Dear Tom,

It’s time for you to start talking publicly about Scientology again.

Your religion is in serious trouble.

In 2005, you ended a longtime policy of not talking about the church by suddenly bringing it up in interviews. Most memorable, of course, was the way you challenged Matt Lauer, telling him that you had a superior understanding of the evils of psychiatry because of your Scientology training. Some wondered if you’d gone off the deep end, especially after the episode involving Oprah’s couch. Soon enough, however, you clammed up about Scientology again. But in 2008, a video of you the church had made four years earlier surfaced, and it had a huge effect, both on your reputation and the church’s. For better or worse, your strange words about, for example, how only Scientologists can help out at the scene of a car accident cemented in the minds of many that you were not only the truest of true believers in L. Ron Hubbard’s unusual religion, but that you had become, in fact, its public face.

And that’s why, today, you must come forward and speak for a church in crisis.

Tom, last week I was in San Antonio, and I saw with my own eyes the sworn court testimony of someone you once knew and respected.

Her name is Debbie Cook, and for 17 years she was “Captain FSO” — the top executive who ran Scientology’s spiritual mecca in Clearwater, Florida, which is called “Flag Land Base.” Back in 1975, when you were still a Catholic kid growing up in Ottawa, Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard got tired of running Scientology from a yacht in the Mediterranean, and moved operations from his “flagship” the Apollo to Clearwater, taking over the old Fort Harrison Hotel and many other places in town. With “Flag” now on land, the upper-level spiritual training that Hubbard was delivering on the ship could now take place at the Florida base.

Scientologists — including celebrities — save up to come to Flag to this day, and it’s quite an operation, with the Flag Service Organization, FSO, employing about a thousand Sea Org members and a budget of over $100 million annually. I’m told it’s something of a miracle that Debbie Cook managed to stay in her position running the place for 17 years. I guess it’s no wonder that over time images of Debbie welcoming people to Flag in the church’s magazine articles and internal videos came to represent for many church members their aspirations for what Scientology could be.

In other words, if for the outside public you became the face of Scientology, inside the church, it was Debbie’s that came to mind for many.

That is, until 2006, when Debbie was suddenly called away from her job to the church’s international headquarters — known as “Int Base,” a 500-acre compound in the desert east of Los Angeles.

As Debbie testified in court last week, Scientology’s leader, David Miscavige — best man at your last wedding, Tom — needed her not only to keep running Flag, but also to take care of pressing matters at Int Base, in England, and in Spain. Running a 1,000-person operation in Florida while she was off taking care of other church emergencies was so stressful, she testified, she had time to eat only every other day, and to grab sleep only every other day as well.

I know, it’s hard to believe, but then you probably already know that members of the Sea Org are a group of people accustomed to nearly inhuman deprivations. I mean, by this time, some 23 years after you first joined the church, Tom, you’ve been around Sea Org members and know that they work up to 100 hours a week, grabbing only three or four hours of sleep a night, with never a day off, or time to see their families. These are dedicated folks — so dedicated, they join the Sea Org at a young age and sign contracts promising to work for Scientology for the next billion years. We wrote earlier about how some Sea Org members, making only about $50 dollars a week, helped customize a motorcycle for you, transformed an SUV, and also tricked out an airplane hangar that you own.

Debbie Cook was another of those exhausted, sleep-deprived, and very poorly paid workers who gave their all, year in and year out. But now, at Int Base in California, she found herself doing things that called for something else besides stamina: She was made to take part in a bizarre prison project.

I know this because I’ve talked to someone who was already in that strange prison — known as “The Hole” — when Debbie arrived. As we wrote earlier, Mike Rinder, who at the time held the post as the church’s top spokesman, had been sent to the odd office-jail for reasons so trivial, he couldn’t even remember them.

For a story last month, I asked Rinder to describe The Hole…

“It was the two double-wide trailers that were called the CMO Int building. It consisted of one main conference room with cubicles around it, and other office spaces, and a men’s and a women’s bathroom. That’s all it was.”

“Where did you sleep?”

“On the floor. Under a desk.”

“For two years?”


“And Debbie Cook showed up one day and made you march down to the lake and jump in it?”

“It was October or November. Yeah, it was cold. She was on orders,” Rinder says.

Later, Tom, Debbie herself was put in The Hole. How she got there was actually pretty cinematic, so maybe you’ll appreciate it. Here’s how she described it in court last week, while I was taking notes…

I was at the international base. Mr. Miscavige was not there, but I was supposed to be doing numerous things at the Int base at his direction. I was on the phone to him every day, sometimes several times a day. And there were certain things he was unhappy about, that weren’t done to his satisfaction. Anyway, I was on the phone to him, somebody was pounding on the door. I was on the phone, so I couldn’t answer it…Somebody pried the window open, two big guys came in. Mr. Miscavige said on the phone, “Are they there?” Yes, I said, they are. And he said, “Goodbye.”

Apparently Mr. Miscavige has a flair for the dramatic.

The two gentlemen escorted Debbie to the same office trailers that Rinder had described. For the next seven weeks, it would be her home. In court, she gave a pretty vivid description of her time there, Tom. Like Rinder, she mentioned that there was nowhere to sleep but on the ground. She remembered also that there was an infestation of ants, and in a bid to punish these fallen executives even further, she testified, Miscavige had the air conditioning turned off as desert temperatures climbed past 100 degrees.

But the physical environment wasn’t the only thing that made The Hole a living hell, Tom. Debbie testified that there was psychological terror too, in the form of mass confessions that the residents of The Hole had to take part in. Debbie testified to one case of forced confessions that we had written about earlier, and which brings up Scientology’s troubling history as an organization infused with homophobia.

Debbie confirmed what we’d heard earlier, that Miscavige wanted two male executives, Marc Yager and Guillaume Lesevre, to confess to the rest of the 100 or so prisoners that they were having a homosexual relationship. The two were beaten until they said as much, but then Debbie spoke up when this was reported to Miscavige, saying that actually what they had admitted to was being exaggerated so Miscavige would hear what he wanted.

For speaking up on behalf of the two terrorized men, Debbie herself was then subjected to a sick ritual of abuse. She was made to stand in a trash can for the next twelve hours as the other prisoners were made to shout slurs at her, dump cold water over her, and also taunted her with more homophobic hazing, calling her a lesbian.

And Debbie saw worse. One executive, Mark Ginge Nelson, she saw beaten and then made to lick a bathroom floor for a half hour.

Let me pause here, Tom, not just because I’m literally feeling sick while typing this, but because I want to remind you what it is we’re talking about. We’re talking about business executives in your church who had fallen out of favor for one capricious reason or another, who were imprisoned in an office trailer on a remote desert base, in some cases for years at a time, with no chance to communicate with the outside world or to escape.

There’s nothing about religion in that description. These people weren’t monks flagellating each other. They weren’t arguing theological concepts. The only sworn, court testimony and other accounts we have indicate that this was nothing more than David Miscavige’s personal prison for employees he wanted to humiliate and starve.

Yes, starve. In one of the more vivid moments during her testimony last Thursday, Debbie described the food that was served in The Hole…

Horrible. It was a big pot of slop. You’d line up and get a bowl of slop for breakfast, lunch, and dinner….It was like leftovers. Bits of meat, soupy kind of leftovers thrown into a pot and cooked and barely edible.

Here’s another form of testimony to the food in The Hole. They are photos of Mike Rinder after he’d spent two years locked up in the prison, and then more recently on the right, now that he’s back to a healthier weight…

Rinder and Cook both finally were able to leave the Hole for the same reason — Miscavige eventually needed them elsewhere.

In Debbie’s case, she was called back to Clearwater to help put on a large event. While she was there, she was reunited with her husband, Wayne Baumgarten, who was also a Sea Org employee. And here’s one of those little details that make this story so remarkable. Even after what she’d just seen and been through in The Hole, Debbie testified that she didn’t tell her own husband about it. To do so would have been “very treasonous,” she said.

Imagine being that loyal to an organization that imprisons and tortures you, Tom. I find it stunning.

But even though she was back with her husband in Florida, Debbie testified that she was still under guard, 24 hours a day. A woman was assigned to go wherever Debbie did to keep an eye on her. “Even if I went to the bathroom, she went to the bathroom with me. She had a radio and a phone, and if there was any trouble, she could call security,” Debbie testified.

What happened next, my counterparts at the Tampa Bay Times, Joe Childs and Tom Tobin got down more accurately than I did as we were all furiously taking down Debbie’s testimony at the San Antonio courtroom…

Later that summer, Cook said she and her husband said they had had enough. One morning, a church staffer drove them to the church dining hall in downtown Clearwater and went inside to get them some breakfast. Cook jumped into the driver’s seat, drove to a rental car company and left the church vehicle in the lot.

Having escaped from the place she had run proudly for so many years, Debbie and her husband Wayne made for Debbie’s father’s house in North Carolina. On the way, they stopped for a sandwich in South Carolina.

“We were sitting there eating and looked up, and Kathy True was standing there,” Debbie said, and explained that True was in charge of “external security” at the Flag base.

As she testified to this, Tom, Debbie really didn’t sound surprised that she’d been tracked down by True and other members of Scientology’s security team. But then it became obvious why: Debbie herself, in her role as Captain FSO, had also taken part in previous manhunt operations when members “blew” — Scientology jargon for defecting. Debbie knew the drill. “There’s a procedure when someone of significance blows… A number of people are put on tracking you down. They’re sent to the airport, the bus stop. They’re sent where your family is. They start a whole operation to track you down,” she testified.

Having thus been run to ground herself, Debbie and Wayne did, reluctantly, agree to turn back and return to Flag base. And you might be wondering, why would they do that when they were so close to freedom?

Well, you see, Scientology has this procedure they work on people who have doubts, Tom. They tell them that if they don’t either return to their post, or at least “route out” in a more proper way, they risk being excommunicated — “declared a suppressive person” in church jargon — and then risk losing all contact with anyone they know who might still be in the church, including their own family members.

Wayne was particularly vulnerable to this. His mother was in a Scientology-funded retirement home, and his own sons were Scientologists. He had little choice but to return, and he and Debbie soon found themselves locked away in a run down complex owned by the church, the Hacienda Gardens apartments.

Once again under guard, subjected to more confessions, and with her experience in The Hole still fresh in her mind, Debbie testified that she had begun having a “serious meltdown.” And that’s the situation she was in — desperate to leave, and willing to do anything to do it — when she was presented with a draconian non-disclosure agreement to sign. “I would have signed that I stabbed babies over and over again and loved it. I would have done anything basically at that point,” she said in a remarkable part of her testimony. “If I had refused to sign the agreement, then I wouldn’t have been able to leave.”

Take it from someone who was there, Tom: Debbie Cook’s testimony last Thursday was so stunning, so horrific, it completely overshadowed the reason we were there. (The quick version: on New Year’s Eve, Debbie sent out an e-mail to thousands of church members complaining that your buddy Miscavige has turned Scientology into little more than “extreme fundraising,” and so the church is suing her for a minimum of $300,000, saying that her e-mail violates the terms of the agreement she signed in 2007 when she promised not to disparage the church. Her attorney says the agreement isn’t valid because Debbie signed it under duress. The church’s legal team said it would now move for summary judgment. Debbie’s attorney, Ray Jeffrey, scoffed at the notion of a judge granting that, and indicated that he’d keep pushing for a trial, saying that a Texas jury would be outraged to hear Debbie’s testimony.)

The lawsuit is likely to drag on for a long time, but really, the damage to the church is already done. Debbie Cook is not some run-of-the-mill former church member, or some outsider, Tom. She not only was a nearly legendary former executive at Flag, she still genuinely considers herself a loyal and heartfelt member of Scientology and is dedicated to the ideas of L. Ron Hubbard, even after your boy, DM, had her confined to his desert torture chamber.

In other words, there’s almost no one more credible to describe the cancer eating away at the heart of your religion, Tom, and yet the church’s attorneys walked right into it last week in a blunder that is completely uncharacteristic of Scientology’s history as a sharp litigator.

But hell, that’s what emerged last week. Tom, there was similarly bad news a little more than 24 hours ago which came out of Australia. If Debbie Cook’s testimony hasn’t already turned your stomach, what happened to a young man named Shane Kelsey really ought to.

You remember that I brought up earlier how Sea Org members are so dedicated that they sign contracts of a billion years, and then work insane hours with little real hope that they’ll ever get much time off or even see their non-Sea Org family or friends.

Well, Shane Kelsey made that amazing commitment to your religion. And he did it when he was eight years old.

Do you remember when you were 8, Tom? That would have been third grade, maybe, when you were at Robert Hopkins Public School in Ottawa. You think you would have been ready to make a commitment for a billion years, and to begin working 35 hours a week and for about 35 cents an hour?

Well, that’s what Shane did as he was put into a labor camp in a Sydney suburb by his Scientologist parents. He saw his parents only one day a week over the next several years, but he told TodayTonight journalist Bryan Seymour that when he turned 15, things got even more insane — he started working 14 hour days, seven days a week.

Shane finally left Scientology last year at 20 years old, having “never used the Internet, watched television or followed the media,” Seymour reported.

“You’re not allowed to read any books other than Scientology books, you can’t read newspapers, no radio, no movies, nothing,” Shane told him.

A labor camp for children, in a Sydney suburb? Tom, can you see how disastrous this is for Scientology? And it’s disastrous because, of course, it isn’t really new information at all. Years ago, David Miscavige’s own niece, Jenna Miscavige Hill, told Nightline that she’d been through similar treatment and that other children were subject to hard labor and confinement. Meanwhile, here at the Voice we’ve been reporting other cases of outrageous conduct carried out under instructions by Miscavige.

There was Valeska Paris, for example, a young woman who says Miscavige wanted to keep her away from her own mother, who was suing the church. So the young Sea Org member, only 18, was put aboard Scientology’s private cruise ship, the Freewinds, against her will from 1996 to 2007. (Remember the Freewinds, Tom? That’s where Miscavige threw that swell birthday party for you in 2004, and in 2005 you had that secret Scientology wedding ceremony with Katie.) We also talked to Ramana Dienes-Browning, a woman who was put under incredible pressure to sign the Sea Org’s billion-year contract when she was only 15, was married on the Freewinds at only 16, and then says she was humiliated by Sea Org executives when they interrogated her husband and found that he’d been masturbating because their sex life was unsatisfying.

We also told the tale of Melissa Paris, Valeska’s sister, who endured menial labor for several years in England as a Sea Org teenager and was paid nothing for it. She says she was forced into a marriage at 16 to the son of a famous and wealthy Scientologist. In each case, these young women say they found themselves working incredible hours and under guard, so that they couldn’t leave. And after they did finally “blow,” like Debbie Cook and her husband Wayne, they faced the prospect of being cut off entirely from family and friends. For each of them, it was incredibly difficult to leave the control of the church.

We also reported another remarkable case of church control: its spying on you, Tom.

For more than a decade, former church officials say, they used your personal assistant to feed information about your household to church officials in order to keep you from leaving Scientology while you were with Nicole Kidman, who didn’t like Miscavige or the church.

One thing I want to emphasize at this point, Tom. So far, in all of this shocking, rotten information about the church that has leaked out in recent months and that I’ve listed in this letter, not a shred of it involves the beliefs of Scientology. Sure, the church’s interest in past lives, its promise of raised IQs and super powers, and its space opera origin story have long been the butt of jokes and easy fodder for late-night comedians.

But that’s not what has Scientology in turmoil, Tom. It’s not the beliefs of Scientology that are ripping your religion apart, with many longtime members leaving and becoming “independent Scientologists” while they complain about the relentless fundraising that Debbie Cook brought up in her e-mail.

Here’s what you must begin to deal with, Tom: you are the public face for an organization that is becoming known for confining and torturing its own executives, that is employing children of public school age in ways that would make a nineteenth-century foreman blush. You are the symbol for an organization that beats confessions of homosexuality out of high-ranking members. That asks children to work around the clock without a chance to get real schooling. That does all this with claims that it is somehow helping the planet.

Tom, you’re in a bad position here. All of these things, they’re being done at the behest of your best friend, the man who runs Scientology, and who appears obsessed with making you a kind of unofficial second pope. Increasingly, you will be seen as a tacit partner in these practices.

But there’s an alternative. I want to hear what you know about how Debbie Cook was treated, about how children are serving in the Sea Org, about how women in the Sea Org are coerced into abortions so they can keep working 100-hour weeks without the distraction of pregnancy and childbirth.

Let’s talk, man. I want to know what you know, and how you’re going to do something about Scientology going off the rails. It’s time you spoke out.

I know you and other celebrities who join the church take a lot of abuse for your involvement. And I know that you stick with Scientology because you truly think it can help make the world a better place. But it’s heading over a cliff, man. And it’s time that you and people like Jason Lee (who already promised me a sit-down) and Juliette and Kirstie and Travolta and Suplee and Ribisi and Anne and Jenna started to deal publicly with what’s ripping Scientology apart.

Give me a call at 212-475-2405, or drop me an e-mail at [email protected]

I’ll be standing by. Let’s talk.

Debbie Cook Coverage in the Village Voice

January 1: Scientology rocked by allegations of greed in e-mail to 12,000 church members
January 3: Is Scientology imploding? Watching the panic after a former executive dares to question church management
January 4: Scientology in crisis: Debbie Cook’s transformation from enforcer to whistleblower
January 6: Scientology in turmoil: Debbie Cook’s e-mail, annotated
January 31: Scientology sues Debbie Cook over her New Year’s Eve e-mail
February 2: Debbie Cook files to dissolve Scientology’s temporary restraining order: We talk to her attorney, Ray Jeffrey
February 3: Debbie Cook’s motion denied: Scientology’s restraining order remains in place until Thursday hearing
February 4: Scientology wants it both ways: The church’s opposite legal strategies in Florida and Texas
February 9: The Voice live-blogs Debbie Cook’s testimony in a San Antonio courtroom
February 10: Debbie Cook’s hearing, day two — Scientology surrenders at the Alamo
February 11: The Debbie Cook interview

Also, please see our primer, “What is Scientology?

Tony Ortega is the editor-in-chief of The Village Voice. Since 1995, he’s been writing about Scientology at several publications.

@VoiceTonyO | Facebook: Tony Ortega


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