POINTE-A-PITRE, Guadeloupe, Friday June 29, 2012 – Scientology has been called many names, most of them unprintable, with the frontrunner generally regarded as “The cult of greed”. Following the recent case of Debbie Cook, a former church executive, it could well be referred to as “The cult of intimidation”.
Cook, who rocked the church early this year with damaging testimony before agreeing to stay silent forever, has chosen to leave the United States and relocate to Guadeloupe, friends say.
The former Scientology officer and her husband Wayne Baumgarten have sold their car, their furniture and many other household possessions, according to Jon Donley, a Web designer and media consultant who worked for the couple in 2010 and 2011 at their now-defunct marketing company in San Antonio, Texas.
Why they chose Guadeloupe isn’t clear. But the island is an overseas territory of France, whose government has taken a strong stance against Scientology. Consequently, the church is thought to have little or no presence there.
Guadeloupe’s port city, Pointe-à-Pitre, is a cruise ship destination, but Scientology’s passenger ship, the Freewinds, which sails in the Caribbean, does not dock there.
The couple’s relocation is the latest chapter in a showdown that generated a torrent of negative publicity for the church and its leader David Miscavige.
The drama started last New Year’s Eve when Cook sent an email from her home to hundreds of Scientology parishioners, urging them to stand up to aggressive church money-raising tactics and other practices.
The Scientology community was stunned. Cook, 50, widely respected among parishioners, had run the church’s worldwide spiritual headquarters in Clearwater for 17 years. Her surprise email was nevertheless forwarded to thousands of inboxes.
Cook and Baumgarten had left the church’s religious order, the Sea Organization, in October 2007. They signed lengthy non-disclosure contracts, agreeing to say nothing about church operations. The church paid each $50,000 and they moved to San Antonio and started their business.
The church responded to Cook’s email by suing her and Baumgarten in civil court in San Antonio, asking a judge to enforce the nondisclosure contracts and award at least $300,000 in damages.
That action led to a hearing on Feb. 9. Church attorneys called Cook as a witness, but that backfired when Cook’s attorney was allowed to follow with questions of his own, resulting in three hours of riveting testimony.
Cook described being physically abused by church staffers at Miscavige’s direction and held against her will for seven weeks with other Sea Organization officers in a locked and guarded building at the church’s campus outside Los Angeles.
She said she also witnessed church staffers beat up and taunt their peers while demanding confessions of wrongdoing.
After the testimony, the church said Cook was “clearly bitter and falsely vilifying the religion she once was a part of.”
A second day of testimony was scheduled, but the church ended it soon after it started.
The public skirmish continued for another month, with the church moving for a quick judgment in its favour and Cook’s team responding with demands to depose church staff and gather other evidence.
The two parties then began lengthy settlement talks, reaching an agreement signed April 23. Cook and Baumgarten recommitted to nearly all the terms of their 2007 nondisclosure contracts. They can have no contact with current or former Scientologists or anyone else who has said or written or produced anything negative about the church or intends to.
Their business was “destroyed,” their attorney Ray Jeffrey said. Many clients were Scientologists who severed ties.
Fighting off the church “wore them down,” their friend Donley said.”I really believed they had no idea, even after being on the inside, the church was going to come after them.”
The agreement says neither party took money from the other in ending the lawsuit. Not known is whether the two parties reached an undisclosed side agreement.
According to Donley, Baumgarten stuck to the language in the agreement when they met shortly after the talks ended, saying he and Cook walked away with nothing.
The couple was no more forthcoming when Donley joined them for a farewell dinner and asked if their move out of the country was a condition of the settlement.
“They looked me right in the eyes and said, ‘We can’t talk about that,’ ” Donley said.
Scientology, established by science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard in 1953, is thought to be one of the world’s largest non-Christian cults. It is also one of the wealthiest, most secretive and most litigious.