Scientology’s leader David Miscavige – a close friend of Tom Cruise – has been accused of violence and intimidation in a lawsuit filed by a former member.
And former member Marc Headley has also alleged that the regime at the movement's base in Hemet, California resembled "a prison camp" in which workers were subjected to sometimes "severe" punishment.
Headley says he was beaten up by Miscavige during his time as a staff member with the organisation. Headley, 35, says he also saw several of his colleagues assaulted.
And he claims the multi-million-dollar organisation illegally employed child labour.
Headley worked for Scientology from the age of 16, between 1989 and 2005, at Golden Era Productions, in Hemet, California, making films, videos and promotional materials for the movement.
Workers were intimidated by “assault, threat and menace”, says his complaint, which was filed against the Los Angeles-based Church of Scientology International (CSI) on January 5 and amended the following month.
Scientology “worked its employees to exhaustion” to ensure a “compliant workforce,” says the complaint.
“For example, to keep him in line, [Headley] was assaulted by the leader of the Scientology enterprise. This was a show of power and domination. [Headley] observed such heavy-handed tactics used against his co-workers…
“Scientology controls its workers by depriving them of a living wage and keeping them dependent upon the Scientology enterprise for the basic necessities of life,” says the complaint.
It also argues that because CSI illegally employed children there, some of the Scientology products “may be subject to seizure as ‘hot goods’ under the child labor laws.”
Miscavige, 48, is a close friend of celebrity member Tom Cruise and served as best man at his November 2006 wedding to actress Katie Holmes.
He works out of the high-security compound where Golden Era Productions is based, and Cruise has often visited him there. The site is also known as Gold Base, and the International Base.
“Gold Base resembles a prison camp,” the complaint alleges. “A razor-wire topped fence encircles Gold Base with sharp inward pointing spikes to prevent escape. The gates are guarded at all times, preventing employees from freely coming and going.
“Security guards patrol the grounds, motion sensors are placed throughout, and surveillance posts surround the perimeter, all of which are intended to keep workers in the facility. One cannot leave without permission and permission is seldom granted except to a select few.”
Workers’ mail was opened and foreign employees had their passport taken from them, it adds.
The complaint also describes a punishment camp known as the Rehabilitation Project Force (RPF). “Workers assigned to the RPF are subjected to a brutal regimen of manual labor, have no freedom of movement and are subjected to almost total deprivations of personal liberties.”
“Working conditions on the RPF are so horrible that its mere existence serves as a deterrent and intimidates workers … into a state of fear and mindless obedience …” says the complaint.
“The RPF is arguably more severe in punishment and violations of personal liberties than solitary confinement in prison... Sleep deprivation and poor nutrition were routine.”
Headley says staff at Gold Base often worked seven-day weeks totalling more than 100 hours for far less than the minimum wage.
In California, the minimum wage is currently eight dollars an hour: between 1989 and 2005, when Headley worked for Scientology, it rose from $4.25 to $6.75. Headley calculates he was earning about 39 cents an hour during this period.
But the complaint says: “Workers such as Plaintiff Headley were told that Scientology does not have to pay them minimum wage or give them any rights because it's a church, and/or workers have waived rights.’”
In 1993 the US Internal Revenue Service decided that Scientology and many of its affiliated organizations were operating “exclusively for religious or charitable purposes” and granted the movement tax-exempt status.
But attorney Barry Van Sickle, who filed the complaint on behalf of Headley argues in the complaint: “Defendant CSI misconstrues what it can get away with in the name of religion.”
The movement's religious status, which itself “is subject to serious dispute,” does not trump California's employment laws, he says.
“There is no constitutional right to exemption from minimum wage and child labor laws.”
---Headley’s allegations echo those made in the past by other former Sea Org members about the use of under-age workers. In a 2001 affidavit for example, Astra Woodcraft, who grew up in a Scientology family, told how she was recruited at the age of 14.
“They told me that if I joined their group, I would get paid minimum wage (which was several hundred a week, a lot of money for a 14 year-old); that I would not have to wear a uniform like most Sea Org members; and that I would go to school and finish my education.”
None of these promises were honoured, she wrote. She never completed her high school education and from age 14 she was working a minimum 14-hour day, seven days a week.
During one three-week period in 1995, “when I was still a minor”, she and other staff had to work around the clock on a special project. In 1995 she would have been 16 or 17 years old.
Although she was given the task of waking up colleagues to get them back to work, she too was struggling to stay awake, she said.
“I got approximately two hours of sleep a night during this time, but many times got no sleep for two or more days.
“I was ordered to drive around even though I was falling asleep and incoherent due to no sleep. One time I parked my car and accidentally fell asleep and woke up three hours later because a meter attendant was knocking on my window.”
Maureen Bolstad, another former Sea Org member, also says that promises made to her when she was recruited were never honoured.
Her mother agreed to let her and her brother join the Sea Org in Clearwater, Florida, on the understanding that they would finish their high school education, she said.
She was 16 when she left her California home for Florida; her brother was only 14. “As soon as we showed up in Clearwater I said ‘Okay, I need to go to school,’” said Bolstad.
“The person that was assigned as my immediate senior there said ‘Oh, you don’t want to go to Clearwater High School, they’ll just throw eggs at you and call you a ‘Scieno’ [Scientologist], they’ll just try to brainwash you – you don’t need public school. Just work with us.’
“I was a little bit confused and my Mum got upset because nobody asked for my school records and the school was confused because nobody sent for my school records (but in the end nobody actually did anything).”
In the end, they both ended up working for Scientology and neither got their high school diploma. Her account of the hours worked at the International Base tallies with the statements made in Marc Headley’s lawsuit.
---Van Sickle has introduced the complaint as a test case, aimed at clearing the path for other workers inside Scientology to get proper compensation.
He has asked for a jury trial, payment of back wages for his client and appropriate measures to be taken against Scientology for any breach of the employment laws.
But Headley is not alone in alleging violence and abuse inside the movement.
For a legal analysis of this lawsuit, see Scott Pilutik's blog here.
Next: Accusing Miscavige