Katie Might be Able to Leave Tom—But Divorcing Scientology Won’t be Easy

Ex-Scientologists say the church uses blackmail and threats to keep people in the fold.

Leaving a highly secretive and close-knit group like Scientology might not be as easy as checking the “irreconcilable differences” box.

Since news broke that Katie Holmes filed for divorce from Tom Cruise, her husband of nearly six years, speculation has been rampant that she wants out of Scientology—and she wants to take daughter Suri with her.

Steve Hassan, an “exit counselor” who says he’s worked with “countless” people trying to leave the Church of Scientology, says the church has a history of blackmailing members into staying within the fold by threatening to divulge intimate details they’ve shared in “auditing sessions.” These are counseling sessions in which one member coaches another to “clear,” or rid himself, of any negative forces that interfere with devotion to the church. Hassan says people he’s worked with have described the church as strong-arming “members to give up their children.”

Holmes, says Hassan, “has a right to be concerned about her daughter.”

Suri is now 6 years old, the age when kids reportedly start becoming more involved in Scientology, and being subjected to a process called “sec checking,” which the Village Voice describes as an interrogation to make sure kids and their parents aren’t “hiding any covert hostilities to the organization.” The extensive list of questions allegedly includes what founder L. Ron Hubbard dubbed “the most potent” query: “What has somebody told you not to tell?”

Marty Rathbun, who left the church in 2004 and describes himself as an “independent Scientologist,” says getting out can mean losing “every business contact you ever made, every friend you ever had, and every family contact you ever had.” A person who leaves the church is categorized as a “suppressed person,” he says, and an official shunning policy called “disconnect” is immediately enforced.

Multiple messages left with the Church of Scientology International in Los Angeles were not returned, nor were emails and phone calls to Cruise’s representatives.

Short of going into the witness-protection program, how can Holmes disentangle herself and her daughter from the Church of Scientology?

Ex-Scientologist Sasha Zbitnoff, 40, says a good first step is finding others who’ve made the leap. He says he was raised in the church, but when he was 20 years old, he started questioning the ethics of Hubbard and his teachings, and eventually decided to leave. “You become a lemming in a big scary world,” says Zbitnoff of making the transition. At the time, he sought out other ex-members to share stories and feel connected.

A network of former Scientologists has blossomed on websites like the Ex Scientologist Message Board, which contains bountiful advice for Holmes. “Do not sign anything that stops you talking about Scientology!!!!!” reads one entry.

Some former Scientologists say it takes years of talking to others with similar stories to understand the experience. Once out of the church, old habits die hard. Zbitnoff says that his first relationship after leaving Scientology was essentially a replication of what he had learned in the church; he instinctively saw friends and family outside the relationship as a potential threat.

Holmes appears to have already started building a new network of associates, reverting to her old, pre-Cruise public-relations firm and firing her old security detail. Leslie Sloane, Holmes’s agent, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

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David Bromley, a professor of religion at Virginia Commonwealth University, says the process for leaving the church is fairly extensive and often involves “burning bridges ... and breaking up friendships and families.”

Hassan says he tries to have ex-members identify the difference between their church “identities and real identities.” He asks his patients to remember what they did before they joined their groups in order to reconnect with their former selves. A “basic” session with Hassan is typically 25 hours spread over multiple daily sessions. Hassan himself is a former member of the Unification Church, also known as the Moonies, a group he left only after his family intervened, hiring an agent to “deprogram” him. During his two and a half years in the church, he says, he was a “total fanatic.”

Experts say deprogramming, in which friends or family forcibly remove loved ones from religious groups, was popular in the 1970s. But after a series of high-profile allegations of kidnapping, it’s now rarely done. Peter Farrell, a former Scientologist who joined the church as an adult, says, “Leaving was a very scary experience.” After Farrell spent most of his life savings, including his children’s college savings, on auditing sessions and classes offered by the church, his wife hired Hassan to intervene. Farrell is currently a veterinarian outside Albany. “Katie is scared with really good reason,” he said of Holmes.

James Richardson, a sociologist at the University of Nevada, says that when members express skepticism or decide to leave, the church attempts to isolate them from the group to prevent their doubts from spreading. Jeff Hawkins, a member of the church for 35 years, says he tried to make it simple. “I said, ‘I want to leave.’” He says he was then put in a “three-month program of security checks and hard labor,” involving weeding and trimming trees at a Scientology center in California.

Hassan says he’s worked with patients who have had “psychotic breakdowns” after leaving Scientology, and others who have been left in financial ruin after spending their life savings on courses and auditing fees. He says he’s skeptical about Holmes’s chances of making a tidy exit from the church: “I hope she’s getting good advice.”