Some call it a manipulative cult. Others say it's a well-established religion that helps people reach their potential.
Since its inception in the 1950s, the Church of Scientology has rarely been far from controversy. And now the Church is under attack again. Former senior insiders claim the Church's current leader, David Miscavige, has created and encouraged a climate of violence within senior staff and was frequently violent himself.
Marty Rathbun was an "Inspector General," a top lieutenant to David Miscavige, and oversaw the Church's legal affairs.
"[Miscavige] viciously beat him, knocked him to the ground," said Rathbun, describing one attack.
Amy Scobee was a Church executive who helped expand Scientology's outreach to celebrities.
"And then [Miscavige] knocked him down in his chair. Um ... to the ground, and he fell down on his back and he was laying on the ground," she said.
Bruce Hines says he was a high level auditor, a kind of therapeutic counselor.
"[Miscavige] just walked up and he hit me on the side of the head..." Hines said.
And supporting their allegations is Mike Rinder, who for many years was Scientology's main spokesman. He is now speaking out against the Church, the same Church he defended to ABC News in 1998.
"I think that there isn't a person on this earth that couldn't benefit from the teachings of Scientology," he said at the time.
The Church's current spokesman is Tommy Davis.
"Nightline" met with Davis at Scientology's New York Church, where he granted us a rare interview.
"Is Mr. Miscavige violent towards Scientologists and has he been physically violent in the past?" we asked.
"Absolutely not," said Davis. "Absolutely not. He is not. He is not and ... it's not in his character, it's not in his nature, and it is not the kind of person he is."
Miscavige spoke at a 2004 Scientology ceremony.
"One quality that has always set us apart is that we are unselfish," he said. "Yes we have an utter monopoly on workable solutions, but we share those solutions with anyone who reaches for them."
In 2004, Miscavige awarded the Church's biggest star and his close friend, Tom Cruise, the "Freedom Medal of Valor," at an elaborate ceremony touting service and good works.
But the private face of Miscavige, according to these former Scientologists, is very different.
"I'll just say it outright. I consider him to be a sociopath," said Hines.
"I think the man's stark-staring mad," said Rathbun.
Energetic and charismatic, David Miscavige quickly moved up the ranks after joining the Church, and became outright leader after Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard's death in 1986.
Just a few years into his leadership, David Miscavige and Marty Rathbun were battling back against detractors, and after a devastating article in Time magazine, which referred to Scientology as a "thriving cult of greed and power," they decided to go on the offensive.
"I was very much involved in ... litigation that was goin' on on ongoing cases," said Rathbun. "But also, intelligence side of it."
Miscavige agreed to appear live on "Nightline" in 1992. It remains his only television interview.
"If you really looked at the big picture of what's happening in Scientology, it isn't really controversial, certainly to a Scientologist," Miscavige told host Ted Koppel.
The interview included the following exchange:
Koppel: There's a little bit of a problem in getting people to talk critically about the Scientology because, quite frankly, they're scared.
Miscavige: Oh, no, no, no, no.
Koppel: Well, I'm telling you--
Miscavige: No, no, no, no. Let me tell you--
Koppel: I'm telling you people are scared.
Miscavige: Let me explain something to you. The most disingenuous thing is that you have those people. Now, let's not give the American public the wrong impression.
'Utterly, Completely, Totally Ridiculous'
Rathbun described the atmosphere in the studio that day. "It was pretty -- electric..." he said.
"Quite frankly," Miscavige told Koppel, "from my view, a lot of the people who have written stories on Scientology are doing it from a certain pitch, they already have their story somewhat made up."
But these former senior Scientologists say as Miscavige's leadership progressed, he became increasingly eccentric.
"He got his beagle and he literally had somebody tailor a blue vest sweater for his beagle dog and made up epaulets, these Sea Org ranks in the Sea Organization," said Rathbun, referring to the religious order within the Church. "And he had four stripes put on, captain, for the dog. And he would bring the dog in. And if those guys didn't salute the dog, he would just viciously berate them and invalidate them."
Amy Scobee gave her account. "[Miscavige] comes with his dog, with a sweater, with commander stripes. And, the dog let out a little bark when she saw me. And, uh, David Miscavige said, you know ... 'You've got somethin' goin' on. Because sh ... she is detecting out ethics. And you have something going on.' I think what the dog was really saying is, you know, 'You look like the only halfway sane person to me. Help me outta this outfit.'"
We asked Davis about the story:
Nightline: One former member says that Mr. Miscavige had a vest tailored for his dog with epaulets similar to those that would be worn by SeaOrg members, and he would order staffers to salute the dog.
Davis: That is utterly, completely, totally ridiculous.
Nightline: Your own reaction was one of complete disbelief, I think it's fair to say.
Davis: Totally, because it's unbelievable.
Nightline: And yet, there are consistencies between individuals who observed the dog, dressed in a particular way ...
Nightline: ... and a particular breed. Amy Scobee also confirms that Mr. Miscavige would bring his dog around dressed like a uniformed member and if the dog barked, she says, he would suggest that the individual towards whom the dog barked was behaving badly, had some kind of negative problem. Is that true?
Davis: I don't know. I mean maybe we should have the dog come in here and see if it barks at you, Martin. (Laughs.)
Marty Rathbun, who spent 27 years in the Church of Scientology, says it was more serious than a uniformed dog. He says he personally saw its leader, David Miscavige, strike subordinates on numerous occasions, including senior colleague Tom De Vocht.
"Miscavige walks in and goes -- asks Tom some question and there's the slightest lag in his response," said Rathbun. "Miscavige just takes off across the room in front of 80 people and get -- delivered -- just a ... beating to the guy. I mean, beat him up bad."
Tom De Vocht, who left the Church in 2005 after 28 years, recounted this event to ABC News, saying David Miscavige hit him, knocked him to the ground and kicked him a number of times. According to Rathbun, Mike Rinder was also a victim of numerous attacks by Miscavige.
"I saw him ... attack him while he was sitting in a chair and hitting him upside the head," said Rathbun. "And then -- in -- and then wrestling him around the neck and ... throwing him to the ground... I saw at least a dozen times, this happen."
Amy Scobee says she also witnessed Miscavige attack Rinder.
"David came right behind him, just out of the blue ... and grabbed him ... around the neck, and was throttling, squeezing hard to the point where David's face was shaking, and arms were shaking that he was squeezing so hard," said Scobee.
Mike Rinder, who left the Church in 2007, corroborated these specific incidents and told ABC News he was the victim of repeated acts of random violence at the hands of Miscavige.
Bruce Hines said he himself was physically struck by Miscavige.
"I had been called up from Los Angeles ... I was kind of in trouble," said Hines. "So I'm sitting there at my desk and so I hear his voice booming out in the hallway ... He said, 'Where is that mother f*****?' ... And he just walked up and he hit me on the side of the head. It was a ... he didn't have a closed fist. But it was an open hand. But it was ... it definitely hurt and it definitely knocked me back."
Why didn't Hines react by hitting back?
"So say I did that. He hits me and I just go bam. And, you know, sock him in the jaw or something. That would mean, um, I had just forfeited my hope for eternity," said Hines. "... Because it's drilled in over and over and over again, that Scientology has the only route to freedom."
So Miscavige has the power over eternity?
'I Broke Down'
The Church provided ABC more than a dozen affidavits from current Scientologists, including some of the supposed victims, saying allegations that Miscavige struck subordinates are "false and ridiculous" ... he "is not a man violence." Tommy Davis, Scientology's spokesman, says the former staffers are bitter and disgruntled liars.
Nightline: ... Tom De Vocht has described being personally hit ...
Davis: Tom De Vocht, if he was personally hit, then why in his 20 years of marriage to his wife did he never say anything to her about it? ... Why did Mike Rinder, who was married for 35 years, why has his wife made it very clear that never did he come home with any bruises, any marks, nor did he ever mention ever being attacked by Mr. Miscavige, struck or hit by him? ... The fact of the matter is, is both Mike Rinder and Marty Rathbun are on record as having denied those exact allegations. ... Mike Rinder to the BBC stated repeatedly allegations of his ... his having been physically attacked by Mr. Miscavige are, "Rubbish, rubbish, rubbish, rubbish!"
In 1998, Rathbun told the St. Petersburg Times, "I have never known David Miscavige in 20 years to hit anyone."
Nightline: "So, were you lying then, or are you lying now?"
"Then," Rathbun insisted. "Because at the time, I perceived that this guy was -- of the importance that we had to do that. ... If I told the truth [at the time] to a newspaper reporter on something like that ... I could have been expelled from Scientology forever."
Davis says not only has David Miscavige never been violent towards anyone, he says it was in fact Marty Rathbun himself who was the violent one.
"The only person I know of who was abusive and cruel was Marty Rathbun," said Davis. "He was an abusive, cruel, and violent man."
Rathbun admits he was violent on many occasions, but says it was because Miscavige urged him to be physical, an allegation the Church denies.
"I have admitted that I have engaged in stuff," he said. "...It wasn't in my nature, whatsoever."
"[Miscavige] created an environment where he was getting others to do the same," said Rathbun. "And I broke down and I punched Mike Rinder pretty hard a couple of times. ... a man I had known for decades ... And that's precisely the thing. It made me feel terrible. It made me sick to my stomach."
Mike Rinder corroborated to ABC News that he was a victim of abuse at the hands of Rathbun. But violence, according to Bruce Hines, wasn't the only tool used to discipline staff.
"I was assigned to the ... Rehabilitation Project Force it's called," said Hines. "Or generally known as the RPF."
The RPF is a disciplinary program for Sea Org members, which Hines says includes manual labor and intensive counseling.
"The question they ask -- Was there an evil purpose or a destructive intention that prompted you to commit that overt?" Hines said. "After many hours of this you start to come up with things like, 'Oh, really ... I guess I must really want to destroy mankind.' Phew, think about that. Six years of that was a lot."
Davis described the program.
"It is a ... a program that, uh, members of the Church's religious order, uh, do voluntarily and are given the opportunity to do if, uh, they're found to have failed in their duties," he said.
Hines says when he was in the RPF there were periods of time when he could not see his son.
"In this case, the child -- where the RPF was also where the school was. ... I would get to see him sort of run by in the distance sometimes," said Hines. "And we could kind of wave to each other. But I'm not allowed to actually talk to him."
We asked Tommy Davis what the Church's current policy is on the RPF and family.
Nightline: If somebody is married and they're sent to the RPF
Nightline: ... are there controls placed on how much they can see their family?
Davis: Uh, there ... there's ... there's specific policies which apply to the Rehabilitation Project Force, which govern, uh, how the person doing the program, uh, you know, what they do, what their schedule is.
Nightline: And how much time in a week would an individual be allowed to see their family in the schedule?
Davis: Oh, I don't know. I don't know off the top of my head.
Nightline: Once a week?
Davis: Probably, yeah, I would imagine once a week would ... sounds about right. Yeah.
Nightline: Does that sound appropriate ...
Davis: ... I think so. Yeah. Sure.
During his time in the RPF, Bruce Hines says he received some sad news about his marriage.
"I was married to another Sea Org member who was not in the RPF, and she decided she wanted to divorce me," said Hines. "This was very, very common. Someone in the RPF, their spouse would divorce them because ... they would receive pressure to do it."
The Church says it does not pressure couples to divorce. Bruce Hines left the Church in 2003. He and his son, who also left, say they are considered to be suppressive people by the Church -- a Scientology term for "antisocial personalities." As a result, they say close family members still in the Church are no longer talking to them.
"I have two nieces who live in Clearwater, Fla., who won't talk to me," said Hines.
"My sister's former husband, he won't talk to me. And my son, he was born in the Sea Org, he can't speak to his brother or his mother because they refuse it. He's out, he's now left. And because of that, he's suppressive and so they ... they're required to disconnect."
Hines' ex-wife told ABC News she disconnected from him and their son because she didn't want to have anything to do with anyone who lied about her Church. Scientology told us they never force anyone to disconnect.
'I Cannot Stand to Watch This'
Marty Rathbun says he decided to end his long career in the Church of Scientology after he saw a longtime friend, Tom De Vocht, was attacked by David Miscavige.
"I swear to you," said Rathbun. "I was there and I was -- it was that moment of truth for me where I either am going to put this guy's lights out for good or I'm gonna remove myself from the environment so I don't. And that literally was what was going through my head. I cannot stand to watch this. I cannot live with this anymore."
Before the accusers left, Davis says, they were removed from their positions of responsibility.
"These are all people who were removed either by Mr. Miscavige or by their peers for gross ... misconduct and malfeasance in their positions," Davis said. "We were glad that they were gone. And, on top of that, the Church has literally taken off explosively since they were gone, and frankly for a ... to a large extent, because they're gone."
Since leaving the Church, Marty Rathbun has said little about his experience -- until he gave a series of interviews to the St. Petersburg Times in Florida, published this summer.
Rathbun has set up a Web site inviting other Scientologists to make contact if they too are considering defection, or have already left. He lives in an obscure location ... far away from the power centers of the Church.
What would he like to see happen to Miscavige?
"I would like to see him cease, cease his continuing abuses," said Rathbun.
As for punishment?
"I think he should have to pay the piper for what he's done and what punishment that is, I don't know," said Rathbun. "Maybe the greatest punishment is the self-inflicted punishment of the recognition-- of what he's done."
Click HERE for the St. Petersburg Times' special report on Scientology leader David Miscavige.