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Former Clearwater Scientology leader Debbie Cook settles lawsuit with church

Debbie Cook hugs her lawyer Ray Jeffrey in a Texas courtroom in February after testifying about physical and mental abuse in the church.

MAURICE RIVENBARK | Times

Debbie Cook hugs her lawyer Ray Jeffrey in a Texas courtroom in February after testifying about physical and mental abuse in the church.

Only weeks ago, after delivering hours of damaging testimony about the Church of Scientology, former church official Debbie Cook sounded as if she was just getting started.

She said she had much more to tell. She hoped out loud that raising the curtain on church abuses might spark "a reformation from within."

This week, her voice went silent.

Cook and Scientology settled a church lawsuit that backfired when she took the stand Feb. 9 in San Antonio, Texas.

Cook gave a riveting account of how she and other religious workers were physically and mentally abused at Scientology's desert compound near Los Angeles. She said she was detained and otherwise controlled when she and her husband, also a former church staffer, tried to leave the church's Clearwater campus in 2007.

The next hearing in the lawsuit was scheduled for May 7. Now Cook, the church and their respective attorneys have laid down their arms. The agreement dated Monday allows both sides to essentially call it even and go their separate ways. Neither pays the other side money, and Cook and her husband are legally prohibited from ever again speaking ill of the church.

The church walks away having suffered through a day of brutal testimony that remains in the public record. Cook and her husband are back where they started before Cook sent out a New Year's Eve email to thousands of Scientologists that criticized the church's money raising tactics, questioned church management and called on parishioners to push for reforms. The church filed its lawsuit Jan. 27, alleging she violated a confidentiality agreement she signed when she left the church staff in 2007.

Reached by email Tuesday night, Cook declined to comment on the settlement. Church spokeswoman Karin Pouw declined to comment as well, saying the document speaks for itself.

Under a judge's order it requires Cook and her husband, Wayne Baumgarten, to refrain from disclosing anything they know about the church to anyone, be it in conversation, an Internet posting or any other communication. Nor can they have any contact with anyone who has disparaged or intends to disparage the church.

Cook's personal website was shut down by Tuesday afternoon. Her Facebook page was dark as well.

Some in Cook's camp say the four months she spent as a vocal church critic — highlighted by the three hours of sworn testimony she gave Feb. 9 — accomplished her aims.

"Coming from her, the altitude she had with parishioners and the fact that she was able to make her statements in court under oath, it had a lot more power than someone's public statement,'' said Yvonne Schick, a 23-year Scientologist who left the church last year with her husband, Ken, frustrated with the actions of church leader David Miscavige.

Cook "exposed the truth about what's going on — how (Miscavige) is abusing people physically, mentally and spiritually,'' Schick said.

Marty Rathbun, a former church official who leads a movement of "independent" Scientologists critical of church management, declined to comment but offered an analysis of the settlement on his web site.

He said the church had nothing to gain but a six-figure judgment it had little chance to collect, and Cook had effectively spread her message about church abuses. He said her testimony "was for the most part all that the world at large would be interested in hearing from her … and that toothpaste can't be put back into the tube."

As recently as early March, Cook appeared ready for a long legal battle. In a message on her website, she thanked supporters and referred to herself as "the girl who kicked the hornet's nest." She said problems with church management "can't be allowed to just go on," and closed with this passage:

"Deep down you always believe that truth and good wins in the end, but when you look around in life that often doesn't really seem to be the case. Those who can afford top legal defense certainly have a way of getting away with murder. So we definitely have our work cut out for us ... We have a ways to go to win. But it can be done!"

Well-known and respected by Scientologists worldwide, Cook served 17 years as the top ecclesiastical figure at the church's spiritual center in Clearwater, known as "Flag."

In early 2005, Miscavige called her to work at Scientology's compound 80 miles southeast of Los Angeles, home to Scientology's international management team.

Cook testified she soon learned that dozens of managers were being held under guard, day and night, in a building derisively nicknamed "The Hole.'' They had underperformed in Miscavige's view and were collectively confronting and confessing their failures, Cook said.

Later, she said two male staffers came to her office and escorted her to The Hole, where stayed for seven weeks, sleeping on the floor with the rest of the management team and eating "slop.'' They were marched in small groups by church security guards to nearby showers and then marched back.

She said the managers demanded she publicly confess her transgressions, once forcing her to stand in a trash can for hours while they poured water over head.

During her months at the compound, where hundreds of church staffers live and work, she said she saw church workers physically attack one another several times. Miscavige punched one of his top deputies and wrestled him to the ground to punish the man, she said. Miscavige also grew displeased with her work, she testified. At his direction, one of his assistants slapped Cook so hard she fell into chairs, she said.

In May 2007, she was freed from The Hole, she testified, and transferred back to Clearwater but was constantly watched. After trying to leave, she and Baumgarten were "basically imprisoned'' there for three weeks, she testified.

Church officials allowed the couple to go after they signed non-disclosure contracts. A church attorney handed them $50,000 each as compensation for not speaking out against the church. They stayed silent for four years, until Cook's Dec. 31 email blast rocked the Scientology community.

The email was instrumental in a decision by Clearwater businesswoman Marsha Friedman to leave the church after 43 years. She said she forwarded it to three Scientologist friends, adding she shared Cook's concerns about the church.

Friedman said Tuesday she admired Cook's courage, adding: "I felt it would take someone of her stature to create awareness among Scientologists to look at what she was saying.''

Friedman and her husband, Steve, announced in March they had left the church. The three Scientologists to whom Friedman forwarded Cook's email later told Friedman they would have no more contact with her. In the language of Scientology, they "disconnected.''

After the church lawsuit accused Cook and Baumgarten of violating their agreements, the couple said the agreements were invalid because they signed them under duress. Citing her fear of being reassigned to The Hole, Cook testified she was so eager to leave, "I would have signed that I stabbed babies over and over again and loved it.''

Church attorneys had called Cook to the stand to testify about breaking her non-disclosure agreement. But a judge allowed Cook's attorney to question her as well, resulting in the damaging testimony.

At the time, church spokeswoman Pouw called Cook's testimony a collection of "wild tales" by a bitter apostate.

Cook said it represented only a small part of what she wanted to say, "the tip of the iceberg."

Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at tobin@tampabay.com. Joe Childs can be reached at childs@tampabay.com.

Former Clearwater Scientology leader Debbie Cook settles lawsuit with church 04/24/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 25, 2012 11:32am]

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