Ex-Scientology Kids Share Their Stories

Former members of the Church, including leader's niece, talk to "Nightline."

ByABC News
April 22, 2008, 12:11 PM

April 24, 2008— -- He's one of the biggest box-office draws in history, but in recent years Tom Cruise has become more than just the face of his films. He has also become the face of his religion -- Scientology.

A recent video of Cruise -- made for a Scientology event and leaked online -- showed the star's unbridled passion for his religion and piqued the public's interest in a belief system that has long been surrounded by controversy.

"I think it's a privilege to call yourself a Scientologist," Cruise said in the video.

Cruise is a vocal supporter and close friend of Scientology's worldwide leader, David Miscavige, who took over the reins of power when science fiction author and founder L. Ron Hubbard died in 1986.

Miscavige says Scientology can offer its followers greater ability in all areas of life, rid people of negativity, and make them "clear."

But some former members of the Sea Organization, or Sea Org (Scientology's version of clergy -- the group of people who essentially run the church), including a niece of Miscavige, see another side to the religion. They spoke to "Nightline" about how they became increasingly disillusioned with the Church of Scientology, until they decided it was time to leave.

According to the Church, Scientology is in the midst of tremendous growth. It claims millions of members in more than 100 countries, although critics say those numbers are vastly overstated. But recently, the Church has found itself under increasing attack. In January, a group of online activists known as Anonymous posted a threatening video on the Internet and have since staged a number of anti-Scientology protests across the country. And new Web sites, critical of Scientology, are popping up all over the Internet.

Exscientologykids.com was created by three young women who used to be members of the church, including Jenna Miscavige Hill, who is a niece of Scientology's leader David Miscavige. Hill's parents joined when she was 2 years old. Both her parents were high-ranking members of Sea Org.

"What we're told is that [members of the Sea Org] have to work so hard because they're helping other people," Hill, 24, recalled. "Your family isn't the most important thing."

From ages 6 to 12, Hill lived at a Scientology-owned property in California that was known as "the ranch," where she said children as young as 6 had long days. In addition to reading, writing and arithmetic classes and studying Scientology, she said there were physical chores.

"These projects ranged from rock hauling, taking rocks out of the creek, picking them up, hauling them up a hill, putting them in a pile -- these were usually to make rock walls," she said.

As a little girl Hill said she remembers weeding for hours, "no matter how hot or how cold it was outside."

In an official response to a Radar magazine article that included Hill's story, the Church wrote, "Children were never forced to engage in manual labor. Claims to the contrary are categorically denied."

The Church has said about the ranch, which was closed in 1999, that the facilities were "nothing short of spectacular."

Hill said she was asked to sign a billion-year contract to prove her devotion to the Church, because "in Scientology, they believe that you live lifetime after lifetime."

After six years at the ranch, she left California to visit the Church's so-called "mecca" in Clearwater, Fla. She said Church elders asked her to remain there and become a full-fledged member of the Sea Org, while her parents remained in California.

"I wanted to go back and see them," Hill said. "And I was even about to get on a plane, and I just got pulled into a room and screamed at, telling me that, you know, I'm here to be a Sea Org member."

Hill's parents declined our request for an interview.