LOS ANGELES – Leah Remini probably had no idea just how much attention she would attract when it was revealed on July 11th that she had parted ways with the Church of Scientology.
Data provided by Yahoo! shows that searches related to Scientology spiked 299 percent in July compared to June, and searches for Leah Remini grew a whopping 946 percent. And the increased attention could be just for starters, as Remini says she isn’t going away.
“No one is going to tell me how I need to think, no one is going to tell me who I can, and cannot, talk to," the actress told People Magazine. "I thought about the family being broken up for some other cause, and I’m not about to shut up.”
Her outspokenness has some other ex-Scientologists piping up too.
Director Paul Haggis, who left Scientology in 2009, wrote an open letter to Remini published by the Hollywood Reporter on Wednesday, in which he praised her “brave” break from the organization and anticipated that its Office of Special Affairs would now work to “attack Leah indirectly, posting negative comments about her shows and career and abilities under myriad false names, pretending to be disappointed fans or whatever.”
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“I can’t express how much I admire Leah. Her parents, family and close friends were almost all Scientologists; the stakes for her were so much higher than for me. Her decision to leave was so much braver,” Haggis wrote. “I will leave it to you to decide if the same can be said of Scientology’s executives and Leah’s many former friends -- especially those Scientologists who are watching her be smeared now and are choosing to stay silent.”
The silence from Scientologists may not last for long, but those “former friends” Haggis speaks of may not have nice things to say, according to veteran publicist Roger Neal.
“To remedy the fallout they would have to go on an aggressive PR campaign to let the public know who they are and I’m sure they will put their bigger names out there to defend and support them,” he said, hinting that the likes of Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Kelly Preston, Kirstie Alley, Elizabeth Moss and Juliette Lewis may come out to defend their religious organization. “This all puts the church under a huge microscope, and they will have to do business differently at this point.”
The church has already responded to Haggis’ open letter with a lengthy statement claiming that Haggis is a “status-obsessed screenwriter” who was an “inactive Scientologist for thirty years” who “is exploiting his tenuous connection with Scientology to grab headlines.”
Former Village Voice editor and longtime Scientology investigative reporter Tony Ortega told us the church will definitely fight back, and hard.
“This has a huge impact on the church. Not only because such a high profile member is leaving and getting so much publicity for it, but also because she is raising issues that are already tearing the membership apart – disconnection, interrogations, fundraising, and the whereabouts of Shelly Miscavige,” he said. “Scientology is headed for a reckoning, and the celebrities are going to be forced at some point to account for all the abuse done in Scientology’s name.”
Mark “Marty” Rathbun, a former top-tier Scientology official who worked under church leader David Miscavige, left the organization in 2004, claiming Miscavige was ordering abuse and beatings. Rathbun says Scientology is doubtlessly working to mitigate the damage from Remini’s departure.
“(The church) will step up their ‘human rights’ public relations campaign. When I exposed the prison camp operated by their chairman, David Miscavige, they spent millions on events, releases and videos attempting to position themselves as ‘human rights’ advocates,” Rathbun continued. “Since Leah raised the issue of the imprisonment of Miscavige’s own wife, it is likely you will see more Scientology PR on being ‘human rights’ advocates.’”
The Church’s website lists a vast array of long-running human rights campaigns and global initiatives to help those in need, such as offering rehabilitation and prevention programs for those suffering substance abuse, as well as “Applied Scholastics” to raise literacy levels for children.
Mike Rinder, a former rep for the Church of Scientology – whose job it was to control disasters like Remini’s departure until he left a few years ago – noted in his personal blog that the organization is “going all out to attempt damage control internally on the withering blasts that have been exposing some of the nasty, not to be spoken about underbelly of life in corporate Scientology.”
“Where the real panic is occurring is in trying to keep the faithful on board. The Ethics Officers are working overtime, but Miscavige’s personal troops, the ‘OT Ambassadors,’ are also being sent forth to do battle with the forces of evil,” he wrote, referring to the Scientology term “Operating Thetan,” which involves members achieving a number of different levels. “I have known Leah Remini for many years. She is one of the most down-to-earth, honest and truly caring celebrities I came across in Scientology. Funny, endearing and abrasive all at once, she does not sit quietly when she knows injustices are being perpetrated on those who have no voice to speak for themselves.”
The Church has strongly denied allegations of abuse, and has repeatedly shot down all accusations made by Ortega, Rathbun and Rinder that the Church forces members to “disconnect” from those who have left it.
“The media is covering the Remini story as though the church were a cult – which is something the Church of Scientology vehemently denies. For the public, Leah Remini’s story will likely reinforce that there is something very secretive, something sinister going on inside,” said crisis communications guru, Glenn Selig. “The Church of Scientology is accustomed to spikes of bad news coverage. Accusations like this are nothing new. I suspect the church will wait for the wave of negative publicity to run its course and then simply keep doing what it has been doing.”
Remini was reportedly reprimanded by church big-wigs when she dared question the whereabouts of Miscavige’s wife Shelly, who has not been seen in public since 2007, and received something of an awakening after being subjected to the Church’s alleged “thought modification” process. According to Ortega, who broke the news, Remini was very disillusioned by all that was going on, but he said it can be very difficult for Scientologists to walk away.
“I'm told that she continued to ask about Shelly Miscavige and some of the other problems she saw. She was repeatedly in trouble with 'ethics' officers who reprimanded her. I think over that time, she harbored her doubts, but the thought of actually leaving and the trouble it might cause in her family kept her nominally in the church,” he explained. “Then, in 2011 she stuck up for Paul Haggis and that brought down another round of harassment from ethics officers. She continued also to ask about Shelly, and in October 2012, she had a meeting with David Miscavige himself, which really didn't allay her concerns.”
Remini’s sister told Ortega that at that point, the “King of Queens” actress knew she was going to leave, but spent several months preparing her family for it, knowing that the church would attempt to force "disconnection" on them.
Scientology’s rep initially responded to the Remini situation by issuing a statement that “The Church respects the privacy of parishioners and has no further comment,” but called the allegations of “interrogations” and “thought modification” both “absurd and pure nonsense, as are all the statements made about the Church’s leader, David Miscavige.”
A rep for the tax exempt organization also insisted that suggestions Shelly was missing were refuted last year by her counsel and that “any statement about her, a private person, is inappropriate for publication.”
“The two bloggers who have been pushing this story have been obsessed for years with spreading falsehoods to smear the Church. They are unreliable. You really should look into the specific Internet sources being used in this story,” said rep Karin Pouw, adding “links with documentation of their unreliability” to http://whoismichaelrinder.com and http://whoistonyortega.com.
Around that same time, the domain http://whoisleahremini.com was registered, although the buyer’s information remains private.
The Church of Scientology did not respond to repeated requests for further comment for this story.
Hollie McKay has been a FoxNews.com staff reporter since 2007. She has reported extensively from the Middle East on the rise and fall of terrorist groups such as ISIS in Iraq. Follow her on twitter at @holliesmckay