This story was originally published in the June 23, 2009, edition of the then-St. Petersburg Times as part of The Truth Rundown series.
The four high-ranking executives who left Scientology say that church leader David Miscavige not only physically attacked members of his executive staff, he messed with their minds.
He frequently had groups of managers jump into a pool or a lake. He mustered them into group confessions that sometimes spun into free-for-alls, with people hitting one another.
Mike Rinder, who defended the church to the media for two decades, couldn't stomach what was happening on the inside.
The tactics to keep executives in line "are wrong from a Scientology viewpoint,'' said Rinder, who walked away two years ago. "They are not standard practice of Scientology. They are just not humanitarian. And they are just outright evil.''
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Church spokesmen confirm that managers are ordered into pools and assembled for group confessions. It's part of the "ecclesiastical justice'' system the church imposes on poor performers.
Rinder and the other defectors couldn't cut it in the tough world of Scientology's Sea Org, a group whose members dedicate their lives to service of the church, the church says. Rather than accept their own failings, the defectors are putting a sinister twist on something that is normal.
The Sea Org is a "crew of tough sons of bitches,'' said church spokesman Tommy Davis, an 18-year veteran of the group.
"The Sea Org is not a democracy. The members of it agree with a man named L. Ron Hubbard. They abide by his policies . . . and we follow it to the T, to the letter, to the punctuation marks. And if you disagree with that and you don't like it, you don't belong. Then you leave."
A better thetan
The order came about 10 p.m. on a winter's night: Report to the swimming pool.
From around the church's postcard-pretty base in the mountains east of Los Angeles, some 70 staff members turned out in their Navy-style uniforms. David Miscavige was unhappy with the troops, again.
The punishment the leader had in mind was not new to members of the Sea Org. Hubbard, the church's late founder, "overboarded" Sea Org members in the 1970s when he ran Scientology from a ship named the Apollo.
Miscavige had the staffers line up at the diving board in their uniforms, and one by one, jump into the pool. Before each person went in, Norman Starkey, once the captain of the Apollo, called on them to be better spiritual beings. He recited a traditional Sea Org saying:
We commit your sins and errors to the deep and trust you will rise a better thetan.
Miscavige ordered the group to go to an office in their wet clothes and stay put until they figured out where they had failed.
Tom De Vocht says he can't recall what angered Miscavige that chilly night early in 2005. But he well remembers the doubts that crept into his head as he sat wet and shivering.
What am I doing here?
De Vocht had joined the church with his mother when he was just 10 and rose to a top executive post at Scientology's spiritual headquarters in Clearwater. But in the months after that mass dunking, he no longer recognized the organization.
Neither did Rinder, who went into the pool that night with De Vocht.
Two others already had acted on their doubts. Marty Rathbun, one of Miscavige's top lieutenants for years, left in 2004. Amy Scobee, who held several executive posts, left in 2005.
The four defectors, speaking publicly for the first time, each served more than 25 years in the Sea Org.
"Right, wrong or indifferent, I felt I was doing something for the good of man, and I'll never give that back," said De Vocht, who left in 2005. "But the longer I was in it, it got crazier and crazier as Dave took over."
Normal vs. abnormal
Confession is ingrained in Scientology culture. Admit all your bad thoughts and transgressions, leave nothing out, and you will feel free, unburdened, joyful.
The four defectors say Miscavige took the practice to a new level. They said he convened group confessions that came to be known as "seances."
The executives would confess sins they had committed against Miscavige, reveal their bad thoughts about Scientology and make personal disclosures, including sexual fantasies. If someone couldn't come up with a transgression, the others bullied him into admitting something. Anything.
"And Dave would sit there and listen to it and enjoy the hell out of it," said De Vocht, who recalled one seance when he said Miscavige struck executive Marc Yager and threw him to the floor, then singled out Faith Schermerhorn, a midlevel administrator who is black.
"He goes, 'By the way, (Yager) thinks black people are n------, and he doesn't want Scientology to help blacks. Go kick him.' So (Yager) is down on the ground and she's kicking him,'' De Vocht said.
"Everybody in that damned room — people are wild and out of control," he said. "I punched somebody. Everybody was punched. And screaming and yelling. It just got like, What the hell is going on here? ''
The church provided the St. Petersburg Times with sworn declarations from Yager and Schermerhorn denying that the incident happened. In Yager's declaration, he said he is not prejudiced and Schermerhorn is a friend.
Schermerhorn wrote that she has never heard Miscavige use the n-word: "As a matter of fact, I know that Mr. Miscavige has been the person in Scientology who has done the most for black people.''
Rinder said a group confession early in 2004 stands out for him because Rathbun, his longtime friend, ended up attacking him.
"You stand up and there's 50 people in the room all screaming and shouting, 'What did you do? And you did this and you did that.' And I'm standing there saying, 'No, I didn't do that,' '' Rinder said.
The group ganged up on him. He had to have done something: Come on. Own up. Come on.
"And then when I said nothing, that's when Marty leaped on me,'' Rinder said. "And that's psychotic. There is a term for it in Scientology. It's called Contagion of Aberration. . . .
"When you get a group of people together, they will stimulate one another to do things that are crazy."
Davis, who succeeded Rinder as church spokesman, said the term "seance'' is not used in Scientology and Miscavige never encouraged violence. But it's not surprising that Rathbun attacked Rinder, Davis said, because Rathbun physically attacked other managers all the time.
Rinder said the ugly moment was an example of the corrosive atmosphere at Scientology's base near Los Angeles. "There's an attempt to play people off, one against the other. And you know that and you see it," Rinder said.
Rathbun's attack "wasn't motivated by hatred toward me, it was motivated by some attempt at preservation for him."
Davis cited church founder Hubbard's policy that encourages members to confront and "come clean" when they have done something to bring down their group. It's one hallmark of a successful organization.
"It's not for the purposes of punishment,'' Davis said, "and it's certainly never for the purpose of trying to make the person feel guilty for it."
The church says Rathbun and De Vocht acted so inappropriately — roughing up staffers — that they were required to confess publicly. "They were definitely guilty, definitely in violation of the mores of the group,'' said spokeswoman Jessica Feshbach.
"And were they confronted by peers and asked, What's going on? Absolutely. Because that is the responsibility of the group.''
Letting down the group also can result in overboarding, church spokesmen said. It's a Sea Org ritual akin to traditions in other religious orders.
Starkey, the 66-year-old former captain of the Apollo, said plenty of people have been overboarded in his 50 years in Scientology.
If a Sea Org member messes up, "you throw him over the g-- d--- side of the ship," Starkey said.
"He falls into the water, he swims around, climbs up the ladder, gets off at the dock, walks back in again. He never does that again. He knows that that is the way we operate. That is what the Sea Organization is like."
Church lawyer Monique Yingling said overboarding is part of ecclesiastical justice. "They're not backing away from it or ashamed of it,'' she said. It has been done hundreds of times, with precautions taken to make it safe.
In the example De Vocht and Rinder recounted, church spokesmen said, the pool was heated, towels were provided, a lifeguard was present. And Miscavige wasn't even there.
De Vocht and Rinder say he was. "He was standing right there, laughing,'' Rinder said. "It was very entertaining for him."
Rinder said he doesn't remember any towels at the ready, that night or any of the 10 or so other times he says large groups of staffers were escorted to the lake under guard and required to jump in fully dressed.
He disputed Yingling's contention the "overboarding" incident as described, with a large group of people, is accepted church practice. He said it's meant to address an issue with an individual.
Which is how church spokesman Davis said he punished a subordinate.
"It was a guy who was blowing it and kept blowing it and kept blowing it — making mistakes, underperforming," he said. "It was my responsibility to uphold the ethical standards of the Sea Org. Yeah, absolutely, I tossed the guy in.''
If the defectors could not hack such punishments, Davis said, they could have left years ago. "The g-- d--- front door wasn't locked. And if they had a problem with it they could have walked out."
Intense and hands on
The defectors were not only soft, they couldn't maintain the accelerated work pace Miscavige established, the church says. Rathbun flubbed so many assignments, such as his handling of the Lisa McPherson wrongful death lawsuit, that Miscavige had to take over, distracting him from more important duties, spokesmen said.
With Rathbun gone, Miscavige focused on growth plans: "2004 was a paradigm shift, the point where everything changed,'' Davis said. "Where Mr. Miscavige was able to get on to what he always wanted to get on to.''
Davis played DVDs of Scientology ads now on cable TV. He outlined a multimillion-dollar international expansion program to open an array of "ideal orgs," each with course rooms, displays that explain Scientology to the uninitiated, facilities for community outreach groups, and rooms for auditing, the core counseling of Scientology.
The church revamped its Web site, improved the books that are the foundation of Scientology and restored the grainy films of Hubbard's landmark lectures. All of this accomplished in the past four years, all led, planned, designed and created by Miscavige.
The spokesmen described him as a "hands-on" leader working in video editing bays, proofreading manuscripts, helping write scripts, staying up each night to listen to every one of Hubbard's 3,000 lectures and setting up a construction office to outfit the 66 new buildings the church has acquired since 2004.
Miscavige is intense, church spokesmen said, but he never behaves in degrading, crude or violent ways, and he never altered church policy. The church brought more than a dozen international managers to Clearwater to speak to the Times. All said they worked with Miscavige for years and spoke of his kindness and compassion.
All of them deny the defectors' allegations that Miscavige hit them.
"They're such lies," said Ray Mithoff, his voice shaking. "I've known the man for 27 years."
Said Mark Ingber, a Sea Org member since 1968: "I've never been beaten to a pulp in my life. Mr. Miscavige is my friend."
The best and worst
One night before Christmas 1997, Miscavige's wife, Michelle, telephoned Rathbun and Rinder. The leader wanted to see them. Right away.
From different parts of the California compound, they jogged to his quarters.
They say Miscavige bustled through the screen door in a terry cloth bathrobe and without a word grabbed Rinder around the neck, slapped him, slugged him and threw him against a tree.
Rinder ended up in ivy, mud on his uniform, his lip bleeding. Miscavige led them to the officers' lounge, poured Rinder a glass of Scotch and said it would make him feel better.
The leader of Scientology turned and walked toward his quarters.
People would flinch when Miscavige walked by, De Vocht said.
"That's how routine it was," he said. "His whole entire outlook was that everybody was out to get him. Anything and everything anybody else touched was going to be screwed up, and he had to do it himself. He didn't trust anybody.''
Scobee described working in her office cubicle along the wall of a large conference room. Miscavige was seated alone on one side of the table facing several staffers, including Jeff Hawkins.
"So I'm not paying attention and all of a sudden I see David Miscavige jump up on top of the table — the conference room table," Scobee said.
He lunged at Hawkins, she said, and the two of them landed at her feet. Miscavige "stayed on top of him and was choking him and hitting him and grabbing his tie. Buttons were flying and change falling out of Jeff's pockets. And I'm sitting here going, 'Oh my God!' "
Hawkins has spoken and written publicly about the 2002 incident.
Church executive David Bloomberg tells a far different story. Bloomberg said that he was seated next to Hawkins that day and that Hawkins became belligerent with the leader. Hawkins fell out of his chair and ended up putting a scissor lock on Miscavige's legs.
"Mr. Miscavige did not touch Jeff Hawkins,'' Bloomberg said.
At his best, Miscavige inspires staffers, Rathbun said, recalling times the leader invoked a dispatch Hubbard wrote in the 1980s: The planet's fate rests on the shoulders of "the desperate few."
Miscavige used it to stir a sense of mission and make you feel special, Rathbun said.
"He'd make you feel like you were really important. And that's why you would do stuff for him.''
But the defectors said Miscavige's tendency to change plans, micromanage and undermine the chain of command paralyzed the management team and stifled growth in the years before they left. To pump up revenue, Rathbun said, Miscavige repackaged old Scientology books and services and marketed them to parishioners as must-have, new products.
He cited the church's recent blitz urging members to buy new versions of "the basics," a collection of Hubbard books that are the foundation of Scientology. In 2007, Miscavige told Scientologists who had bought and studied the books for decades that the volumes were flawed, with whole passages missing, out-of-order or written by editors.
No wonder people complained about not being able to understand them, the leader said. The church put the volumes in their proper state and was selling them anew.
Said Rathbun: "He's telling (parishioners) literally to their faces, 'You didn't understand the first thing about Scientology because you couldn't possibly have because the books were screwed up.' "
The 18-volume set now sells for $450, down from the 1986 price of $738.
Davis, the church spokesman, describes the reworked collection as a sensational development, a historic recovery of Hubbard's work comparable to the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls.
Said Yingling, the church attorney: "It was received with such joy by the Scientology public at large.''
Rathbun, De Vocht and Scobee said they were privy to weekly internal data reports that showed a gradual decline in key statistics, including the value of church services delivered and the number of auditing hours and courses completed.
"These are the statistics that are supposed to matter," Rathbun said. "All that stuff's been going down."
De Vocht described Miscavige's decisionmaking as erratic. He said the leader often changes course, resulting in situations like Scientology's multimillion-dollar "Super Power" building in downtown Clearwater. The mammoth structure, finished on the outside, has sat vacant for six years.
After repeated design changes, work on the interior restarted this month.
Davis and Yingling trumpet Scientology's worldwide expansion. The past five years, the church has acquired 80 properties; three new churches — called orgs — opened this year, with five more on track to open by year's end.
Is this the real life?
They called it the Hole.
For months, the small building at the California base was like a prison for more than 30 of the highest-ranking officers in the Sea Org.
They could leave only once a day, for a shower, otherwise they stayed put. Food was brought in. They slept on the floor, men around the conference table, women in the cubicles and small offices ringing the room.
Miscavige called meetings at odd hours, 2 a.m., 4 a.m. Day after day, the exhausted executives puzzled through management structure and the pricing system for church services, trying to guess what their leader wanted.
He rejected their ideas, cursed them, branded them "suppressive persons" who put their church at risk. He demanded they go back at it; they could not leave until they got it right.
Sometimes Miscavige would let someone out of the Hole or throw in somebody else. Rinder says he was there from the start. In January 2004, Miscavige added De Vocht to the mix.
"Everyone gathered around the table. He's throwing things, yelling at people, beating people up," De Vocht remembered. "It was a weirdo scene, let me tell you."
Later that month, Miscavige threw a bigger name into the Hole: Marty Rathbun.
The leader told the others not to listen to a word Rathbun said, he was not to be trusted: I know you all have come to respect this guy over the years, but he is the guy that's f----- me up.
A few days earlier, Rathbun says, Miscavige had pushed his head against a wall and slapped him hard across his left ear for not being tougher on the staff. He figures that must be what landed him in the Hole.
The building consisted of small offices and a conference room tucked into two double-wide trailers. When Miscavige tramped down the corridor, the hollowness of the floor made a klunk, klunk, klunk sound.
Four days into Rathbun's stay, the klunking signaled Miscavige's arrival, flanked as always by his wife, who took notes, and an assistant with a recorder so that everything the leader said could be transcribed and distributed across the base.
Miscavige announced that they were going to play musical chairs to determine who among them was the most committed to the tasks at hand. All but the winner would be reassigned to Scientology's far-flung outposts.
Some staffers cried at the thought of being separated from family. Others made ready, positioning chairs around the 30-foot long, maple conference table.
Miscavige used a boom box to play Bohemian Rhapsody, by Queen.
Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide
No escape from reality
When the music stopped, the uniformed Sea Org members jostled for chairs, knocking each other aside. Two men fought so hard a chair came apart in their hands.
Losers were told where they were being assigned, husbands and wives finding that they were to be thousands of miles apart. Rinder said Miscavige taunted one husband for showing a soft side by consoling his tearful wife.
"Oh yeah,'' Rinder said. "It was fun and games.''
Again, church officials said, the defectors are making the normal seem abnormal. Miscavige was merely trying to make a point, they said, citing a Hubbard policy that says frequent personnel transfers are like "musical chairs" and can harm a group's progress. Miscavige wanted the group to see for themselves how destructive that can be.
Yingling said Miscavige had been away from the base and returned to find that in his absence, Rathbun had transferred hundreds of staffers. "That's why nothing was getting done," she said.
Rathbun and Rinder said it was the opposite: Nothing was getting done because Miscavige took top managers from their posts and ordered them to the Hole. Rathbun said Miscavige berated him for not transferring more people.
From evening into the wee hours of the next day the game of musical chairs dragged on, sometimes interrupted by the leader lecturing the group on their incompetence.
"It's like Apocalypse Now," Rathbun said. "It's bizarre."
The game ended with two women competing for the last chair.
"It was definitely a physical struggle and they were grappling and wrestling," Rathbun recalled. "Then (Miscavige) leaves and says, 'Okay, good. We'll see you f------ tomorrow.' "
Miscavige never carried out his threat of mass transfers.
One beating too many
The next night, Miscavige ordered his executives to jog from the Hole to a building where staffers made CDs of long-ago lectures by Hubbard.
With the group still huffing from their 400-yard run, Miscavige grilled De Vocht, who had overseen renovations to the building. He slapped De Vocht, threw him to the floor and began to choke him.
De Vocht can't recall why he was attacked. Maybe he hesitated with an answer. Maybe he gave a look the leader didn't like. Whatever the reason, he accepted his drubbing in silent, degrading submission.
Miscavige grew angrier if you expressed pain or resisted, the defectors said.
"You're literally sitting there thinking, I'm not going to hit this guy," De Vocht said. "It happens so suddenly, what do you do? And then if you want to go after him, how many other people are going to pummel you? You've got to realize this place is so cultish it's scary."
Scobee says the executives at the California base were trapped. They dared not speak to each other about Miscavige's behavior, afraid they would be found out in confessions known as "security checks."
A person who said something negative about Miscavige might withhold it in her own confession, Scobee said, but someone else would invariably report it in theirs.
"So you don't want to go against him," she said. "It wasn't even an option, as amazing as it seems. Now, after being out, I would so do everything different."
For Sea Org members, there's a personal struggle as well. "You put your life into the church and you do think that is your route to freedom," Scobee said. "There are a lot of great things about it … and you don't want to throw that away. You don't want to risk it."
Why not just leave?
Easy to say, according to Rinder.
Scientology preaches self-reliance. You alone control your environment, your condition in life is no one else's doing but your own.
But just as strongly, Scientology holds that if you leave the church, something is wrong with you. Somewhere in your past is an "overt," a transgression.
"It becomes a big sort of dichotomy," Rinder said. Staying in an unhappy situation is no way to control your environment. "But if I leave, I'm doing something wrong, too. It's like a catch-22."
For Rinder, the Scientology experience he knew and loved had become something foreign, a work climate increasingly strange and abusive.
It also was at crosscurrents with the kinder, gentler public posture the church sought to build over the past 20 years, a message that Rinder, as chief spokesman, conveyed time and again: The church purged the lawbreakers and dirty tricksters of the 1970s and reinvented itself.
"We just stopped doing things that I and others considered to be foolish and harmful and off policy,'' Rinder said.
Except at home.
"Now, the irony is what's being done on the inside is foolish and harmful and abusive,'' he said.
Rathbun saw and delivered many beatings over the years. But he said Miscavige's attack on De Vocht the night after the musical chairs game clarified his thinking.
Four days earlier, when Miscavige put Rathbun in the Hole, he instructed everyone not to talk to him. But De Vocht quietly defied that order, asking Rathbun to help them figure out what to do to please Miscavige. Now De Vocht was being beaten.
"I'm watching this go down, and I just had this incredible connection … this humanity connection with Tom," Rathbun said. "I subscribe to the Popeye philosophy: 'I can take so much but I can't takes no more.'
"I still have a thread of dignity and I see it being crushed in people around me. What am I going to do? Am I going to become one of them, too?"
As the rest of the group herded back into the Hole, Rathbun broke off and ducked into some bushes. He went for his motorcycle, a Yamaha 650, wheeled it to the back gate of the compound and hid in the brush for about 20 minutes. When the gate opened for a car, he sped away.
Rathbun said he felt rage and loss, mixed with an odd excitement.
“I’m kind of exhilarated that I’ve made the step, and I’m hauling a-- because I’m thinking someone’s following me.”