When workers for the Church of Scientology sign a contract agreeing to serve in the church's Sea Organization for "the next billion years," the church can twist that agreement into a license to harass its workers, track them down if they leave and pressure them to return. What true church, what caring employer, would trample on the dignity and free choices of its own members in such a way? And what are authorities going to do about it?
In a three-day special report last week, the St. Petersburg Times' Joe Childs and Thomas C. Tobin told the stories of former members of the so-called Sea Org, Scientology's most dedicated labor force, and the ordeal the church put them through after they tried to leave without permission.
Sea Org members hold jobs such as gardeners, cooks, laborers, secretaries and assembly line workers. The church demands sacrifice and obedience from its employees, and what does it deliver in return? Sea Org workers are provided room and board but paid a pittance — far below minimum wage. Those interviewed by the Times said they were required to work extended hours, deprived of sleep, separated from their spouses, subjected to multiple daily head counts to ensure no one slipped away, punished if they fell short of expectations and required to sign "confessions" the church kept and later used against them.
If they wanted to quit, these workers could not just resign from their jobs and leave. Church policy required that they "route out," a process that could take months of daily interrogations and intense pressure. If they gathered their meager belongings and ran, church security teams and private investigators tracked them by using their bank and credit card records as well as personal information they had given the church about their backgrounds, family and friends. Once located and confronted, the workers were told if they didn't return to the Sea Org, their chance at "eternity" — to be reborn into a new body each time they died — would be lost. In effect, Scientology held the cards.
If they succumbed and returned to the Sea Org, some received even worse treatment. They were placed on a punishment detail called the Rehabilitation Project Force, enduring weeks or months of manual labor, limited food and rest, and enforced silence. In one instance, former Sea Org member Don Jason told the Times that after he agreed to return he was held captive in a locked cabin aboard the Scientology ship Freewinds, with a security camera trained on him even as he slept. He eventually escaped from the ship and is now telling his story.
As former staffers lift the veil of secrecy that for years has obscured the inner workings of the Church of Scientology, a new mystery emerges: Why are government authorities looking the other way? The Internal Revenue Service has ample reason to reconsider its decision to grant Scientology tax-exempt status as a religion. Labor officials should determine whether wage and working condition violations have occurred, and law enforcement ought to investigate whether the church's restraint on members' free movement crossed a legal line.
The Church of Scientology trumpets its global reach and expansions in communities large and small across America. Its presence can be disruptive, as Clearwater has learned since the church secretly moved in and established its spiritual headquarters in the city more than 25 years ago. Government cannot afford to be complacent, and those politicians and community leaders who have normalized relations with Scientology can no longer claim ignorance about the nature of the church and the treatment of its workers.