After spending a couple of weeks preparing, filming and writing a story on the Church of Scientology, I feel like I'm slowly escaping from some strange parallel universe that could well be a bad dream.
It's not so much the beliefs of the Church that have me confounded – as odd as I might find grown-ups referring, with deadly seriousness, to a nasty intergalactic dictator called Xenu, or musing that their religion's dead founder, science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard, can be found on some distant planet known as T2 as he and his faithful followers await his return to earth.
Everyone is entitled to their beliefs, right? That doesn't shake me so much as does the sinister practices of this so-called Church that leave so many families ripped apart and others penniless.
Account after account tells of terrible treatment within the Church – verbal abuse, beatings, imprisonment and for those who dare to escape, vilification, intimidation and bullying. It is outrageous behaviour that is twistedly protected by its status as a religion. It's further protected by its shiny cloak of celebrity, with Tom Cruise and John Travolta its most recognisable spruiking stars, as well as its immense tax-free wealth.
The Church has a well-practised routine of attacking critics full on. If its enforcers can get in first they will. If they can find private and personal information to publicly shame, you they will.
This warning came to stark fruition only a day into our shoot. We were in New York, filming with Ron Miscavige. He is the father of Scientology's leader, David Miscavige, who is also known as the Pope and the Chairman of the Board. Ron escaped Scientology, seven years ago, after 42 years of faithful service. On escaping, Ron was tracked down and followed by private investigators, who he says were working on the orders of his son and were paid for by the Church.
Having left the Church, Ron is considered its enemy and has been disowned by his son, as well as all family members who remain followers of Scientology.
For our shoot, Ron tried to reach David by phone, as he has done in the past. The receptionist put him on hold for nearly five minutes before transferring him to an answering service where he left a message for his son which remains unanswered to this day.
Within half an hour of that call, as crew and producer were leaving the room with Ron to film a sequence outside the Scientology building next door, two people seemed to be loitering in the hallway. This is not unusual in a popular hotel but something about them caught the eye of my team.
Perhaps it was the studied manner in which the woman was applying her lipstick, or how intensely the man tried to see inside our room as they exited. Of course, they were most likely not Scientologists but their presence felt unusual enough to give my team the creeps.
Just over 24 hours later, the Church of Scientology had somehow identified my producer, Stefanie Sgroi, and found her email address, sending her a seven-page letter 'putting 60 Minutes on notice'.
As well as putting us on notice, the email's purpose was to blacken Ron's reputation, listing all manner of things Ron had done and been accused of doing. Rather smugly it seemed, the Church wanted us to know they knew all about Ron's travel plans to New York and his arrangements with our program, despite neither Ron or us telling them.
We soon moved onto LA where, filming their buildings from the street, our crew was quickly clocked as employees of Channel Nine and filmed and upbraided by Church personnel which may well be expected, even acceptable. Spitting in the vicinity of our cameraman, as did a security guard from the Church, was certainly not acceptable nor particularly grown-up.
Our crew returned to our lodgings in LA, to soon head out again, leaving the driveway gate open. For anyone watching them leave, the house now appeared unattended, except Stefanie and I were inside, busy writing at the dining table. Soon after the crew left, we spotted a man confidently striding up our driveway, past our window, to the rear of the house. He seemed so certain that at first we thought he might be a gardener, except he came with no tools.
On questioning him, he told me he was interested in renting the property.
I advised him there was a sign out the front with a number he should contact. His story was believable. The house was for rent, though there was an obvious sign that said do not disturb the current tenants, and he barely paused to take down the number I'd directed him to. There was nothing else to say he was not doing what he claimed to be doing – showing interest in an available property. But there was something we couldn't pinpoint that made both Stephanie and I uneasy, uneasy enough to contact the real estate agency.
They told us there had been no inquiries for that property that day. There's certainly no proof that Scientology was tailing us, as they have done to others, and I can't see what they would gain by doing so but again it was enough to make us watchful.
The aim of our story was to highlight the disappearance of David Miscavige's wife, Shelly. The Church denies she's missing despite no confirmed sighting of her since her father's funeral in 2007, no direct statement from her, nor the release of any recent photos.
When we asked the Church for an interview with David Miscavige, we were turned down. The notion that he might be asked as to the whereabouts of his wife or to respond to allegations of abuse within the Church was considered ‘preposterous' by the media relations department.
Instead we were sent many letters that were dedicated to denigrating the people who were to be in our story, despite no direct knowledge within the Church that these people would appear. It seemed it was their way of saying, while you may be turning your focus on us we are watching you.