All religions have their Xenus, multi-armed elephants, or magic babies, their morally ambiguous prophets, their tall-tales and scandals. They even ask for millions of dollars from the faithful.

But the defectors who claim to have been bilked say this scheme is different, manipulating local parishes for the sake of central church finances. And once you talk to them, the stereotypes start to fade. These donors weren’t brainwashed weirdos. They were more average joes than creepy cultists — searching, like the rest of us, for a pew, a community, a how-to guide for life. They’re not familiar with corporate intrigue or mass donation drives.

This increasingly public wave of internal strife comes at the worst possible time. Over the past year, the number of vocal and visible Scientology exiles began to increase at a rate that surprised even the staunchest of church critics. TomKat fever boosted news coverage, while Lawrence Wright’s sprawling 2011 New Yorker profile of filmmaker Paul Haggis, who split acrimoniously and loudly from the church, gave way to a new book. Along with Janet Reitman’s 2011 book, Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion, investigators and defectors have begun to organize like never before, shining uninvited klieg lights into the church’s carefully cultivated shadows. Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master wasn’t the thinly veiled exposé some may have clamored for, but still sparked conversation about Hubbard and the religion’s history; sophisticated whistleblower news sites like Mark Bunker’s xenutv.com, shared among defectors, did even more.