July 11th, 2012
03:00 AM ET
Montreal, Quebec (CNN) - For the secretive Church of Scientology, "there was no bigger recruit than Tom Cruise."
The top Hollywood actor's membership in the Church beginning in 1986 "was huge," says Karen Pressley - a former Commanding Officer of the Church's Celebrity Centre in Hollywood from 1987 to 1989.
"My job was to ensure that celebrities were recruited, that celebrities were well serviced within our organization, and also to open up new celebrity centers around the world," she told CNN.
The high-profile marriage split between Cruise and actress Katie Holmes, who was raised Catholic, has re-ignited media interest in Scientology's influence in Hollywood.
A joint statement released Monday to announce their divorce settlement said, "We want to keep matters affecting our family private and express our respect for each other's commitment to each of our respective beliefs and support each other's roles as parents." It's not known if Holmes joined the Church of Scientology.
Cruise is just one of many celebrity members of the church, including John Travolta, Jenna Elfman and Kirstie Alley.
But Cruise was among Scientology's biggest fish, says Pressley. "Is there a bigger name than Tom? We called him TC."
Church founder L. Ron Hubbard realized celebrities were key to his mission, according to the Scientology website.
"The world is carried on the backs of a desperate few," Hubbard is quoted as saying on the site. By "the few," Hubbard was referring to leaders in the realm of art, politics, industry, and sports. To cater to these people specifically, the church formed a special branch of Church of Scientology called the Celebrity Centre International. With locations around the world, Hollywood's celebrity center was established in 1969.
Its aim: to provide celebrities "… with a practical technology for improving one's happiness and creativity," the website says.
The church opens the Celebrity Centres for public tours. The Hollywood center offers classes and even a Sunday brunch, according to the website.
According to Pressley, celebrities get special perks including private entrances and course rooms, along with access to a VIP lounge.
She says Hubbard targeted celebrities specifically to add credibility to the Church's beliefs and to encourage more people to join.
Pressley, who was a Scientologist for 16 years, described internal wish lists and strategies discussed among church leaders in the 1980s to recruit other celebrities - including Brad Pitt and Demi Moore. Those discussions about how to bring Moore and Pitt into the fold never bore fruit, Pressley said.
The church would work to win over celebrity recruits, Pressley said, by giving them individual attention and by explaining how Scientology could help them achieve their highest goals as artists.
In exchange for tailored treatment, Pressley says Scientology leaders expected celebrities to stay committed to the church's teachings and speak glowingly of its benefits.
Many of them do exactly that. Travolta's spouse, Kelly Preston, credited Scientology with helping the couple cope with the death of their son, Jett. Alley said the Church helped her overcome a drug addiction.
As for Cruise, he has publicly touted the benefits of church teachings, famously debating NBC's Matt Lauer about the church's stand against psychiatric drugs. More recently, Cruise told Playboy magazine that Scientology offers him a "search for how I can do things better, whether it's being a better man or a better father or finding ways for myself to improve."
"Individuals have to decide what is true and real for them," Cruise said.
Like many faiths, Scientology prides itself on providing couples with communication tools to succeed at marriage. "It works," the church website says. "Whether applied to marital or personal relationships, to one's family or career or simply one's personal peace of mind – Scientology changes conditions for the better."
But Pressley says, as Scientology's celebrity poster child divorces for a third time, it hurts the church and Cruise.
"What does that say about .. a senior level Scientologist like Tom - TC?" Pressley asks. "What does that say about his ability to succeed in relationships? I think it's a huge statement."
The church has only said the divorce is "a private family matter " between Holmes and Cruise and said it "will continue to respect their privacy."
In response to CNN's questions about the relationship between the Church and celebrities, Church spokeswoman Karin Pouw said in a statement, “The Church does not speak about the beliefs and practices of parishioners.”
“Scientology appeals to men and women in all walks of life, as do other major religions," the statement continued. "The perception that it uniquely appeals to those in the arts is a misperception conveyed by the media. There are as many reasons individuals turn to Scientology as there are parishioners, but generally Scientology offers answers to age-old questions, spiritual awareness and greater ability because it provides tools they can use in life.” (Read Pouw's entire statement below.)
In an earlier statement, Pouw commented about Pressley and other members speaking out against Scientology. "...the Church regrets that excommunicated self-serving apostates are sadly exploiting private family matters to further their hate-filled agendas against their former faith. Having left the Church many years ago, these sources have no current knowledge about the Church and their recollections are distorted by their animosity."
Pressley left the Church in 1998, after she "became so disillusioned by what I had earlier believed in, I couldn't live with myself and I no longer chose to allow the Church to control my life."
Splitting with Scientology, she says, is not an easy task - especially for high level officials.
"You don't have the freedom to make a choice like that just to walk out. You have to get permission," she says. "But in order to get permission you have to go through an intensive security check, interrogation procedure before you can be approved to leave."
Now that she's speaking out, Pressley says she's concerned about her safety.
"But," she says, "I can't remain silent about things that matter and I deal with it as it happens."
Editor's note: Below is the complete July 10 statement from Church of Scientology International spokeswoman Karin Pouw to CNN responding to questions surrounding its report about celebrities and the Church.
"The Church does not speak about the beliefs and practices of parishioners. I have never seen CNN ask the Roman Catholic Church to discuss an individual parishioner by name and it points out the insensitivity of your questions.
Scientology appeals to men and women in all walks of life, as do other major religions. The perception that it uniquely appeals to those in the arts is a misperception conveyed by the media. There are as many reasons individuals turn to Scientology as there are parishioners, but generally Scientology offers answers to age‐old questions, spiritual awareness and greater ability because it provides tools they can use in life.
The Scientology religion is enjoying a period of tremendous growth with new Churches opening throughout the world. Each has a Public Information Center providing hundreds of videos about the religion and our social and humanitarian programs in the fields of drug education and rehabilitation, education, criminal reform, morals and human rights. Anyone desiring correct information about the Church can find it at one of these churches or on our website, www.scientology,org."
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.