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How would you feel if you had just left a controversial organization and many lifelong friends after openly challenging the boss — yet knew they had possession of 37 years worth of your most intimate confessions in typed files and on videotape?
That’s the delicate — and even scary — situation facing actress Leah Remini, 43, after her very public break with the Church of Scientology last month. Though she sounded defiant when she told People magazine last week that “No one is going to tell me how to think, no one is going to tell me who I can, or cannot talk to,” the act of breaking with Scientology after so many years can be emotionally overwhelming and often frightening, according to others who have left the organization. Remini is not immune to those feelings, say those familiar with her situation.
Remini also is dealing with the church’s policy of disconnection — in which church members are told to shun those who have left — according to her sister and other former members of Scientology in touch with the actress.
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“When Leah and her family made the decision to leave the church after having been members for decades, the church immediately used disconnection against them in retaliation,” says Karen de la Carriere, who was one of Scientology’s top executives before she left in 2010 after 35 years as a member. De la Carriere is one of several ex-church members helping Remini navigate this difficult and highly charged situation. “Leah and her family were suddenly cut off from friendships that had lasted 20 years or more.”
Karin Pouw, a spokesperson for the Church of Scientology, tells THR that there is no such policy of disconnection.
“While none of this is a comment about Ms. Remini, our general response is that the church supports families and has never had a policy which breaks up families, a myth perpetuated by individuals who are either misinformed or attempting to sensationalize their own life choices or those made by their family members,” Pouw says. “While the church encourages close family relations, in the end church members decide for themselves whether to communicate or not with a person who is openly antagonistic to them or their religion. When [disconnection] occurs, that person is simply exercising their right to communicate, not carrying out any mandate from their church.”
According to de la Carriere, Remini may also fear the public release of highly personal information gathered on her during thousands of auditing sessions over the years and kept on file permanently. De la Carriere says that Scientologists who leave the church without following a careful protocol prescribed by the organization worry that what they’ve confided in the church’s trademark auditing sessions will somehow be used against them — and Remini is no exception.
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Remini first reached out to de la Carriere after the death of de la Carriere’s son, Alexander Jenitzsch, in July 2012. The two recently re-established contact after de la Carriere made a video about Remini’s defection.
De la Carriere has her own concerns about whether the church may have used private information taken from the organization’s “confessional folders” gleaned from her auditing sessions and then used to convince her son to disconnect from her when she left the organization. He was estranged from her at the time of his death last year.
Pouw strenuously denies that the church has made public any confidential information about any former members.
Remini’s break with Scientology after so many years — she became active in the organization at the age of 7 — as not only a member but a well-known and vocal supporter has also roiled the church, creating yet another public relations challenge for the organization that found itself the subject of unflattering headlines last summer when news broke that Katie Holmes was divorcing Tom Cruise.
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Remini is by far the most high-profile Scientologist to ever leave the church in such a public manner, and, as such, her saga is being documented in almost real time by bloggers and gossip sites.
“The church is in a very dicey position right now,” says Marc Headley, who spent 15 years working in the upper levels of the church before leaving and turning on the organization. “Leah’s not Tom Cruise. She is famous too, but she’s leaving, not staying. If they do anything to mess with Leah, it’s not going to look very good for them.”
After news of the split, first reported on July 8 by journalist Tony Ortega, a veteran investigator of Scientology, things became even more complicated for the church.
Leah Remini’s sister Nicole Remini-Wiskow, who left the church in 2005, spilled secrets about the Remini family’s experiences with the church, and Leah’s former step-mother, Donna Fiore, has also begun to openly complain about the church’s pressure on their family and how Leah’s friends in Scientology have stopped speaking to her.
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The circumstances surrounding Remini’s defection have been particularly problematic for the secretive organization because they involve the touchy subject of the whereabouts of Shelly Miscavige, the wife of controversial church leader David Miscavige.
According to Ortega’s original account, Remini’s disillusionment with Scientology — and it with her —- began at the 2006 wedding of Cruise and Holmes in Italy when she asked why Shelly, who apparently has not been seen in public since around 2007, was not in attendance. Her absence has prompted occasionally fevered speculation among Scientology watchers. In 2012, Shelly Miscavige’s attorneys told Us Weekly that “any reports that she is missing are false . . . Mrs. Miscavige has been working nonstop in the Church, as she always has.”
When Remini questioned why Shelly had not accompanied her husband to the nuptials (David Miscavige served as Cruise’s best man), then-church spokesman Tommy Davis, the son of actress Anne Archer, reportedly told Remini, “You don’t f—ing rank to ask about Shelly.”
Remini later was behind an internal report sent to senior Scientology officials concerning the events at the wedding, alleging questionable behavior between Miscavige and his female assistant, Laurisse “Lou” Stuckenbrock, according to two sources who spoke to THR and asked not to be identified because they fear retaliation from Scientology. Remini-Wiskow told Ortega that her sister phoned a longtime friend in Scientology from Italy, and the friend wrote the report about Miscavige based on what Leah told her she witnessed at the wedding. While members reporting on one another is frequent and encouraged in the church, ex-members say it is highly unusual to criticize Miscavige.
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What Remini did was go through the proper protocol and got punished for it, says Mike Rinder, the former media spokesman for Scientology and one of its highest-ranking executives before he left the church in 2007 in protest of Miscavige’s leadership style.
“The church’s hard line is that you never air your dirty laundry in public and that instead you handle it all internally,” said Rinder. “Leah tried to deal with her concerns and questions internally and got smashed for it.”
Still, Remini apparently remains loyal to the tenets of the organization founded by L. Ron Hubbard in 1952, numerous former members told THR, and believes the church has been corrupted by its current leadership, beginning with Miscavige.
“My sense is that Leah is committed to speaking out against the breaking up of families, the [misuse] of private information [and other concerns she has about the church],” says de la Carriere.
Following the incident at Cruise’s wedding and the report criticizing David Miscavige, Remini endured years of “thought modification,” says de la Carriere. Her family also was investigated by people in the church that Remini thought were lifelong friends. According to de la Carriere, Remini even paid $300,000 for five years of what in the church is called a “truth rundown,” which ex-members describe as a series of grueling daylong interrogations that can go on for weeks, months or years.
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A day before Remini’s rift with Scientology became public, church member Kirstie Alley, who was once Remini’s friend, tweeted: “When faced w malicious gossip I take a moment to experience the loss of the person I thought was my friend. Then I say fuck ’em. #RISE,” she wrote.
Soon after, she tweeted again: “The sweetest poison is often served with a smile…beware syrup.”
She later vehemently denied that her tweets were aimed at Remini. “Lying news outlets,” she tweeted. “I do NOT care what religion ANYONE is or isn’t. I respect religions & would fight for your freedom as well as mine.”
In another tweet, Alley said, “Thank U lying ‘news’ outlets for thinking I have ESP & write tweets ‘BEFORE’ events OCCUR. I accept that compliment. Ur ‘sources’ don’t exist.”
Soon after news broke of her sister’s departure from the church, Remini-Wiskow spoke to a reporter at myTalk radio station in Minnesota. She said the entire Remini family, longtime church members who have given significant sums of money — perhaps as much as millions of dollars — to Scientology, have left the church en masse.
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“Everybody left,” Remini-Wiskow told the radio station of her family. “When this all came down, everybody had to make a choice whether they were going to stick by Leah or stick by the church. So they all left at the same time.
“This is how we are as a family,” Remini-Wiskow continued. “We stick together. It’s just not an option. So, for my family, staying in Scientology under the circumstances was not an option. Choosing the church over Leah was never going to happen. You think about it, if they’d made the other choice, they lose their granddaughter. And me, I’m connected to Leah. My mom then can’t be connected to me.”
Remini’s husband, Angelo Pagan, her mother, Vicki Marshall, her father and sister all were Scientologists. Her mother raised her family in Scientology and has achieved one of its highest levels. It is very rare, if not unheard of, for a family of such long-standing membership to exit together.
“I think it was hardest for my mom,” Remini-Wiskow told the station. “She’s the highest level on the bridge. And I think my dad is like OT VII. So, it’s really, really hard for them. They lost all their friends. I mean, literally, there have been meetings about disconnecting from them.”
(“Bridge” refers to “The Bridge to Total Freedom,” a series of levels Scientologists attain through auditing in an attempt to achieve spiritual awareness. OT VIII is the highest level.)
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Remini-Wiskow’s disclosure was highly unusual in that the family has not yet officially acknowledged its departure from the church, and it’s rare for a longtime, second-generation Scientologist like Nicole to spill secrets. In her interviews, Nicole also took on the hot-button issue of the whereabouts of Shelly Miscavige.
“[Leah]’s been curious for years! Where the hell is [Shelly]? You know?” Remini-Wiskow said. “This is all Leah asked, and this is what it’s turned into?”
There are no official signs that the organization has taken steps to go after either Remini sister — and a Scientology spokesperson adamantly denies that it punishes anyone who leaves the church or uses anything in their auditing files against them. But the domain name WhoIsLeahRemini.com recently was purchased.
Dozens of WhoIs.com sites have been published over the years, and those that are publicly accessible feature unfavorable material about a number of detractors and former supporters of Scientology. WhoIsPaulHaggis.com describes the Oscar-winning director, who left Scientology in 2009 after 35 years, as a “status-driven screenwriter” among many other derogatory statements. The sites contain no obvious links to Scientology but certainly reflect the church’s viewpoint about its most vocal critics.
Pouw, who has said that the organization does “not comment on its parishioners,” acknowledges that it has “supplied information” to the WhoIs.com sites for Rinder, Marty Rathbun and others but denies any involvement in the purchase of the WhoIsLeahRemini.com website.
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“Regarding ‘Who Is…’ the church has never hidden the fact it supplied information for the websites concerning Mike Rinder or the other members of Marty Rathbun’s posse of lunatics you refer to,” Pouw says. “Despite the chronic whining you hear about the sites, each came about to document the truth about these anti-religious fanatics.”
As for Remini, Pouw says, “Let’s be clear: We have had nothing to do with any website about her and have no idea who registered the site.”
“We find it disheartening to see the media provide a small group of rumor peddlers and gossips with yet another opportunity to hurl malicious, made-up stories,” Pouw told THR. “Unlike the self-promoters behind this orchestrated campaign, the church respects the religious beliefs of others and the privacy of parishioners. Numerous myths, gossip, rumors and falsehoods regurgitated over the last few days have their origins with a small collection of obsessive fringe bloggers exploiting others to promote self-serving, hateful agendas.”
Mike Rinder, who has not been able to speak to most of his family members still inside the church since his defection, told THR that in his opinion the information found at the website www.whoismichaelrinder.com could only have come from his auditing files at the church.
“They have letters purportedly written by my ex-wife and daughter about stuff that they could never have known about,” says Rinder of the website devoted to him. “Even worse, they take a kernel of truth and turn it into a lie. It says on the site that I stuck firecrackers in the butts of cats when I was a kid. What I actually did was blow up ant hills with firecrackers. Either way, it was never something I discussed with my ex-wife or daughter.”
Amy Scobee, the former head of the Celebrity Center — the locus of the organization’s activities with high-profile personalities including TV and movie stars — who left Scientology in 2005 after 28 years, says Scientology had accumulated files containing 300 different folders of documents and reports from her auditing sessions.
Regardless of what actions the church has or has not taken, former Scientologists say the organization may have met its match in the outspoken Remini.
“That girl has a lot of balls,” says de la Carriere. “Complaining about Miscavige in that organization is like complaining about god.”
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