Jan. 6, 2012 — -- An email blast by a formerly high-ranking official in the Church of Scientology to fellow practitioners has stirred new controversy around the church that's known for its celebrity members, who include Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Kirstie Alley.
Debbie Cook, who was a high-ranking official at the church's Florida headquarters for 17 years before leaving her post in 2007, sent out a 3,000-word email to thousands of current and former church members detailing what she viewed as abuses of power by the church's leader, David Miscavige. She accused Miscavige of having the church engage in "continuous fundraising" and charged that they were spending too much money on constructing new church buildings.
She has not spoken to ABC News or the other media.
In the detailed email, Cook said she was still "completely dedicated" to the Scientology faith and was in good standing with church officials, and quoted dozens of excerpts from the church's texts by L. Ron Hubbard. She then contrasted Hubbard's written policies with her views of Miscavige's leadership of the church.
"This is one very important milestone right here," former church official Marty Rathbun told ABC News. "It's like a big breach in the dike, but it's not the only one."
Cook, whom the church's lawyers described to ABC News as an apostate, criticized Miscavige for what she considered the church's excessive fundraising activities and opulent new Scientology centers that she believes went against Hubbard's directives. The email asked fellow Scientologists to call fundraisers' bluff when they're asked to donate money for building projects, a move that could send tidal waves through the church if followed.
"Next time you are asked to donate outside of services, realize that you are engaged in fundraising and ask to see something in writing from L. Ron Hubbard that this is something he expects from you as a Scientologist," Cook wrote.
In a statement to ABC News, Scientology spokeswoman Karen Pouw said that donations were critical to funding the expansion of the church.
"The donations received from parishioners fund projects and activities that are of benefit to the religion as a whole," Pouw wrote in an email to ABC News. "This includes activities such as religious dissemination campaigns, defense of the religion, purchasing property or buildings or upgrading existing property to expand Church programs, and also helping support the Church's social welfare and social reform activities."
Scientology's lawyers said in a letter to ABC News that its construction of numerous church buildings around the world was a way to spread the faith, and compared it to the Catholic Church's construction of cathedrals during the Middle Ages.
Rathbun and other defectors have also criticized Miscavige for what they said were his abuses of power.
"[Hubbard] wanted to make checks and balances. They thought that's the way Scientology would thrive in the future, but Miscavige thwarted his best intentions," Rathbun told ABC News.
Cook, in her email, said that those checks and balances were no longer in place.
"David Miscavige has now become the 'leader' of the Scientology religion. Yet what LRH left behind was a huge structure to properly manage all aspects of the Scientology religion. He put a complete and brilliant organizational structure there, not one individual. There never was supposed to be a 'leader' other than LRH himself as the goal maker for our group," she wrote.
The church disputed Cook's claim, comparing it to a criticism of the Catholic pope's having too much power over the Catholic Church.
"Apostates are known to be unreliable with respect to their former faiths," the lawyers wrote in a letter. "[Cook is] not qualified to speak about church finances, as she never worked for the Church of Scientology International, the mother church that controls finances."
Rathbun, who left the church in 2004 and who the church has called a "liar" and a "heretic," said that Cook was formerly high-ranking enough that her email would be taken seriously by followers.
"She was one of the most prominent members in the entire world," he said. "Virtually any Scientologist who's been involved for very long has actually had face time with her, as a very respected person."
During her years of employment with the church, Cook worked at Scientology's Flag service org in Clearwater, Fla., according to a letter from the church's attorney. Rathbun told ABC News that Cook was the captain of Flag, a position he described as "president or CEO." Many church members who are progressing in Scientology are expected to visit Flag for courses and training, Rathbun said.