To be in Scientology’s Sea Organization is to be part of the movement’s self-styled elite: but some former insiders have bitter memories of the harsh conditions and abusive treatment.
Workers at International Base are all members of the Sea Organization, which L. Ron Hubbard, the movement’s founder, once described as Scientology’s aristocracy.
Aristocrats or not, some former staffers at Scientology’s base near Hemet, California, say they suffered abuse from the movement’s leader David Miscavige and his lieutenants.
The original Sea Org served as crew members on a small fleet of ships that Hubbard sailed around the Mediterranean after quitting England in 1967.
Today, Sea Org members still wear naval-style uniforms, practise parade ground drilling and observe a strict disciplinary code. Recruits sign a billion-year contract in which they swear to work for Scientology in this life and millions of future lives.
The Sea Org’s motto is “revenimus”: we come back. There is even provision for a 21-year break at the start of each lifetime to allow time for loyal officers to grow up.
Sea Org members give up everything to devote their lives to Scientology. But life inside this supposedly elite cadre has little of the aristocratic about it.
Many former members have recalled working 14 hours a day or more, six or seven days a week for 50 dollars a week. Scientology provides meals and living quarters, which sometimes amount to little more than cramped dormitories.
But according to some former members, the military-style discipline is often gratuitously abusive.
Jeff Hawkins described something called Severe Reality Adjustments, or SRAs. “It means to forcibly get someone ‘with the programme’ by screaming at them, threatening them.”
Chuck Beatty, another former Base staffer, recalled overhearing someone being trained to deliver an SRA. “He was screaming and also slamming his hand on a table during the drilling I overheard,” he recalled. For a good 20 minutes the trainee bawled out his training partner.
And by the 1990s, former members recall, Scientologists were talking about delivering “face-ripping” SRAs.
Former Sea Org member Martin Ottmann was recruited into Scientology in his native Germany. But between August 1990 and July 1992, he served at Flag Base, in Clearwater, Florida, one of the movement’s biggest centres.
“We, the staff at the FSO [Flag Service Organization], worked the whole day and the whole week for $30 or less, and we got treated for that like we were criminals,” he wrote in an affidavit sworn out in April 19, 1996.
He recalled one incident in which an executive bawled out his junior in quite spectacular terms. “One day I saw her sitting at her desk and B___ standing directly in front of her.
“He was screaming at the top of his lungs directly in her face. I had never heard anyone scream like that. It sounded as if he wanted to blast her against the wall behind her.”
Just as Ottmann’s superiors screamed at him, so he screamed at his subordinates, he wrote. And he also described incidents in which Sea Org members physically attacked the people working under them – something he had done himself, he admitted.
In February 2002, Ottmann submitted a detailed citizen’s complaint about Scientology’s activities to the U.S. Attorneys Office. A letter acknowledging receipt was all the official response he got, he said.
More than 10 years on, the regime at Clearwater had not changed, according to two other former members. In 2005, Donna Shannon and her husband served briefly in the Sea Org there.
Shannon saw colleagues delivering SRAs on a regular basis. Four of five senior officers would gang up on one person, she recalled. “They’d get right in his face. This would last anywhere from five to ten minutes to half an hour.”
This kind of behaviour was the norm in the Sea Org, she said: “You get bullied, you bully the guy under you, who is supposed to bully the next guy down.”
Some people folded under the pressure, she said: but others thrived. “Some people take to it like a duck to water.” After a few months of that, she and her husband left the Sea Org – and Scientology – for good.
Bruce Hines, a former Sea Org member at the Hemet Base, recalled an incident involving David Miscavige. One summer in the early 1990s a storm caused a flash flood through the base. “Some of the buildings sustained some minor damage from water and mud,” he said.
Miscavige summoned all the personnel to a meeting and bawled out the staff responsible for maintaining the grounds.
“He said that they had not responded fast enough or well enough or something like that. He berated them for many, many minutes, his voice booming over the PA system in the meeting room. At one point he yelled at the top of his voice, "F___ you! F___ you!”
“Ranting and raving,” was how another witness described Miscavige’s behaviour. “That’s when I went – ‘No, this has gone too far,’” he added. He left soon afterwards.
Other punishments meted out at the Hemet base included being thrown, fully clothed, into the lake. This is a throwback to one of the punishments handed out by the movement’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard in the late 1960s and early 70s. Back then, it was known as “over-boarding”.
In those days, Hubbard and the original members of the Sea Org were sailing around the Mediterranean. When a ship was docked in harbour, crew members deemed to have failed in their duties would be thrown overboard as punishment.
The only ship out at the land-locked Base is a folly built in Hubbard’s honour: a full-scale replica of a clipper – complete with a sauna, jacuzzi and swimming pool. So for years people were over-boarded at the lake.
As Master at Arms, John Peeler used to supervise such over-boardings. Whoever was to be punished would be pushed into the lake from a bridge that went from the shore over to a small island in the lake, he explained.
“The crew member is allowed to take off his shoes, jewellery or watch and that's it,” he said. “You get pushed in by the MAA [Master at Arms] with the Chaplain reading something about leaving your sins to be washed away by the sea.”
Whole divisions working at the base – up to 30 people – could be over-boarded in a single ceremony if their results were not considered satisfactory, he recalled.
One occasion he recalled vividly. “An elderly lady froze up in the water and couldn't swim herself to the side.” He had to jump in himself and help her to the shore. The last he had heard, they had switched the punishment to the swimming pool.
Another punishment involved being made to run around buildings for hours in the summer heat, which in California can exceed 100 degrees.
Hawkins remembers that after one such punishment his feet were so badly blistered they got infected and he was laid up for a week with blood poisoning.
Another Hemet veteran remembers seeing people out running in the summer heat in full uniform wearing hard leather shoes. “One person was even being pushed around the pole in a wheelchair. They were all in uniform and that was in the middle of July, in the middle of the afternoon when it was the hottest.”
Both over-boarding and the running program were introduced by Scientology’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard when he ran the movement. In his day, the crew of Scientology’s ships got thrown into the harbour in their clothes. Sometimes they were loosely tied up and even blindfolded.
But the most severe punishment inside Scientology’s Sea Org is known as the Rehabilitation Project Force: the RPF.
Next: The RPF: Scientology's Gulag.