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Scientology showdown reveals claims of torture, abuse of dissenting members

Photo: Michael Barajas, License: N/A

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.

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