Are some Scientologists different from others?
It’s been only two weeks since Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes reached a quickie divorce settlement, but during that time Cruise has swiftly carved out a new life as single dad to his 6-year-old daughter, Suri.
After finishing his latest movie, Oblivion, in California, Cruise sped to Manhattan for a three-day reunion with his daughter beginning July 3, taking her on a helicopter ride to the Hamptons before flying off to London for pre-production work on his next film, All You Need Is Kill.
It seemed proof of his lawyer Bert Fields' claim that Cruise would have "significant contact" with the girl, though she will be based in New York with her mother.
It’s an arrangement most people would find normal, unless you’re among the numbers of Scientologists and ex-Scientologists who say that if Cruise were a typical church member, he’d be forbidden to see or speak to Katie again -- and would be discouraged from staying in contact with Suri.
Karen De La Carriere, the ex-wife of the president of Scientology and a protege of L. Ron Hubbard with decades of experience inside the organization, says she was never allowed contact with her son, Alexander Jentzsch, after leaving the church in 2010. She had hoped for a reconciliation until she learned July 5 that he had died at age 27 on July 3 at the Sylmar, Calif., home of Maureen and Jeffrey Evans, Alexander’s ex-wife’s family, Scientologists, who De La Carriere says refused her access to the body and any information about her dead son. Calls to the Evans family for comment were not returned.
So why was De La Carriere, according to her account, kept by Alexander’s in-laws from viewing her son's body at the morgue or retrieving his ashes whereas Cruise can see Suri despite the fact his ex-wife has made it clear she is returning to her Catholic roots?
The answers may lie in Scientology’s "disconnection” policy -- as some call it -- and how much the organization manages its application to members’ lives. De La Carriere and other ex-church members who spoke to The Hollywood Reporter hope that Holmes’ surprise decision to file for divorce from Cruise on June 28 and the shockingly swift settlement agreement the couple signed July 8 will shine a spotlight on these questions.
The concept of disconnection is described by former Scientologists as the forced separation from family members who have left the organization. The policy has been recounted in often anguished detail in the media and online by numerous former Scientologists who have lost contact with loved ones. Scientology spokespeople say De La Carriere and other ex-Scientologists who have criticized the church in statements to THR are “defrocked apostates” who are not telling the truth.
The policy, as described by defectors, involves ordering members to cut all contact with family and friends who have left the church, criticized it or are involved in activities that the church opposes. The shunned are called “suppressive persons” in Scientology jargon.
“Disconnection is the main weapon of Scientology,” says Samantha Domingo, 45, the ex-wife of Placido Domingo Jr., son of the famed tenor and a respected musician in his own right. Domingo, who joined the church at 21 and left in 2009, says that within 48 hours of her informing the church she was leaving, she was declared a “suppressive person” and longtime friends in the Scientology community in East Grinstead, England, began “crossing the street” to avoid her.
Her marriage eventually cracked under the strain, and the Domingos divorced.
“My children received Facebook messages from their friends saying they weren’t allowed to talk to them anymore and they had to disconnect,” says Domingo, whose children were 8, 11 and 13 at the time. “My husband, who had stayed in the church, was called in and ordered to disconnect from me or be excommunicated.”
Domingo says she did what Katie Holmes did.
“I walked out of there holding my kids tightly by the hand,” she says. “If I had left them in the church with their father, I might not have seen them again. If my kids had been older and decided to stay, they would have been ordered to disconnect from me. Katie knows all this.”
But Domingo, who says she still is sometimes stalked and harassed by church members, says Holmes still needs to be careful.
“Katie would have been excommunicated normally, and behind the scenes she probably already is,” says Domingo. “Internally, the wheels are in motion to discredit Katie. We have moles that are pretending to be good Scientologists who report back to us on the outside. I’ve seen internal memos about Katie.”
Placido Domingo Jr. was not available for comment but told the Village Voice last year that he got so angry after the church tried to make him disconnect from Samantha that he ended up leaving Scientology himself.
Karin Pouw, a spokesperson for the church, disputes the disconnection policy as described by defectors. “The Church never ‘orders’ Church members to disconnect from anyone and the practice does not have to do with ‘former members or people who are critical of the Church,’ ” Pouw tells THR in an e-mail. “The policy has to do with handling or disconnecting from individuals or groups that inhibit one’s survival. It is similarly inaccurate to say: ‘The policy involves the disconnection of current members from anyone who leaves the Church.’ It does not. Many members are connected to people who have gone on to seek other spiritual pursuits. Disconnection is always a matter of choice by the individual, is always a self-determined decision and a last resort.” Pouw went on to compare the practice to policies in other religions including Catholicism.
A type of this disconnection practice may have been at work after Cruise’s 2001 divorce from his second wife, Nicole Kidman. Former Scientologist Marty Rathbun, who was considered a senior church official under current chairman David Miscavige until he defected in late 2004, told THR on July 4 that the church managed to wrest control of Cruise’s adopted children with Kidman by indoctrinating them against her after she and Cruise divorced.
Several former Scientology members said Kidman took some Scientology courses early on in the marriage but was never an enthusiastic practitioner. Kidman was viewed as a “suppressive person” in the wake of the divorce, Rathbun said. Many media reports have indicated she has had limited contact with her two adopted children since then. Gary Soter, a Calabasas-based attorney representing Scientology, has provided THR with statements discrediting Rathbun and his account.
But in comparison to Holmes, who seemingly took Cruise by surprise and reportedly has won primary custody of Suri, Kidman now looks as harmless as a mouse.
Mike Rinder, 57, who was aspokesperson for the church until he left in 2007, says that in the eyes of the church, “Katie Holmes is probably the biggest suppressive person out there right now.”
Holmes, he says, would be labeled a “suppressive person” without question because she filed for divorce from Cruise, created a PR nightmare for the church and, according to the Huffington Post, re-registered as a Catholic in early July at the Church of St. Xavier in New York City. He believes their daughter, Suri, because she reportedly will live mainly with Holmes, would normally also be off limits.
Amy Scobee, 48, a 24-year Scientology veteran who helped expand the church’s outreach to celebrities and managed the Celebrity Centres before leaving Scientology in 2005, says that in her opinion the church’s disconnection policy is a “very severe human rights violation.”
“My family suffered from it and my husband’s family is all broken apart because of it,” says Scobee, whose self-published book, Abuse at the Top, which came out May 9, claims to tell her "nightmarish experiences" among upper-level Scientologists at the church's notorious "International Base" compound near Hemet, Calif.
Scobee was in Sea Org, a unit of dedicated Scientologists who live at the base. She says she also was in charge of hiring household staff for Cruise during his marriage to Kidman. Scobee tells THR that Cruise’s ongoing relationship with Suri as a newly single dad “is the worst double standard.”
Lori Hodgson, 49, agrees. After joining the organization at age 15, Hodgson decided to leave in 2010 because she was upset that her kids had been recruited into Sea Org as teenagers and felt they were working too hard and not being properly educated.
Hodgson says she and her son, Jeremy, now 19, and daughter, Jessica, 21, always were “exceptionally close,” but that changed after she left the church. Her husband and the children remained Scientologists and she feels the church turned her family against her.
“Katie was so smart to leave now, when Suri is little,” says Hodgson, who said she was banned from the hospital by the family last fall after she found out via Facebook that her son had been critically injured in a motorbike accident. “If I had left earlier, I would have had more control over them.”
Hodgson, Scobee and Rinder believe Cruise’s celebrity status is the reason he can see Suri.
“Tom, if he were an ordinary Scientologist, would be ordered to disconnect from Katie and because Suri will be living with Katie, he couldn’t see her either,” says Rinder. “But because Tom is so high-profile, it would create a total furor if the public knew he was cutting Suri off. This is an example of the church at its most hypocritical.”
Marc Headley, who was in charge of film and video production in Scientology and was in Sea Org for 15 years before leaving in 2005, has been cut off from many friends and family members.
“Katie flew the biggest middle finger Scientology has ever seen,” says Headley. “If she and Tom were regular Scientologists, Katie would have been declared a suppressive person in one second and Tom would never have been allowed to see her again.”
The news about Cruise’s deal with Holmes to stay in Suri’s life hit De La Carriere particularly hard.
“The fact that I served for 35 years and spent decades of my life in the church meant nothing in the end,” says De La Carriere, who held her own memorial service for her son on a boat off Long Beach.
De La Carriere still believes in Scientology as espoused by the founder, Hubbard, but left because she dislikes the current chairman, Miscavige. But she is convinced her son Alexander was not allowed to speak to her because she spoke out against Miscavige's rule after she left.
Soter told THR in an e-mail that the death of Alexander Jentzsch was a "private family matter" and that De La Carriere's statements about the events surrounding her son's death were "troubling and inaccurate."
However, former church members like Scobee say major family rifts such as De La Carriere's are common in Scientology.
“Disconnection is totally based on the status of the person and it can be very arbitrary,” asserts Scobee. “Tom would never be forced to disconnect from Suri and Katie. The PR fallout would be too much.”
Similarly, Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren and her husband, John Coale, the powerful Washington D.C.-based trial lawyer, political power broker and church donor, both longtime Scientologists, have not disconnected from Van Susteren’s sister, Lise Van Susteren, a well-respected, Harvard-educated psychiatrist who lives in Bethesda, Md.
One of the notable parts of Coale’s practice has been to represent plaintiffs in lawsuits against the makers of ADHD medication spearheaded by the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, a nonprofit anti-psychiatry organization founded by Scientology.
The field of psychiatry is one ofScientology’s biggest bête noires. “As the stepchildren of the German dictator Bismarck and later Hitler and the Nazis, psychiatry and psychology formed the philosophical basis for the wholesale slaughter of human beings in World Wars I and II,” reads a statement on the Scientology website.
Yet there are no indications that Greta Van Susteren has ever broken off contact with her sister.
Fox News spokesperson Irena Briganti did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.
“They’d never make Greta disconnect from her sister,” says Scobee. “If you’re a celebrity, you get special treatment and even if you’re not, if you have the right connections, you don’t have to cut anyone off.”
Kidman also has a psychiatrist in the family, her father, Anthony Kidman. But there were no reports about her breaking off contact with either of her parents during her 10-year marriage to Cruise.
Andrew Morton addressed the issue in his unauthorized book about Cruise published in 2008. In an interview with the Associated Press, he said Kidman's father was only one of the problems Cruise and Kidman had.
"What happened is that Nicole started to pull away from Scientology," Morton told the AP. "And Tom was sent in and took this course which is called a PTSSP course, which is to basically anchor yourself to the faith and to treat the outside world with more suspicion because it is a self-contained cocooned world. You become more distant from the people who no longer believe in you, who no longer believe in the faith, and one of those was Nicole Kidman."
Morton went on to add: "Having said all that, when Nicole was sitting after the breakup and sobbing into her handkerchief and saying to her friend, ‘Why did he leave?’ she had no real answer. … She was always seen as somewhat of a problem because her father is a psychiatrist and Scientologists loathe psychiatry."
As regards Van Susteren, Domingo and other Scientologists, Soter says the church “will adhere to its policy of not commenting upon its ecclesiastical relationships with individual parishioners. However, it would be both false and defamatory to state the Church provides ‘special’ or ‘preferential’ treatment with respect its application of Scripture. It does not.”
Rinder has experienced that kind of family split firsthand. His former wife, son, daughter, mother, brother, sister and assorted nieces and nephews have not spoken to him since he left the church.
“It’s very traumatic,” says Rinder. “I don’t want to sound like a victim, but it’s very, very hard. Disconnection devastates people. And it’s definitely hardest for the mothers.”
Bonny Elliott, 68, says she was pushed to disconnect from Scobee, her daughter, when she ditched the church in 2005. Elliott says she was pressured by church officials -- in person, on the phone and in e-mails -- to cut off contact and was torn between Amy and her husband, who at that point wanted to remain in Scientology.
“It was a black period, just black,” says Elliott. “It was heart wrenching, like living in this horrible void.”
Elliott lasted only about four months without seeing her daughter and began “sneaking” visits with her. In 2010 Elliott and her husband, Mark, officially left the church.
Elliott says it’s doubtful that most Scientologists will find out that Cruise will be allowed to see his daughter since she says they all are told to shun reading about Scientology in newspapers or on TV and the Internet.
"They won't find out," she says. "They live in a complete cocoon."