Scientology calls itself a religion and claims to offer purpose and meaning to its members. Yet for some who worked in the church's militaristic Sea Organization, Scientology provided something different: physical punishment, humiliation, beatings, sleep deprivation, and long and ruinous separation from loved ones.

The stories of 11 former staffers, reported in a St. Petersburg Times special report Sunday, are told with such detail and emotional heft that the church's official denials of abuse ring hollow.

It takes courage to challenge the Church of Scientology, which has long pursued and attempted to destroy its critics. Yet now 15 former Sea Org members have gone on the record with their stories of abuse during years of working at or near the church's top management. Four of those, whose stories were related in the Times' first special report in June, are the highest ranking officials ever to defect from Scientology.

Some remain proponents of the church's mission, but they say that since Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard died in 1986, current chairman David Miscavige has taken the church in a new and dehumanizing direction. They describe Miscavige as a brilliant yet brutal man who delights in assaulting and subjugating employees.

Fear of Miscavige apparently permeated the church's 500-acre international base in the desert outside Los Angeles. Former Sea Org members reported being subjected to or witnessing Miscavige slapping or pummeling staff members. For punishment, they said Sea Org members working at the base were thrown into a lake, had to jog for hours around a dirt track in the desert heat, were assigned to do manual labor - sometimes for years - or were forced to spend weeks in a guarded tent camp where they had to bathe and use a makeshift latrine in full view of others. Sea Org members who did not meet expectations were forced to confess in front of a jeering crowd of hundreds.

Emerging from the Times reports is a possible answer to the pervasive question of why Sea Org members stay and endure such treatment. Most of those interviewed by the Times became members of Scientology as young children or impressionable teenagers. When they later joined the Sea Org, they signed billion-year contracts, promising to serve the church throughout eternity. The church took a controlling, paternalistic role, becoming the sole source of food, housing and medical care for staffers. Sea Org members were paid only about $75 a week, which left them impoverished. The church kept on file "confessionals" members were required to write in which they admitted shortcomings and freed the church of liability. And if they married another church staffer and later wanted to defect, they faced leaving their spouse behind.

As more people who have escaped the grip of the Church of Scientology come forward to tell their stories, the secrecy that has been a hallmark of the church's internal operations is being stripped away. The truth is that this organization abuses people to advance its quest to become a global force, and even the church's ever-present public relations machine cannot put a pretty face on that.