The Church of Scientology, known for celebrity and controversy, is now in the middle of another public relations crisis as a former high-ranking official has created a firestorm, first with an email to church members and then testimony in a Texas state court alleging she saw the church's leader punch another executive in the face, and that at his direction she herself was slapped.
For 17 years Debbie Cook ran the church's spiritual mecca, the so-called Flag Base in Clearwater, Florida, where she ultimately rose to the title of captain. But Cook testified this month that beginning in 2005 she saw behavior exhibited by church leader David Miscavige that disturbed her deeply.
"I witnessed Mr. Miscavige physically punching in the face and wrestling to the ground another very senior executive at Scientology International level," Cook testified in court.
A few weeks later in an interview with ABC News, Cook repeated that assertion. She also said -- as she had testified -- that Miscavige never hit her, but that he ordered his assistant to slap her, and that slap was so hard that Cook was knocked down.
In numerous letters to ABC News, Scientology officials have denied that David Miscavige ordered Debbie Cook to be slapped, or that he punched a fellow executive. In addition, the church sent ABC News a letter signed by that executive in which he wrote, "This alleged incident did not occur and I would remember it if it had."
Cook also testified that in 2007, while doing work at the Scientology International Base in Southern California, she was taken to a pair of double-wide trailers she called "the hole." She testified that she was held in the "hole" for seven weeks, that there were bars on the windows and security guards posted at the door, and that the food was "was like leftovers, slop, bits of meat, soupy kind of leftovers thrown into a pot and cooked and barely edible."
She also testified that the trailer was infested with ants, that they slept in sleeping bags on the floor, and that on several occasions, the electricity was cut and the temperature reached 106 in the trailers.
During this time, Cook testified, she and other executives were repeatedly pressured to confess their alleged misdeeds. As she had said in court, Cook told ABC News that she was made to stand in a trash can and water was poured over her as people screamed at her to admit "bad things."
In a letter to ABC News, a lawyer for the Church of Scientology flat out denies that the "hole" exists, or that there was ever a place known as "the hole."
The letter states that Ms. Cook and certain other Scientology executives and staff members "did participate in religious discipline, a program of ethics and correction entered into voluntarily as part of their religious observances," but insists, "the idea that the church held her or anyone else against their will [is] denied."
The letter goes on to call Cook's account of her disciplinary experience "inaccurate, misleading, and intended to create sensationalized media attention."
When Cook and her husband decided to leave the Church of Scientology in October 2007, they signed lengthy contracts agreeing not to publicly criticize Scientology or its leaders, and in return received checks for $50,000 apiece.
This past New Year's Eve, however, Cook sent an email to Scientologists criticizing Miscavige's leadership of the church. The email gained press coverage, and the church responded by suing Cook and her husband Wayne Baumgarten in Texas state court for allegedly breaching their confidentiality agreement.
Cook and her husband claimed in court that the agreement was invalid because it was signed under duress. The church adamantly denies that, and played in court a video of the signing. In the video, a church lawyer asks Cook if she is signing voluntarily, and she says "yes." The lawyer also asks if Cook has been threatened or "forced to do anything," and Cook says "not at all, whatsoever."
In the ABC News interview, Cook was asked about the church's claim that she and her husband are bitter "defrocked apostates" who are spreading lies and fictions about the church.
"I have never lost my passion or love for the church and all that it stands for, and all that it does to help others," Cook said. "That is my life and I loved doing it, so I'm not bitter. It's really out of that passion and love and care that I am doing this to rid it of a situation that has grown out of control … it needs to get confronted and it needs to get handled. It can't go on. You know, I know that L. Ron Hubbard would never approve of it."