Lawsuit accuses Church of Scientology of holding children captive, forcing them into labor

A man walks past the Church of Scientology of Los Angeles building in Los Angeles, California July 3, 2012. | REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

The Church of Scientology has denied allegations from former employees who say they were trafficked as children growing up in what some consider to be a celebrity cult. 

A lawsuit filed last week in a Florida federal court alleges six counts of forced labor against Scientology leader David Miscavige and five Scientology entities in violation of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act.

In a statement, the Church of Scientology called the allegations "scurrilous and ridiculous," suggesting the lawsuit is a "sham and a scam."

"Valeska Paris already wasted the time of law enforcement when she made these fraudulent claims years ago," the statement adds. "It is public record they closed her file stating 'There are no corroborating witnesses or evidence provided to support the allegations.'"

Gawain Baxter — who filed the complaint along with his wife, Laura, and Valeska Paris —  alleges he was 6 years old when he became a contractor for the Church of Scientology for “1 billion years.”

“From the ages of six to fourteen, Gawain was not permitted to attend any accredited public or private school,” according to the lawsuit. “Instead, schoolwork consisted of two to three hours per day of basic reading, writing, and math in a classroom of thirty other children, under the supervision of Linda Hilton, Cadet Coordinator’s spouse.”

The lawsuit alleges Scientology officials systematically trafficked Baxter and others through the organization’s oft-cited Sea Org workforce, using indoctrination and other methods to hobble them from both physical, financial and psychological perspectives. 

According to the lawsuit, Baxter performed manual labor as a boy at the church’s "Flag Base" in Clearwater, Florida. After he tried to call attention to what he described as abuse and intolerable living conditions, Baxter says he was sent to a ship in the Caribbeans known as Freewinds.

After receiving only basic reading, writing and math instruction, then 15-year-old Baxter and the other plaintiffs had their passports and IDs confiscated, the lawsuit alleges.

“This was not a peaceful or loving environment; instead, it was a world filled with abuse, violence, intimidation, and fear. [Scientology] considered Plaintiffs to be possessions, void of any rights, whose sole purpose was to serve [them],” the complaint reads.

Baxter claims that his parents placed him in a Cadet Org nursery in Clearwater, Florida, when he was 2 months old and that when he was 6, he became a member of Cadet Org. Baxter claims he was separated from his parents and forced to live in a dormitory, which was a repurposed Quality Inn, with over 100 other children. 

The complaint claims that children slept on bunk beds in crowded rooms. Baxter was reportedly allowed to visit his parents every evening at dinner initially. But when he turned 10, he allegedly could only visit his parents once per week but sometimes only once per month. 

After finishing daily schoolwork and “Scientology indoctrination,” the filing states that Baxter was “forced to provide five to ten hours a day of unpaid work at Flag Base, including food preparation, trash removal, landscaping, and clerical work.”

But during staff shortages, Baxter alleges he “was made to work full-time and skip his schoolwork entirely.”

“At age thirteen, Gawain was provided a stipend of eight dollars per week, which was contingent on his completing his training courses and performing his work to the satisfaction of Cadet Coordinator,” the lawsuit reads. “Gawain used this paltry amount to purchase necessities, including his toiletries and shoes.”

At the age of 14, Baxter said he was transferred from Cadet Org to Sea Org. But before joining Sea Org, he was forced to complete boot camp at Flag Base. Although Baxter didn’t want to join the boot camp, the complaint claims he was threatened with potential homelessness and told that his parents would be punished for his resistance. 

“For the three-month period that he was on the EPF, Gawain was required to perform physical labor, including renovating a building, cleaning other facilities, and landscaping for twelve or more hours per day, and to spend an additional five hours each day immersed in Defendants’ indoctrination programs,” the lawsuit reads. “During this entire period, Gawain was sleep-deprived, given inadequate time to eat, and verbally abused by his adult supervisors.”

After completing boot camp and joining Sea Org, Baxter was allegedly sent from Florida to Curacao and placed on the Freewinds, where his passport and immigration documents were taken. On the ship, Baxter claims he was forced to “perform arduous physical labor and menial tasks,” between 16 and 24 hours per day.   

His assignments allegedly included repainting pipes, cleaning the deck, preparing food and serving as a steward for the crew and administrative work.

“[He was] punished for any failure to fully comply with the commands of higher-ranking Sea Org members,” the legal filing states. “Gawain suffered from sleep deprivation and was always anxious and fearful that anything he said or asked might be interpreted as rebellious and result in physical or mental punishment.”

Founded by American science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in 1955 with its headquarters in Los Angeles, the Church of Scientology states on its website that it "has no set dogma concerning God that it imposes on its members."

"As with all its tenets, Scientology does not ask individuals to accept anything on faith alone," the website reads. "Rather, as one's level of spiritual awareness increases through participation in Scientology auditing and training, one attains his own certainty of every dynamic."

The organization has faced scrutiny in recent years over allegations from at least one high-profile member, “King of Queens” actress Leah Remini, who says the church leadership forced her to have an abortion against her will.

Thie story was updated to include a statement from the Church of Scientology. 

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