Editor's Note: This story was first published Aug. 12, 2012.
For years in a desert compound east of Los Angeles, dozens of managers for the Church of Scientology endured an unusual trial by fire. The church called it "ecclesiastical discipline," part of the religion. But some managers came away with stories so troubling they attracted the attention of the FBI. They tell of violence and abuse in a place called "the Hole." The church says their stories are lies and exaggerations.
This is the most detailed account yet of what happened inside the Hole. It is based on numerous interviews with a dozen former members of the church's religious order, the Sea Org, and on information found in church materials and court testimony.
• • •
To outsiders, it may have appeared the Church of Scientology was humming along nicely in the mid-2000s. Church officials spoke of a Scientology "Renaissance." Years of strife over the death of a Clearwater Scientologist, Lisa McPherson, had ended.
At big church events, chairman of the board David Miscavige strode smiling to the podium, awash in applause from thousands of parishioners.
Only a few on the inside saw another Scientology storm raging at the church's International Base.
In 2003, Miscavige grew increasingly upset with the performance of the church's top managers. He began consigning many of them for weeks and months at a time to a small office building made of double-wide trailers.
The staff called it "the Hole."
As the decade wore on, it became a place of confinement and humiliation where Scientology's management culture — always demanding — grew extreme. Inside, a who's who of Scientology leadership went at each other with brutal tongue lashings, and even hands and fists. They intimidated each other into crawling on their knees and standing in trash cans and confessing to things they hadn't done. They lived in degrading conditions, eating and sleeping in cramped spaces designed for office use.
All were ministers, members of the Sea Org.
Scientology bills itself as a bridge to "a much higher level of existence — a brighter, happier world." But that was hard to see from the grim environs of the Hole.
Many defectors told the Times that the daily indignities they saw and suffered made them doubt Miscavige and question the cause to which they had given most of their lives.
• • •
Conditions at the "Int Base" had been deteriorating since the early 2000s.
Miscavige always had a temper but now it seemed to hit new levels. To hear him talk, everyone around him was incompetent and he was constantly having to set things right.
At times he could give a compliment or a thoughtful gesture, but fury and domination became the prevailing winds.
Anything could trigger his profane, belittling rants — a hitch in planning for a big event, a video he thought could have been better, any hesitation in answering his questions, a facial expression that hinted at defiance.
At meetings, he flicked open water bottles at fearful staffers, dousing their heads and upper bodies.
Former church spokesman Mike Rinder said Miscavige became angry in 2003 and 2004 after large church events — always painstakingly choreographed — went badly. Miscavige called Rinder and other top leaders "suppressive persons." SPs are considered enemies of Scientology. It's a deep wound to anyone who has pledged to serve the church for a billion years.
Miscavige sent them back to the base for discipline. The second year, they were ordered to sleep in an old house where wayward staffers served out punishments under guard.
By day, they were ordered to a conference room in a small office building where the church's international management team worked. Miscavige said they were to do their "A to E steps," a kind of penance SPs can perform to return to good standing.
He told them to get each other's confessions: Who among them was defying him and sabotaging Scientology with their incompetence, their twisted little secrets?
At first the room held 15 to 20 people. But Miscavige began adding more and the crowd spilled into other parts of the building.
The room devolved into a star chamber, with interrogations carried out by dozens of people at a time, screaming at the person in the middle:
What are your crimes? What are you hiding?
Admit it: You stole money. … You defied orders. … You had an affair.
• • •
As part of their code, Sea Org members promise to always be competent, never make excuses and demand the same of their peers. Like all Scientologists, they believe that keeping transgressions secret burdens a person and weakens those around him.
"A clean heart and clean hands are the only way to achieve happiness and survival," Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard wrote.
Even when staff members had done nothing wrong, they admitted to things they hadn't done, hoping to satisfy the group or just stop the screaming.
Some were allowed out to attend fancy church events. They pulled on smiles and tuxes, only to be sent back to detention later.
In 2004, high-ranking staffers who had done time in the Hole started to run away.
Miscavige ordered John Brousseau, a longtime staffer at the base, to put bars on the doors. Brousseau found several chrome-plated steel bars in the maintenance garage and cut them to fit. He screwed them across three of the building's four exit doors. He also fastened wooden blocks into the window tracks, preventing them from opening more than a few inches.
Nori Matsumaru, a longtime Sea Org member and one of hundreds working in nearby buildings, saw Brousseau working and objected. The bars could be seen by any outsider coming onto the base. "Don't do that," he said. Brousseau said he had his orders.
A few weeks later, Brousseau noticed someone had removed the bars. But the doors were locked and the windows remained blocked. And life in the Hole began to get worse.
Security guards manned the front door around the clock, and the number of occupants ranged from 40 to 70. Violence became routine as colleagues threw each other into walls and attacked each other with punches, pushes, slaps and kicks.
Members of Scientology's brain trust spent their nights in sleeping bags and cots, crammed together on the floor. Meals from the mess hall arrived on golf carts and the managers had 10 or 15 minutes to eat.
For showers, they were marched two abreast to a small locker room in the maintenance garage.
Many were important men and women, pillars of the church for decades. Their names were known and revered by Scientologists around the world.
The French-born Guillaume Lesevre expanded Scientology in Europe then rose to executive director international, the top management official in the church.
Heber Jenztsch, a former actor, was the church's president and a vocal leader in its ongoing fight for respectability.
Top executives Marc Yager and Rinder joined the Sea Org in their teens and worked under Hubbard in the mid-1970s as he ran Scientology from a ship named Apollo.
Now, as Brousseau watched them shuffle to and from the showers, they looked thin, pale and shaken. Their once-vibrant personalities had gone dim, he said. "Like prisoners of war."
• • •
With many of Scientology's leaders in the Hole, Miscavige summoned Debbie Cook to California in 2005 to help out. Cook had run the church's worldwide spiritual headquarters in Clearwater since 1990 and was one of the most recognizable faces in Scientology. She later testified under oath about her experience.
In 2006, Miscavige gave her a tour of the Hole, telling her the dozens of executives inside were incorrigible and had to be separated from the rest of the staff.
Another Clearwater executive, Mark Ginge Nelson, went along for the tour and didn't like what he saw. When he said so at a meeting in Los Angeles, he was instantly disciplined.
Cook watched as Miscavige's assistant physically attacked Nelson and two other Sea Org members took him into an adjacent room. Cook heard the sound of fists meeting skin behind the door. Nelson was made to lick a bathroom floor for 30 minutes.
Another time, Cook watched as Miscavige punched Yager, the longtime executive, and wrestled him to the ground. The church says Miscavige has never physically attacked anyone.
By 2007, occupants of the Hole were dreaming up new ways to elicit more lurid confessions. They took turns seizing the roles of chief inquisitor and drill sergeant. Some sought to survive by showing Miscavige how tough they could be on their fellow SPs, even if it meant betraying friends.
Rinder found it much like the TV reality shows where contestants claw and scratch to stay in the competition. Only this was not for the cameras.
They made their colleagues stand for hours in plastic trash cans, letting them know they were garbage. They poured cold water over their heads and shoulders. They hung demeaning signs around their necks and screamed in their faces.
Those in control made Rinder and others crawl around a large conference table with their pant legs rolled up for 10 to 15 minutes at a time. They kicked their colleagues in the rear if they stopped or tried to cover their scraped knees.
• • •
In May 2007, it was Cook's turn to experience the humiliations of the Hole. She was on the phone with Miscavige when two men came to her office at the Int Base, impatiently banged on the door, then broke in through a window. "Goodbye," Miscavige said over the phone, and the men took her away.
Cook spent the next seven weeks in the Hole.
By then, more than 100 people were crowded in there, eating, sleeping and confessing. Meals were a slop of mystery meat and other leftovers.
That summer, Miscavige suspected that Lesevre and Yager were homosexuals. He ordered three others — Lisa Schroer, Jennifer Linson and Angie Blankenship — to get the two executives to confess.
With Schroer taking the lead, the scene intensified. Dozens of church managers descended on the two men, slugging, slapping, throwing them against walls.
As always, anyone who tried to intervene and stop the madness risked being targeted by the mob. When Cook stood up for Lesevre and Yager, the group turned on her. They put her in a trash can with a sign "Lesbo" around her neck. They screamed at her to confess she was gay and poured cold water over her head.
The ordeal continued for 12 hours.
Another time, Miscavige became convinced Cook was keeping secrets and ordered his assistant to break her finger. She bent Cook's pinky back hard but did not break it.
In another meeting, he ordered an assistant to slap Cook when she couldn't answer one of his questions. She fell into some chairs.
Once, Miscavige stormed around the table, screamed at her and shook her shoulders.
Cook thought about leaving the Hole but it didn't seem possible.
The windows were blocked and church guards manned the only door out. Security fences surrounded the sprawling compound. Surveillance cameras captured every angle and motion sensors triggered bright lights along the perimeter.
• • •
With enough bravado, staffers could push their way past the guards and march away. But most never got that far in their thinking.
Many in the Hole had toiled in the Sea Org for all their adult lives. They had learned to ignore physical discomfort and focus on Scientology's long-term goals.
You'd be abandoning the group if you left. You would jeopardize your spiritual salvation. Your Scientologist family members and friends would disown you.
You'd be admitting you made a huge mistake, wasted your life.
You had little money and little experience outside the church, not good if you hoped to survive in the scary world beyond the fence.
For many, it was easier for doubters just to take it — "to sit on the side of the road idly and sort of freeze," Brousseau said, "white-knuckled at the wheel, wondering which way to turn."