Scientology management is the order of the day.
"This is true.