From the moment Katie Holmes’s split from Tom Cruise became public, celebrity watchers speculated whether the Mission Impossible star’s devotion to the Church of Scientology contributed to the couple’s demise. A more pressing question might be, what role will Scientology play in their divorce?
The answer could boil down to a battle over the religious upbringing of the littlest Cruise, Suri, the couple’s 6-year-old daughter. While their prenuptial agreement will likely resolve all legal and financial issues, it won’t settle religious matters, Los Angeles divorce attorney Kelly Chang Rickert told The Daily Beast. That means the degree to which Suri remains involved in Scientology could become a source of contention as proceedings go forward.
“Prenups in California can’t govern religion or action,” Rickert said. “I actually don’t think it will be acrimonious. I think Tom Cruise has a lot of secrets to protect and he has a lot of money to protect them. I don’t think he’s going to let his private life leak into the public.”
But acrimony has been a theme in other high-profile divorce cases involving Scientologists, people familiar with the church told The Daily Beast, particularly when believers have duked it out to ensure that their offspring are raised within the faith.
There’s reason to believe Cruise might follow this path, according to Rick Ross, a court-certified expert on Scientology who has testified in divorce proceedings involving members of the faith.
“Tom Cruise made a point of saying my family, we are Scientologists, and I am going to raise my daughter as a Scientologist,” Ross said. “This is the kind of talk that he laid out, and I think that the expectation was always that Katie Holmes would go along with that.”
Despite intense public interest, Scientology’s most advanced teachings remain shrouded, even to many Scientologists themselves. Members of the church are exposed to founder L. Ron Hubbard’s tenets as they reach certain spiritual milestones. Cruise himself is thought to have advanced to the faith’s highest levels, at which members are barred from discussing teachings with anyone outside a small circle of believers.
In contrast, Holmes’s commitment to Hubbard’s teachings has been in question from the early days of their marriage, even as her husband played his role as the religion’s most prominent unofficial spokesperson. The actress was raised in a Roman Catholic family, and her sudden acceptance of Cruise’s faith when the two began seeing one another in 2005 surprised many who knew her before the relationship.
This could make a difference as the couple considers their child’s future. “The extent to which she is willing or resistant to her daughter’s continued contact with Scientology may become a major issue in the divorce,” said Steve Kent, a professor at the University of Alberta who has written extensively on Scientology. It’s possible that divorce proceedings will contain “a major fight over Scientology’s beliefs and practices,” Kent said.
While the church claims millions of members, the most reliable figures put the total number of Scientologists practicing in the United States at around 25,000. For these people, the church can play an important role in their upbringing, education, and daily lives. Some believers enroll their children in special grade schools—such as the Delphi Schools located in California, Massachusetts, and Florida—that are staffed by fellow Scientologists, and where church teachings and customs are incorporated into the curriculum. For example, along with teaching basic school subjects, the schools oversee “security checks,” during which an “ethics officer” asks students as young as 6 to answer a series of personal questions.
Because of the extreme secrecy that surrounds the church’s activities, it is difficult to know exactly what an upbringing in the faith might look like for Suri. A window into that world came from Jenna Miscavige Hill, the niece of the church’s leader, David Miscavige. In 2005 Jenna became one of the highest-profile defections from the church, and has since described her upbringing on a California Scientology ranch in interviews, detailing a regimen of courses in the religion as well as rigorous physical tasks, including hauling rocks—tasks that served no apparent purpose, she said.
Another hurdle for the couple might involve rules dictating what the church calls “suppressive persons”—people who are publicly critical of Scientology. The faithful are instructed to stay away from “SPs,” who are thought to endanger spiritual development.
A decision by the church to brand Holmes in this way could make the relationship between Suri and her mother difficult or even impossible, Kent said. Rick Ross added that Holmes could have more problems if Cruise gets shared custody. “I think it’s very likely based on other situations that I’m aware of that he’s going to have Suri Cruise involved in Scientology as much as possible when he has control of her time.”
Holmes’s own five-year involvement in Scientology may hold a few surprises for the actress as a potential custody fight unfolds. One of the faith’s most important practices is a process of self-revelation with a trained church official, called auditing—the religion’s form of confession or spiritual counseling. “There are no meaningful boundaries” in auditing, Ross said. “What they’ve got in a file that Katie Holmes has confided could be used potentially in some way in the divorce.”
In the auditing process, adherents may disclose details of their personal life, and a record of the audit is placed in a file. While the church has said that the contents of a Scientologist’s audit file are confidential, Kent said that there have been instances in recent years in which representatives admitted to looking into the files of former members who became critical of the religion.
“The question is, what do they know about Katie Holmes?” Ross asked. “What do they have in what’s called a ‘pre-clear’ folder? And are they going to use that information, if they have negative information, to go after her in the divorce proceeding?” (As Hubbard described in his book Dianetics, scientologists aspire to advance from a “pre-clear” to “clear” psychic state as they develop spiritually.)
Yet if there is a drawn-out and high-profile battle involving Cruise, Scientology may have much to lose and almost nothing to gain. The defection of other high-profile members, such as the actor Jason Beghe in 2007 and the director Paul Haggis in 2009, left the church with a public-relations mess to mop up, and it may not want to go toe-to-toe with Holmes, who would likely receive widespread public support.
“I think they’ll just walk away and be as quiet as she has,” Kent said. He guessed that Holmes, like Cruise’s former wives, Nicole Kidman and Mimi Rogers, would not speak publicly about Scientology after the divorce is final. If a custody battle over Suri turns messy, though, Holmes may be forced to reconsider her silence on the faith to which she made at least a nominal conversion, Kent said. “If she’s pushed, that’s another question entirely.”