At a TimesTalk panel on Monday to discuss the controversial documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, director Alex Gibney was joined by writer Lawrence Wright, who wrote the 2013 book the film is based on, and two well-known critics of Scientology featured in the film: former church member Paul Haggis (the writer/director of Crash) and Mike Rinder, a former head of Scientology’s Office of Special Affairs.
Scientology has slammed the documentary as “dishonest” and based on accounts by “admitted liars and professional anti-Scientologists.” In a statement to PEOPLE on Tuesday, the Church blasts the film as “propaganda” and says it has “long fought against the kind of bigotry and religious hatred that Mr. Gibney and [Wright] aim to incite.”
Moderator Logan Hill first brought up the film’s depiction of Scientology’s most famous members, saying, “I was struck by the film’s focus on Travolta and Cruise. It seemed designed to and really put specific pressure on Travolta and Cruise to either reform or apostatize.”
Director Gibney explained why they were included in the documentary.
“The fact is they are the front of the church. They are the reason a lot of people join, particularly Tom Cruise now. They have a recruiting power that’s enormous. To put in the film the fact that they are abusing the power they have by not talking out about the church or not even exploring the abuses I thought was absolutely necessary. Otherwise, you have a lot of innocent people that are tumbling into the church on that account.”
The Church calls claims that Travolta and Cruise are used to recruit members – or hold any special recruiting power – “ridiculous.”
“Certainly Mr. Cruise and Mr. Travolta are prominent Scientologists but that is due to their prominence as celebrities and their professional accomplishments,” the Church spokesperson tells PEOPLE. “They hold no position within the Church. They are parishioners who like other parishioners are busy with their careers and families. This is no different than other religions who have prominent members.”
Gibney went on to discuss Cruise’s relationship with Scientology, including what the documentary claims is the church’s involvement in his marriage with Nicole Kidman.
“[Scientology leader] David Miscavige was terrified that he was losing control of Tom Cruise because Tom Cruise is the greatest rainmaker for Scientology. Miscavige was afraid that Nicole Kidman was slowly taking Tom away from the church, so there was a concerted effort to get him back.”
The Church spokesperson calls this assertion “utterly ludicrous” and “insulting” to Miscavige.
“Mr. Miscavige has been successfully leading the Scientology religion for more than a quarter century,” a Scientology spokesperson tells PEOPLE in a statement. “Scientology has expanded faster in the last 10 years than in its previous 50 and is the fastest growing religion of the 21st Century. Scientology’s worldwide parishioners hold him in the highest esteem for what he has done and is doing for the religion.”
Pulitzer Prize winner Wright urged that intervention by Travolta and Cruise is the only way to curb what he calls Scientology’s abuse of power.
“The reason we are calling out Cruise and Travolta is they have the capacity, the power, to change it. There are only two ways that you can address the abuses that are going on in Scientology. One is to re-examine the tax exemption. But some of those celebrity megaphones, if they were turned around in the other direction they could make a difference. They should make a difference. I’d like to see Tom Cruise stand up and say it’s time for David Miscavige to answer his accusers.”
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief airs at 8pm on March 29 on HBO.
You can watch the TimesTalk below, and read Scientology’s full response on its website.