THE Church of Scientology has been rocked by accusations from one of its senior executives that the religion is becoming a hollow moneymaking machine run by an autocrat.
Debbie Cook, a former executive in Scientology's "Sea Organisation" – its clergy – wrote a New Year's email to 12,000 Church members detailing her concerns.
Ms Cook, 50, accused David Miscavige, the chairman, of turning the religion into a fund-raising machine and dismantling the mechanisms in place to prevent too much individual control. She also accused Mr Miscavige, 51, of straying away from the principles of L. Ron Hubbard, the science fiction author who founded the Church in the 1950s.
Followers of Scientology believe that humans are immortal beings who have forgotten their true nature, and should embark on a course of "spiritual rehabilitation". More controversially, they also believe that an intergalactic despot once brought billions of prisoners to earth in a fleet of spacecraft, and that the key teachings are not revealed until the faithful have paid thousands of dollars to the Church.
"We all have a stake in this," she wrote. "It is simply not possible to read the LRH references and not see the alterations and violations that are currently occurring.
"I dedicated my entire adult life to supporting LRH and the application of LRH technology, and if I ever had to look LRH in the eye I wouldn't be able to say I did everything I could to Keep Scientology Working if I didn't do something about it now."
Mr Miscavige, whose celebrity supporters include Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Lisa-Marie Presley, is accused of heavy-handed fund-raising and pressuring the Church's members to empty their pockets. Ms Cook claims he spends millions on lavish facilities that then lie empty, and centralising power.
Jefferson Hawkins, a former Scientologist, wrote on an internet forum: "Good on Debbie for speaking out. That took guts. And good on her for "coming out" with a well-planned, well-timed surgical strike aimed at enlightening the faithful Scientologists.
"(Her message) quotes Hubbard extensively and uses the Founder's own words to show how far Scientology has strayed from its own writings and principles. And it's an argument that will resonate with every Scientologist.
"They KNOW something is wrong. You would have to be deaf, blind and dumb not to. Even the most indoctrinated Scientologist, in full denial, has to keep those cognitive dissonance suppressors going full time to keep his doubts and questions at bay. They know something is wrong. And for a key opinion leader like Debbie Cook to come out and say, "yes, there is something wrong, and this is what it is" is major."
Mr Miscavige has repeatedly denied the accusations in a series of sworn affidavits.
"Ms Cook's opinions reflect a small, ignorant and unenlightened view of the world today," The Church told The Times.
"They are not shared by thousands of Scientologists who are overjoyed by our 27 new churches and what they mean to the communities they serve."