(USA TODAY) -- Behind the high-profile divorce of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes lies a story much larger than two celebrities calling it quits.
As the public face of Scientology, Cruise had become the leading advocate of a spiritual and religious empire that claims it can make people more successful, capable and better at personal relations. The latest scrutiny over their divorce is now turning into a public spectacle in which Scientology stands as a major participant.
The religion, founded by author L. Ron Hubbard in 1954, already has weathered numerous controversies, lawsuits and investigations through the years that have depicted it as controlling and manipulative, enacting policies that can split families and place heavy financial burdens on followers. Now Scientology may be headed for a new round of troubles, alongside the Cruise-Holmes divorce, as its cultivated public image - carefully crafted through websites, videos, discreet celebrity endorsements, and visitor centers around the country - is challenged.
"It's already gone through several different crises," said journalist Tony Ortega, a longtime church watcher. "Scientology is splitting apart, it has been for several years. An organization like that is always going to go through a certain amount of churn. But what's happening is really loyal, longtime Scientologists are leaving. It's gathering momentum."
Scientology has advanced itself as a form of self-help and improvement within a religious context.
It tells members that they can remove painful memories that hinder personal growth and achieve a state known as "clear." Newcomers to the church are "audited," with the assistance of an electronic device that measures physical responses to questions. A number of different stages await new members as they advance toward higher levels. Church material says the organization "offers tools to increase your abilities and reach your full potential in life."
Hollywood celebrities have been a large part of the Scientology movement, and its presence is well-known in the entertainment industry.
Analysts say that celebrities are particularly valuable to the movement, allowing it to gain mainstream acceptance and validation to a broad audience.
But the bright light of celebrity can cut both ways, and the spotlight it has brought on Scientology has been revealing in ways that can't be controlled.
"These stories are getting picked up," said Ortega, editor of the Village Voice who has written numerous articles on Scientology that are posted on the Voice's website. "It's more than just celebrity news. All this stuff would be bad anyway, but with the divorce going on, a lot more people are paying attention."
The attention is being focused on the demands that are made of members. "The most long-term damaging policy Scientology has is disconnection. A person in the church changes his mind, leaves the church, they are declared a 'suppressive person.' It's a version of excommunication. It's ripping families apart, and it has for years," Ortega said. "It's very controlling."
Scientology may have played a role in Cruise and Holmes' split, with published reports suggesting that Holmes, who was raised Catholic, was worried about their daughter Suri's future involvement in Cruise's religion. Holmes recently enrolled the 6-year-old in Manhattan's prestigious Convent of the Sacred Heart Catholic School, according to published reports.
While criticism abounds, numerous members have said the belief system has helped them improve their lives and their well-being. Advocates for the church say it produces real benefits to individuals and the larger community.
But at this time, the church is not discussing the issue of its most high-profile advocate.
"With respect to Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes divorce, the church has no comment," a statement recently sent to CNN said. "This is and always was a private family matter and the church will continue to respect their privacy."
Meanwhile, an e-mail from church spokeswoman Linda Simmons Hight said, "The Church of Scientology is not doing any interviews at this time."
The church has embarked on a large-scale building expansion in recent years, and that has put new pressure on church members.
"It put everything on money ...David Miscavige, the leader of Scientology, made decisions in the late 1990s and early 2000s that have created a lot of tension and unhappiness. That's what we're hearing from a lot of people coming out," Ortega said.
Leaving the church can be hard. To Steve Hassan, a former member of the Unification Church led by Sun Myung Moon, that is the goal of any mind-controlling organization. The church also has been criticized for exerting excessive influence on individuals.
Hassan, who calls himself a "former Moonie" who spent time in the upper reaches of the Unification Church in Tarrytown, N.Y., said movements that exert powerful control over followers have a lot in common, and Scientology bears all those traits.
"It's a group that's authoritarian and totalitarian, a group that doesn't allow people to make independent decisions," he said.
Hassan, now a mental-health counselor in the Boston area and the author of Freedom of Mind, said organizations that control behavior, information, thought and emotions should be watched carefully.
He's been watching the Cruise saga with interest. To him, it says quite a bit about Scientology and its claims.
"Scientology prides itself on saying it works, that you can communicate with anyone, have more successful relationships," Hassan said. "The fact that his third marriage has gone down the tubes - what does that say? It is a huge loss."