Leah Remini says at only 13 she signed a "billion-year" contract to be part of Scientology's religious order, Sea Org
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Leah Remini is now one of the most high-profile and outspoken critics of the Church of Scientology, but when she was first introduced to the religion, she found comfort in both the structure and the freedom the church brought to her childhood.

What began as a “normal” middle-class upbringing in Bensonhurst, New York, changed for Remini at young age when her parents divorced. When her mother started dating a Scientologist, the new religion “was introduced to our household pretty quickly,” the actress tells PEOPLE in this week s cover story.

While she jokes that initially she couldn’t even pronounce the name of her new faith, she soon found herself benefiting from some of the religion’s tenets. “Almost immediately my mother became a little more open and less the mother who was always yelling at you. She told my sister [Nicole, then 10], and me that we were spiritual beings and we were going to start learning to communicate and not attack each other. As a kid, it’s very empowering,” Remini explains.

At only 13, Remini and Nicole were invited to move into the church’s special Sea Org headquarters in Clearwater, Florida – home to Scientology’s most dedicated members. The pair were separated from their pregnant mother and signed a “billion-year” contract of allegiance to the Sea Org, Remini says.

For much more from Remini, including what she says about Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes, Nicole Kidman, and more, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

Remini claims she and her sister lived in a roach-infested motel room with six other girls. The star dropped out of school in eighth grade and was assigned manual labor for 12 hours a day, including cleaning hotel rooms.

“We were being used as laborers,” she tells PEOPLE. (Scientology, which in a statement has called Remini’s entire book “revisionist history,” says that “allegation is false” and maintains that the facility was in good standing with the local health department.)

The rules were no match for Remini’s “mouth,” and she and Nicole began being regularly reprimanded. Remini says that after her boyfriend was spotting touching her breast, both girls were ordered to the Rehabilitation Project Force, a grueling punishment detail, but her mother stood up to that and decided the family should leave Sea Org. Scientology counters that Remini was dismissed for “fraternization.”

The Reminis moved to L.A. But despite escaping the rigidity of Sea Org life, Remini says, the family was still “scraping to get by, living on a friend’s floor, trying to get our own apartment and paying for Scientology [courses].”