Is Scientology Imploding? Watching the Panic After a Former Executive Dares to Question Church Management

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A young Debbie Cook, back before the trouble started
UPDATE: We look back at Debbie Cook's career, from enforcer to whistleblower.

The world of Scientology watching is still reeling after Debbie Cook's New Year's Eve e-mail landed in the inboxes of thousands of church members Saturday night.

A few minutes after midnight, we began receiving copies of the broadside, written by one of Scientology's most important former executives. Citing the words of L. Ron Hubbard, Cook trashed the church's current management under leader David Miscavige, complaining about a "new age of continuous fundraising" and "extreme over-regging."

Over the next couple of days, it was remarkable to watch the reaction of church members who received the e-mail and variously praised it, condemned it, or simply freaked out.

Then, we noticed this statement by Larry Brennan, an ex-Scientologist who helped reorganize the corporate structure of the church in 1980s, and who knows perhaps as much as anyone else about the strength of Scientology to defend itself:

Organized Scientology was structured to withstand 'attacks' from the outside. But all its corporate veils and religious cloaking are powerless to prevent an implosion, emptying course rooms, and causing a mass exodus.

Implosion? A mass exodus? Can a single e-mail really cause such widespread panic? We asked someone who knew Debbie Cook and could explain to us what her salvo means for an organization on the edge.

But first, we wanted to give some indication that we here at the Voice aren't the only ones who jumped on this story New Year's Day and consider it an important one.

Joe Childs and Tom Tobin, the excellent journalists over at the formerly St. Petersburg Times reported the Cook e-mail Sunday afternoon, and it graced the top of page one yesterday, the second morning that their newspaper carried its new name, the Tampa Bay Times...

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That story contained a concise rundown on Cook's career...

Cook, 50, was the face of Scientology's worldwide spiritual headquarters in Clearwater, known as "Flag." As Flag's "captain" from 1989 to 2006, she acted as the church's local CEO but also was known and respected throughout Scientology. She was the top Clearwater officer in the Sea Org, Scientology's military-style religious order.

A fixture in Flag's magazine, Source, a smiling, confident Cook was always pictured in her formal blue uniform with an upbeat message for parishioners.

She later moved to the church's international management ranks in California, but left the staff in 2008. Cook and her husband, Wayne Baumgarten, also a former church staffer, run a San Antonio-based business consulting firm specializing in Internet marketing, web design, social media, financial planning and other areas.

As for Cook's e-mail itself, it's lengthy and filled with Scientology jargon. We noticed an outline of her message at WhyWeProtest.net, and thought it did a good job boiling down her message (with some edits)...

I've been a high-level member of Scientology for over 30 years and never stirred any trouble before, but now I will.

I hate the fundraising. Scientology already has over $1 billion that it is not spending.

I hate the expensive new empty buildings.

I hate that people who reached the magic level of "clear" are told they have to re-do it so the church can make money. They did this to me too and now I'm poor.

I hate that David Miscavige has taken total power over the church when it was supposed to be run by executive committees.

I hate that the executives supposed to be in charge are in a special Scientology jail just for them, where they also sent me for a while.

I want you to do something.

I want you to stop making donations (except for buying Scientology services).

I want you to forward this e-mail anonymously to every client of the Scientology corporation you know.

That summary is a bit flip, but it does capture generally the point that Cook was making. As I pointed out Sunday morning, one of the things that characterizes her tone is how much she emphasizes that she is not an outsider criticizing Scientology -- she is a member in good standing, cares that her church has become too much about "regging" (fundraising), and she cites the words of Scientology's founder, L. Ron Hubbard, to make her point.

I reached Cook on Sunday afternoon, but she declined to be interviewed by me, and she asked that I take down her e-mail, which I had put up at this site. I complied, and she politely explained that she would rather try to reach her fellow church members directly than through the press.

I respected her choice, and honestly wished her good luck. But judging by the reactions she was getting at her Facebook page, she has an uphill battle ahead of her.

Watching what her fellow church members posted on her wall before she could take it down became something of a sport over the last couple of days. The sharp-eyed researchers at WhyWeProtest.net recorded every single one of those reactions, and clearly enjoyed discussing what they portended for Cook and for the church. Some examples...

There were those church members who were certain that Cook could not have authored such a message, and assumed that her e-mail account had been hacked...

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But once Cook confirmed the authenticity of her e-mail at her Facebook page and with e-mails and telephone calls to friends, some turned nasty...

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Others were just concerned that all of the hand-wringing and complaining was happening in a public place like Facebook...

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Multiple church members, meanwhile, indicated that they had reported Cook and her e-mail to Scientology authorities...

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Facebook, of course, is an imperfect lens into the church and its members. But from what we could see, many members were upset to see a formerly high-ranking executive challenge so directly the management of Scientology.

I wanted to know what kind of an impact her e-mail might have on the church, and I called Jason Beghe, an actor who famously left the church in 2008 and has criticized it vocally since then. When he was still in, Beghe was a popular celebrity member, spent considerable time at "Flag," and understood very well Debbie Cook's role in Scientology.

"This lady is as hardcore as anybody who ever picked up a can. This is hardcore. This is the commanding officer of the Flag Service Organization for 17 years," he told me by phone from Malibu. ("Can" is a reference to the sensors of an e-meter, the device Scientologists use during counseling sessions.)

"She had a lot of status. But she was always very warm and professional. She was extremely friendly, but she never crossed any boundaries," Beghe said, referring to the times he met Cook when he was receiving services in Clearwater. "When she had left, I thought she could really do something. And the way she did it, wow, it was perfect."

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Jason Beghe
Beghe has encouraged other people to leave the church since he defected, and he's worked with former executive Marty Rathbun, who has been especially effective at convincing longtime members to disavow the church because of the way Miscavige is running it.

"Let's face it, there's not a lot of new people getting into Scientology. And the target now is to get to the people who are abused who are inside. And she's reaching the people who need help," Beghe said. "I applaud the hell out of her." [Earlier: How many people are in Scientology?]

Beghe wanted me to understand just how important Cook's job was in Clearwater.

"She ran the entire Flag organization. She was the commanding officer. Like, if your egg was overcooked, that was her responsibility. She was responsible for every single person who worked at Flag," he said.

And as for the people she's trying to reach, he says, they simply won't respond to someone from the outside, or even from most other church members who might voice discontent. It takes someone with Cook's name to shake them up, Beghe said.

"I know it's hard to understand how someone can be so dense. But you're in a trance. When someone of this magnitude speaks up, it has an effect. And it's as 'standard' as you can get. All she's doing is complaining about 'non-standard' tech," he said, meaning that by quoting Hubbard, Cook was trying to appeal to church members in a way that would help them question Miscavige's leadership.

"Her intention is to help those 12,000 people and the people they decide to contact. Going to the press, on the other hand, would have had little effect. The name of this game is help those motherfuckers who are in that cult. And this, I think, will do a lot," Beghe said. "I'm sure there were maybe hundreds of people who just went, holy shit, and had a revelation."

But didn't the reaction at Facebook indicate that she's going to have a difficult time getting through to some members, who instinctively reacted by turning her into authorities for daring to criticize Miscavige?

"There's going to be a campaign against her, I'm sure. They're going to do their standard, retarded fucking routine. But that's great, because every time they do that, it makes the next one that less credible," Beghe said, referring to an effort already under way to "dead agent" Cook -- turn someone with an illustrious history in Scientology into an unperson, reminiscent of the way figures were erased from photos in old issues of Pravda.

"I'm sure they're going to come down very hard on her, however they do it," Beghe added. "The church is furiously coming up with ways to counteract the effects of her e-mail. So already, most of these people are being 'handled.' One reason you're not hearing anything from the church on this is that they're busy."

And such a campaign by the church to 'handle' members who saw the e-mail will be effective on some, Beghe added. "These people cannot think for themselves, which is ironic, because they're told when they get into Scientology that they'll be trained to do exactly that," he said. Others, however, will begin to question seriously what is happening to their church after seeing Cook's criticisms.

"At some point they're going to wake up. Hopefully."


UPDATE: As Marty Rathbun points out over at his blog (and our commenters have been alerting us), the Debbie Cook story is getting picked up in a major way. Major newspaper in the UK have it -- the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Daily Mail -- and this morning USA Today joined in. (And now the Dutch. And in Germany, Der Spiegel.)

Rathbun also noted that the church's response to the Cook e-mail -- put out by spokeswoman Karin Pouw -- sounded about as convincing as the proclamations by Baghdad Bob: "Ms Cook's opinions reflect a small, ignorant and unenlightened view of the world today."

Have to say, he's got a point.

Also, Jason Nark has a fun look at David Miscavige's South Jersey and Philadelphia roots today for Philly.com.


Tony Ortega is the editor-in-chief of The Village Voice. Since 1995, he's been writing about Scientology at several publications.

tortega@villagevoice.com | @VoiceTonyO | Facebook: Tony Ortega

Keep up on all of our New York news coverage at this blog, Runnin' Scared


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