CLEARWATER, FLA. — The leader of the Church of Scientology struck subordinates numerous times and set an example for physical violence among the tightly controlled religion's management team, four former high-ranking executives told a newspaper for a story published Sunday.
The executives, who have since left the organization, told the St. Petersburg Times that they witnessed David Miscavige, chairman of the board that oversees the church, hit staff members dozens of times.
"It was random and whimsical. It could be the look on your face. Or not answering a question quickly. But it always was a punishment," said Mike Rinder, who oversaw the church's legal and media relations operations. Rinder said that he was struck many times by Miscavige and that he also hit others before leaving in 2007.
In a response to the paper, the church denied the allegations, saying that the four former executives' statements were "absolute and total lies." It called the claims an effort to tarnish Miscavige, who has led the church for more than two decades. A spokesman said Sunday that the church had provided documentation that the claims were false.
Marty Rathbun, who served on the church's board and was a top lieutenant of Miscavige's, said Miscavige often ordered him to attack others.
Tom De Vocht, who oversaw the church's spiritual headquarters in Clearwater, estimated that during one three-year period, he saw Miscavige strike staffers as many as 100 times. De Vocht left in 2005.
De Vocht also participated, explaining to the newspaper how he rationalized his actions: "If I don't attack I'm going to be attacked. It's a survival instinct in a weird situation that no one should be in."
Amy Scobee, a manager in California who helped build the church's network of Celebrity Centres, said she witnessed numerous attacks before leaving in 2005 but was never hit herself and never saw any women attacked.
Monique Yingling, a church spokeswoman, said the four left because they had been demoted.
Church spokesman Tommy Davis told the newspaper that an internal investigation revealed that Rathbun -- not Miscavige -- was responsible for dozens of attacks before he left in 2004.
Sunday's report was the first of a three-part series on the church.
The Los Angeles-based Church of Scientology, founded in 1954 by the late science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, teaches that technology can expand the mind and help solve problems. It claims 10 million members worldwide, including celebrities Tom Cruise and John Travolta.
Devotees converge on Clearwater for the highest levels of the church's training.