The new Scientology documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief premiered on HBO Sunday night, and many of those who appear in it continue to make their voices heard.
“I’m standing up for what is right,” Sara Goldberg, a member of the Church of Scientology for more than 35 years, tells PEOPLE of her decision to speak out in the documentary. “[The church] has a website where they have a picture of me with a target on my face, like a bull’s eye. But there are certain things you just can’t be afraid of, or they’ve won.”
In the wake of Going Clear, PEOPLE asked Goldberg and others who participated in the documentary to talk about why they went public – and how their lives were affected. PEOPLE also reached out to the Church of Scientology leadership, which has repeatedly maintained that all claims made in the documentary are false. Scientology has posted detailed responses to Goldberg and other ex-members featured in Going Clear on its website, accusing them of dishonesty and misconduct.
A Mother’s Sorrow
Goldberg says her lack of “fear” in dealing with the church is fueled by her desire to reunite her family.
The mother of two says she joined Scientology in 1976 and rose up the ranks within the church before she was forced to leave it in 2013 because she refused to “disconnect” from her son Nick, whom she says had already been excommunicated by church leadership.
“I knew I could lose my daughter, my job, my financial means, all my friends,” Goldberg says of having to choose between her son and her religion. “It was scary. It was so very scary.”
And Goldberg says her fears came true, including losing her daughter Ashley.
“I told Ashley, ‘I’m not going to disconnect from either of my children. I’m not going to choose,’ ” Goldberg says of her daughter, whom Goldberg says broke off all contact with her at the church’s urging. “And Ashley said, ‘Mom, I hate disconnection but this is what I have to do.’ I haven’t heard from her since then, aside from an email asking me to stop reaching out to her.”
Scientology denies Goldberg’s claims and posted a video that features her daughter Ashley telling her side of the story. “I’m disgusted that she is using myself and my daughter to elicit sympathy,” Ashley says in the video.
“The Church of Fear”
Deciding to go against what Goldberg calls “The Church of Fear” has not been easy for those who participated in Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney‘s documentary, which is based on a book by Pulitzer Prize-winner Lawrence Wright.
“There was a tremendous amount of fear. And that caught me off guard. I didn t realize people would be so frightened. I know to some extent I put them in jeopardy because I talked to them,” says Wright, who also says that the church has made numerous threats of legal action because of his book. “But I’ve faced nothing like what the people who have spoken to me have endured.”
One of those, Wright says, is Marty Rathbun, a senior executive within the church leadership before he left the religion in 2004.
Rathbun claims he has been harassed by people working for the church and says his wife has obtained an injunction against them.
“They went after my wife even though she was never involved in Scientology. They went after her relentlessly,” Rathbun tells PEOPLE. “Now we have a 16-month-old child, and going after my wife and child created a level of irritation that is intolerable.”
Representatives for the Church of Scientology have firmly denied Rathbun and his wife’s claims, as well as those of Tom Devocht, another former high-ranking member of the church leadership who speaks out in the documentary.
“The Church has already documented their false statements in white papers and videos on our website, providing the truth on these individuals and their lies based on either their own documented actions or what those close to them had to say,” the church says of the statements specifically made by Goldberg, Rathbun and Devocht in Going Clear.
Why They Came Forward
“It’s about putting the public on notice about the potential end product of getting involved in this group,” Rathbun says of why he participated in Wright’s book and Gibney’s film. “I’ve said for years that the more people who stand up against Scientology, the sooner they’ll run out of resources.”
Rathbun’s sentiments are echoed by Devocht.
“I joined when I was just 12 years old. I didn’t have a helluva lot of choice,” says Devocht. “But this film opens the door to even more truths and more information coming out. That is going to be effective in protecting more people from it.”
The Church Responds
In Going Clear, Gibney claims he offered the Church of Scientology the opportunity to respond to allegations made in the documentary, but the church maintains that the director “ran from any facts that got in the way of his preconceived story line and ignored all our efforts to communicate.”
“We have compiled the unvarnished truth in the form of video footage, court documents, publicly available records and testimonials by pertinent individuals and parishioners worldwide who do represent Scientology, and who were intentionally ignored by Mr. Gibney and HBO. All of it 100% accurate,” the Church of Scientology continues in a statement released to PEOPLE.
“They want to instill fear,” Goldberg says of the website the church created containing information about her. “They’re trying to discredit us but they are also subliminally telling the members of the church, ‘This will happen to you if you dare speak out against us.’ ”
“I don t think this is going to do anything to change the leopard’s spots,” Rathbun says when asked if he thinks the church will change from within after Going Clear.
But those who have been vocal in their criticism of Scientology have hopes that the film will move the IRS to re-examine the church’s tax-exempt status.
“Scientology is given so many rights because they are recognized as a religion,” says Jenna Miscavige Hill, who is the niece of church leader David Miscavige and authored Beyond Belief after leaving Scientology in 2013. “Essentially the people who give out religious recognition are the IRS by awarding tax exemption.”
“Even if something seems good at first, if an organization is telling you that you can’t look at certain information or is keeping you away from your family, then it’s time to reevaluate,” Miscavige Hill says. “Maybe that’s exactly what you should be doing.”
Scientology, meanwhile, says the documentary’s criticism is “insidious religious persecution” and calls Wright’s book and Gibney’s film “both transparent vehicles for their vendettas against all religion and people of faith.”
Former members like Goldberg ultimately just want to spare others the pain that they say they have experienced.
“I need to keep shining the light on these abuses,” says Goldberg. “As far as the religion goes, I don’t care what people believe, but it is not right when you are ruining and destroying lives and tearing apart families. It is just not right.”
• With reporting by LIZ McNEIL