Debbie Cook, the high-profile Scientologist who on New Year's Eve launched a surprise effort to reform the Church of Scientology's aggressive fundraising practices, has renewed her call for action but insists she's not picking a fight with the church.
In a letter released to the Tampa Bay Times, Cook again rallies individual Scientologists, calling on them to do their part in restoring the church to the way its founder L. Ron Hubbard wanted it to run.
"This is the responsibility that every Scientologist has," she wrote.
Cook referred to her Dec. 31 email, which urged thousands of Scientologists to stand up against incessant demands for money common in today's church. The email said the church under leader David Miscavige was too focused on posh buildings and was keeping more than $1 billion in reserve instead of spending it to spread the religion.
It also said Miscavige had effectively dismantled the internal checks and balances that were supposed to prevent the church from being led by a single person.
The church's intense focus on fundraising was detailed by the Times in November in a four-part investigative series titled "The Money Machine.'' It revealed church leaders pressure staffers to meet weekly fundraising targets. As a result, many resort to coercive and deceitful tactics and many parishioners go deeply into debt so they can pay the church.
Cook's email and follow-up letter constitute one of the most significant challenges to Miscavige's authority since he took power in 1986 after Hubbard's death. But Cook said she intended only to help the church.
Cook, 50, was the top authority for 17 years at the Clearwater church, the most revered Scientology spiritual center anywhere.
She became a Scientologist as a teenager in her native North Carolina and joined the church staff in Clearwater at age 17.
Today, she and her husband, former church staffer Wayne Baumgarten, live in San Antonio, Texas, where they own and run a business services company. They left the church's religious order in 2007 but remain devoted Scientologists.
In her New Year's Eve message, Cook portrayed herself as a fellow parishioner in good standing who became so deeply concerned about the direction the church was taking she felt compelled to act.
Numerous media organizations in the United States and abroad have carried her story.
Church officials did not respond to the Times' requests for comment on Jan. 1. But in statements to media organizations who picked up the story later, they say Cook is not a church insider.
In statements to USA Today and Good Morning America, the church said Cook is a "disgruntled defector," an "apostate" who can't be believed and a "squirrel," a Scientology term for heretic.
On Friday, the Times provided portions of the letter to the church. Asked to respond, church spokeswoman Karin Pouw said, "The church cannot respond to a letter it has not seen . . . nor would it ever be appropriate to do so via the Times."
Cook's latest communication appears directed to practicing Scientologists as well as media. She makes clear she misjudged media reaction to her email. She also seeks to amplify her devotion to Hubbard and her support for the church, even as she pushes for reform.