Finally, it appears that law enforcement officials have taken an interest in the Church of Scientology's intimidation and harassment of its workers. Former Scientology staffers confirmed to the St. Petersburg Times this week that they have been interviewed by FBI agents over the past two years about their treatment while working for the church. While there are considerable legal and practical hurdles to overcome, federal investigators should conduct a vigorous, thorough review of the church's well-reported abuse of its workers.
There is plenty for the FBI to investigate. A Times' 2009 investigative series revealed the accounts of former members of the Sea Org, Scientology's labor force. They lifted the veil of secrecy and detailed how they were required to work extraordinary hours, deprived of sleep and punished if they did not meet expectations. If they attempted to leave without permission, they often were pursued by church officials. If they returned, they often were punished and forced to endure lengthy stints of manual labor, limited food and enforced silence under heavy security.
The willingness of those former Scientology staffers to publicly tell their stories had a positive impact. They encouraged others tied to Scientology to raise questions and speak out, such as former Scientology parishioner Paul Haggis. A prominent screenwriter and film director who left the church in 2009, Haggis was a key figure in a lengthy New Yorker magazine story this week by investigative journalist Lawrence Wright. The first public word of the FBI investigation came when the magazine story was posted on the New Yorker website, and five former church staffers then publicly confirmed to the Times that they have been interviewed by the FBI over the past 15 months. The church denies any wrongdoing or that staffers were mistreated, despite a growing number of former church members who are speaking out publicly.
The former church staffers told the newspaper that agents asked about conditions at a remote desert church base east of Los Angeles. They said they recounted how Sea Org staffers were compelled to stay on the base, intimidated and forced to work for little pay. Yet the legal difficulties in pursuing a criminal investigation against an organization with the tax-exempt status of a religious institution are considerable. Just how vigorously the FBI is investigating the Church of Scientology also is unclear.
If the investigation is ongoing, the FBI should pursue it with its full range of resources and deliberate speed. If its inquiry is closed without any charges, the agency has an obligation to inform the church and the public. The public accounts of life inside the church are worthy of attention by law enforcement, regardless of the church's denials. But ultimately, the best hope for a full accounting of the Church of Scientology's activities and any real change may come from former church members who summon the courage to speak out against the institution they once embraced.