|Laura at the 2010 LA press event|
Another veteran of Scientology's Sea Organization, who was just 12 years old when she was recruited, is suing the movement.
After 13 years inside the group, Laura DeCrescenzo became so desperate to escape that she swallowed bleach to get herself kicked out, says the lawsuit. Scientology “stole Plaintiff’s youth and that of many others,” it argues.
DeCrescenzo (née Dieckman) worked in Los Angeles for the Sea Org, which the movement describes as its elite cadre, between 1991 and 2004.
Married at 16, she fell pregnant when she was 17. But her employers forced her to have an abortion because of the ban on Sea Org members having children, the lawsuit alleges.
DeCrescenzo also spent time on Scientology’s punishment programme, the Rehabilitation Project Force, or RPF.
“There are two very different versions of Scientology,” says the lawsuit. “There is the Scientology as presented to the outside world and there is a different Scientology in which Plaintiff lived and worked for approximately thirteen years.
“In the Scientology world Plaintiff experienced, twelve year old children are taken from their homes, asked to sign employment contracts and put to work. Pregnant women are coerced to have abortions.
“Employees work 100-hour weeks in the business ventures of Scientology at far less than minimum wage. There are no contributions to Social Security or employee pensions, although there is plenty of money to pay Scientology’s Chairman of the Board [David Miscavige], private investigators and lawyers.
“Personal freedoms are restricted and severe punishments are used to keep employees in line… That is the context of this litigation.”
Laura DeCrescenzo joins Claire and Marc Headley, two other former staffers, who filed lawsuits earlier this year against the Church of Scientology International (CSI).
Attorney Barry van Sickle, who is acting for all three plaintiffs, filed the new lawsuit in the Los Angeles courts Thursday (April 2, 2009).
In addition to the grounds listed in the earlier lawsuits this complaint develops fresh lines of attack:
- it challenges Scientology’s practice of using what it calls a “primitive lie detector” to interrogate its employees in security checks;
- it questions the legal validity of the Sea Org employment contracts, as well as the waiver forms and other documents it says they are required to sign if ever they leave;
- and it accuses Scientology officials of trying to discourage potential witnesses in the lawsuits through bribery and intimidation.
---Laura DeCrescenzo – or Dieckman as she then was – was born into Scientology. Both her parents were members and she grew up going to Scientology schools.
By the age of nine, she was already working on staff at one of the movement’s centres, says the lawsuit. “She obtained a work permit and became effectively a full-time employee of Scientology from age ten.”
In 1991, at the age of 12, she was persuaded to sign the billion-year Sea Organization contract. Leaving her family behind in New Mexico, she flew to Los Angeles to start work for them there. She spent the next 13 years working for the Sea Org.
DeCrescenzo’s Sea Org recruiter had promised her she would be able to visit her parents and eventually have children of her own and raise a family.
These promises were never fully honoured, says the complaint.
“Once in, it was all work and little else. Plaintiff discovered she had almost no personal freedom. Planned visits to family were restricted, delayed and cut short. She was 12 – 13 years old and not allowed unrestricted access to her parents.
“She could not visit her parents without special permission and being ‘sec checked’. She would be ‘sec checked’ again upon her return.”
A “sec check” or security check, is when an employee is questioned to ensure that they are still loyal to Scientology. It is carried out using the device Scientologists usually use in their therapy, or auditing, sessions: an electropsychometer, or e-meter.
DeCrescenzo married a fellow Scientologist when she was 16. In 1996, when she was 17, she became pregnant.
“Having children was against the dictates of top management at Scientology,” says the complaint.
“Plaintiff had been working for far less than minimum wage, had no money, no car, no place to call her own, and no medical insurance or coverage. Plaintiff felt trapped and without viable options.”
To remain in good standing with her employers, she had an abortion, it adds. “Plaintiff has knowledge of other female employees ordered to have abortions.” (For more on abortions inside the Sea Org, see Section 11.)
During her time in the Sea Org, DeCrescenzo performed mainly clerical or administrative work. But for a period, she was assigned to the Rehabilitation Project Force.
Scientology characterises the RPF as a chance for members who have slipped from the movement’s high ethical standards to redeem themselves. But the DeCrescenzo lawsuit describes it as a highly abusive process.
“Work on the RPF is designed to control, coerce, punish, inflict emotional distress and break the will of the victim,” it says.
“The working conditions are severely harsh. Personal liberty is non-existent. Plaintiff worked on the RPF for over two years, which caused her significant emotional distress.” (For more on the RFP, see Section 10.)
The bleach incident was partly due to DeCrescenzo’s determination to quit the Sea Org after having failed to win her release from the RFP.
“Plaintiff spent over two years on the RPF and was headed back to the RPF when she escaped by swallowing bleach and pretending to be suicidal,” says the lawsuit.
She made sure her action was witnessed to ensure she would be kicked off staff. The plan worked, but her employers still wanted to ensure that she left on their terms, the complaint adds.
“After being deemed a suicide risk for swallowing bleach, Plaintiff was brought into a room to sign her ‘exit’ papers. Plaintiff was under extreme duress and just wanted to get out without having to undergo hours or days of emotional abuse.”
DeCrescenzo was required to sign a series of documents before she was allowed to leave, says the complaint. “The papers contained a list of her ‘crimes’ and confidential matters revealed in the ‘sec checking’ procedure described above.” She was not given copies of those documents.
During her exit interview DeCrescenzo was told not just that she had no legal recourse against Scientology but that she owed the movement about 120,000 dollars for the training she had received since the age of 12.
This debt is known as a Freeloader’s Bill in Scientology. A freeloader, according to the definition in one Scientology dictionary, is “any person who has failed to complete a staff contract at a Sea Org or Scn [Scientology] org or mission.”
DeCrescenzo initially paid off 10,000 dollars of this debt: having spent years under Scientology’s “undue influence”, she believed it to be her legal obligation, says the complaint.
“Plaintiff had little formal education or sophistication as she had been effectively isolated from mainstream society and culture.” She is now seeking a refund of what the lawsuit describes as an unenforceable debt.
---This is the third lawsuit that van Sickle has filed on behalf of a former Sea Org member since the beginning of the year. But this new complaint introduces several new elements.
Van Sickle focuses on the security checks carried out on employees using the Scientology e-meter. The lawsuit describes the e-meter as a primitive lie detector, echoing the conclusion reached by several court-appointed experts and official reports.
Scientology’s founder L. Ron Hubbard attributed almost supernatural properties to the device in his 1952 operator’s manual: “It sees all, knows all. It is never wrong.”
In a 1960 policy letter (“Interrogation: how to use an E-meter on a silent subject”), he even suggested the device could be used to question criminals and terrorists. “Don’t use guns, use E-meters to make a country safe,” he wrote.
But the lawsuit argues that by obliging DeCrescenzo and other employees to submit to this kind of questioning, Scientology was flouting state and federal laws against the use of lie detectors in this context.
“The sec checking procedure constitutes a gross invasion of privacy and is used to gather embarrassing data on employees,” Van Sickle argues.
“The threat of using confidential and embarrassing information collected and recorded in the ‘sec check’ process is used to control employees. This practice borders on blackmail.”
The lawsuit also accuses Scientology of deceiving its employees by telling them they have no rights.
“[Decrescenzo] was not told of her rights to be paid a proper wage for her labor or of her right not to be subjected to physical punishment, sexual discrimination, coercion, intimidation and forced labor,” van Sickle argues.
Since she signed her departure documents under duress, they should be set aside as invalid, he adds. “[She] did not freely consent to the unconscionable and unlawful terms of her termination papers.”
Finally, the new lawsuit accuses Scientology officials of having contacted former members to dissuade them from backing the legal actions against the movement.
The Church of Scientology International (CSI) and its operatives “have gone on a ‘mission’ to silence and buy off witnesses and potential plaintiffs” says the lawsuit.
“In addition to buying silence with the purported debt forgiveness, Defendant CSI has used threats of punishing friends and family as the currency with which to buy off potential witnesses and claimants.
“Defendant’s efforts to silence witnesses by threats, coercion, forgiveness of alleged ‘Freeloader Debt’ and threats of breaking up families, constitutes obstruction of justice, witness tampering and illegal retaliation…” the lawsuit alleges.
DeCrescenzo is seeking her back pay, damages, the formal cancellation of any illegal documents she signed while on staff and an injunction against Scientology to prevent them either bribing or intimidating potential witnesses in her case.
You can see the full text of the complaint here. For exhaustive and up-to-date coverage of this case, see Tony Ortega's extensive reporting at The Underground Bunker.