Leaders of the Church of Scientology last night launched a vigorous defence of their organisation and their treatment of the faith's adherents amid what they described as "sensationalist" claims they have been under investigation by an FBI task force on human trafficking.
The move came after Paul Haggis, an Oscar-winning screenwriter who renounced Scientology in 2009 after 34 years as a member, broke a long public silence to help the New Yorker magazine compile a lengthy investigation into the Church's affairs.
Some of the most extraordinary claims raised by the 25,000-word article, published at midnight on Sunday, centre on the Church's chairman, David Miscavige, who was best man at Tom Cruise's wedding. He is accused of a number of incidents of threatening behaviour towards followers.
Others revolve around "Sea Org", an order of followers who work as full-time activists at its churches, celebrity centres and missions around the world. The apparent FBI investigation, which the Church says it is unaware of, is believed to focus on Gold Base, a Scientology headquarters near the desert town of Hemet, several hours drive south-east of Los Angeles.
The fenced property is home to about 800 members of Sea Org, as well as film production facilities for the Church's PR wing. It is also where Miscavige keeps an office. According to the New Yorker, which has interviewed several dozen former Scientologists as well as Haggis, leaders there are encouraged "to instil aggressive, even violent, discipline".
Quoting an estranged ex-Scientologist called Mark Rathbun, the magazine claims punishments at Gold Base include being sent to the "Hole", a pair of trailers. "There were between eighty and a hundred people sentenced to the Hole at that time," Rathbun claimed. "We were required to do group confessions all day and all night."
The magazine alleges that Tricia Whitehill, an FBI agent stationed in Los Angeles – home to the Church of Scientology's Hollywood "celebrity centre", where many of its most famous members worship – flew to Florida in December 2009 to interview former Scientologists about their experiences at Gold Base. According to the article, the case remains open.
Church leaders deny the existence of places of confinement at any of their properties and say they told the New Yorker they had never been advised of any government investigation. "The article is little more than a regurgitation of old allegations which have long been disproved," said a statement from its spokesman, Tommy Davis.
"It is disappointing that a magazine with the reputation of the New Yorker chose to reprint these sensationalist claims from disaffected former members hardly worthy of a tabloid," he said, further criticising the publication for deciding to "use the claim of an 'investigation' to garner headlines for an otherwise stale article containing nothing but rehashed unfounded allegations." It added that the claims had been raised in a lawsuit dismissed by a US federal judge.
Mr Davis, a son of the actress Anne Archer, was once close to Paul Haggis, who tells the New Yorker how he became a Scientologist in the 1970s after a street salesman persuaded him to buy a copy of a book on “Dianetics” written by the Church’s founder, the late science fiction author L Ron Hubbard.
"There was a feeling of camaraderie that was something I'd never experienced," says Haggis, who wrote Crash, Million Dollar Baby, and the last two James Bond films. "I was in a cult for 34 years. Everyone else could see it. I don't know why I couldn't."
Haggis has a lesbian daughter, and tells how he quit the Church in 2009 amid a row about its role in supporting Proposition 8, the ballot measure which banned gay marriage in California. He estimated he gave several hundred thousand dollars to Scientology during his years as a member.
Others who contributed to the New Yorker piece included Hollywood actor Josh Brolin. He recalled once attending a dinner party at which John Travolta, a prominent Scientologist, practiced a form of spiritual healing on Marlon Brando, which involved laying hands on a flesh wound. A spokesman for Mr Travolta has called the claim "total fabrication".