Scrutinizing Scientology: Filmmaker goes inside secretive religion

How far will one go if they become a "prisoner" of a belief system like the Church of Scientology?

It's a question the upcoming documentary "Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief" tries to answer.

"One of the things that really interested me was the idea of the prison of belief, the notion that people get so invested in a belief system that they'll do the most appalling things," Academy Award-winning director Alex Gibney said Wednesday on "CBS This Morning."

"In that way, it's about the Church of Scientology, but it's also ... about all of us, really, in terms of when we get invested in a belief system -- and suddenly that blind faith takes us places that aren't expected."

The film, which premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival and will air on HBO on March 29, is based on Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lawrence Wright's book, "Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief."

"We have a smorgasbord of beliefs in this country, so you can believe anything you want. But why Scientology? It's the most stigmatized religion in America. But obviously people go into it; they get something out of it," Wright said. "They affiliate with it. They lend their reputations to it. My goal was to understand what was it that they were getting out of it, why did they go in, why did they stay."

The Church of Scientology was founded by L. Ron Hubbard based on the belief that men are immortal spiritual beings with unlimited capabilities. Members use a counseling method known as auditing, where a set of questions are asked "to locate areas of spiritual distress," according to the organization's website.

"You go into auditing in Scientology and holding these cans that's attached to the e-meter. It's a combination of therapy and confession," Wright said. "The most intimate details of your life is spilled out and they are recorded secretly and sometimes videotaped."

The Church of Scientology is classified as a tax-exempt religion.

"There was a huge fight over that because there was a point in the early '90s when Scientology faced a billion-dollar tax bill and only had about $2 million in assets. So they would have been extinct, but through some very nasty tactics they actually muscled the IRS to give them the tax exemption which they currently hold," Gibney said. "We are in effect subsidizing a lot of the activities of Scientology through this tax exemption."

While the issue of tax exemption is something that Gibney said needs be re-examined, he and Wright also pointed to reports of physical and child abuse within the organization.

"I had 12 people in the Church tell me that they had been physically beaten up by the leader of the Church, David Miscavige. Incarceration. There's a trailer on this camp where the clergy called the Sea Org -- and years ago David Miscavige began imprisoning top leaders of the Church," Wright said.

Celebrities like Tom Cruise knows this happens, Wright said.

"He has a villa on the grounds of the Sea Org base. If he's unaware of the fact that these people have been -- in the case of, for instance, Heber Jentzsch, the nominal president of the Church -- he's been locked up in this thing for seven years. It's not like a vacation for the weekend," Wright said. "This is a place where top executives of the Church have been confined and we know because people have escaped and told their story. We have many people who have left that organization and have told the same story."

One of the things that the documentary alleges is that the Church of Scientology keeps "black PR" files of John Travolta, another well-known member.

"I talked to a former member of Scientology who said that at a point when John Travolta was thinking about leaving the church he was tasked with the job of compiling what they call black PR. In case Travolta left, they would be able to use the information against him," Wright said.

Gibson said he wonders why actors like Travolta and Cruise "allow these abuses in the Church to go on and they don't speak out about them."

The Church of Scientology criticized "Going Clear," calling the film a "one-sided whinefest and bigoted propaganda." While CBS News asked a representative of the Church of Scientology to participate in the dialogue, no one was made available to come on "CBS This Morning."

Gibney encountered a similar experience.

"Actually I reached out to a number of Scientologists, and as we say in the film, they all declined to appear much as they declined to appear on this program," Gibney said. "They did offer 25 unidentified people, but it's hard to understand. You know, imagine if 25 unidentified people showed up at the studios here and say we demand to be heard."

He added that it was "very late in the game, long after I had asked for interviews from a number of key people who were relevant in to the story."

However, Wright did speak with a number of those people and active members of Scientology for his book and also an article where he profiled Paul Haggis, an Academy Award-winning writer and director who left the Church of Scientology after 35 years.

"So their view was constantly solicited by me and reflected in the book and the article and in the documentary," Wright said.

Gibney asserts that many members of the Church of Scientology are leaving.

"The Church is actually shrinking even as their financial affects keep growing because they have over $3 billion," he said.

Editor's note: In January, 2015, the Church of Scientology took out a newspaper advertisement laying out the church's criticism of the HBO film. The church's advertisement is linked here.