Aug. 24, 2006 -- "In my opinion," says Rick Ross, who has spent years studying cults and religious groups, "(Tom Cruise's) meltdown is likely attributable to Scientology. He's made some bad career choices lately. He's damaged goods. How do you go from the world's biggest movie star to someone Viacom dumps?"
The New York Times this morning said simply that Cruise has gone "into full Scientology mode."
Indeed, his recent responses to Matt Lauer, inveighing against modern psychiatric care, reflect Scientology's claim that its own methods of "auditing" people to get them "clear" are the only true way to win genuine happiness.
And some non-Scientologists wonder if Cruise's jump up onto Oprah's couch was a demonstration of the self confidence granted when one gets "clear."
Once again, the public spotlight swings to the unusual religion of Scientology. It was started some 50 years ago by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard and based (by all accounts) on a story that includes intergalactic tribulations long ago between extraterrestrials and a cruel emperor named Xenu.
Not for the first time, does this notoriety exist. "A hugely profitable global racket that survives by intimidating members and critics in a Mafia-like manner ... a depraved, yet thriving enterprise" is how Time magazine's in-depth investigative cover story put it in 1991.
Tax Exempt Status For Scientology
And as recently as this February, an in-depth examination in Rolling Stone laid out details of "America's most controversial religion" -- but religion, nonetheless, which is part of the reason the IRS, after years of examining Scientology's massive and complicated coffers, had to acknowledge tax-exempt status, finally won by the group in the early 1990's on the grounds that it was a charitable organization.
"Scientology made significant inroads into Congress during the Clinton administration," says sociologist Stephen A. Kent at the University of Alberta. "Other governments including the U.K., France and Germany have not given Scientology tax exempt status," he says.
Kent says that, following contacts between Scientologist John Travolta and President Clinton, the U.S. State Department became an advocate in Germany on behalf of Scientology.
Cult expert Ross says the Germans are extremely wary of Scientology, and consider it a fascist organization.
Kent adds that active lobbying on Capitol Hill got prominent Scientologists -- including musicians Isaac Hayes and Chick Correa, as well as actor Travolta -- before congressional committees.
And during the current Bush administration? Professor Kent cites a 4:30 pm meeting listed on the official schedule of Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage on June 13, 2003 with Tom Cruise and Scientology official Kurt Weiland.
Scientology's Membership Discrepancy
But Scientology's claims that it is growing steadily around the globe -- they sometimes claim as many as 8 million to 10 million members worldwide in dozens of countries -- are derided by its critics.
"If I had to guess, I might say, perhaps, 150,000," says Kent, whose website archives some of his studies of the group.
Both Kent and cult expert Ross believe that Scientology is, in fact, shrinking and falling on relatively hard times.
"The exposure that comes through the Internet," says Kent, "seems to have had a negative impact on Scientology."
Ross's extensive archives on various cult and cult-like groups, including many on Scientology, can be found here. They have extensive documentation that tends to substantiate the charges that have been made repeatedly and continually in the press over the years.
Those charges include that Scientology requires new members to sign releases that give the church permission to keep them from conventional psychiatric care; to withhold its own records of members' case histories; and even, to keep members locked up if the church deems they are in need of Scientology's particular form of personal care.
ABC News has contacted the church of Scientology for comment and interview -- first, through Scientology International's official spokeswoman, Pat Harney, at their headquarters in Clearwater, Florida -- who referred us to Scientology's New York office where, after a brief and cordial conversation on the phone, Mr. John Carmichael promised to send us within a few hours, e-mail responses to questions we gave him.
Subsequent efforts to reach him by phone -- he did tell us he was very busy "preparing for a human rights conference in a couple of days" -- have been unsuccessful.
We are still looking forward to his response.
Who's Telling The Truth?
For most people outside Scientolgy, the church remains a conundrum. On the one hand, there are the critics and the horror stories...reports of forced labor camps to punish members who have strayed; of personal finances wiped out (among those non-celebrity members who don't have millions of dollars buffering their choices); of mental confusion and even some suicides. There are the tabloid reports of Tom Cruise converting immediate family members and the accusations that he has launched an essentially abusive relationship with his fiancée Katie Holmes. She is reported by some to have undergone a notable personality change and to be traveling now with a Scientology "minder."
And on the other hand, there are the believers. The regular everyday people who say Scientology has made their lives better.
And there's the warm, humorous, sensitive, highly visible image of John Travolta, who, when asked about his religion, explains patiently and kindly with nothing at all like Cruise's televised couch-leaping and self-righteous verbal assaults.
Archangel Michael -- who became such a hero in Travolta's film, "Michael", when he told the little terrier, "Remember, no matter what they tell you, you can't have too much sugar" -- just doesn't seem to square up with the Cruise "Top Gun", devilish concentration in his eyes as he barrels down, indulging his righteous obsession.
But these are just appearances -- actors' parts -- on the surface of an organization that, in spite of 15 years of thorough professional probing and reporting, still thrives and promises genuine happiness to those willing to let it take the lead.