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3 former Scientology workers sue, saying they were trafficked as children

A federal lawsuit in Tampa accuses Scientology leader David Miscavige and the church of forcing child staffers to work in Clearwater.
The Church of Scientology's Flag Building in downtown Clearwater is pictured in 2021.
The Church of Scientology's Flag Building in downtown Clearwater is pictured in 2021. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Apr. 28|Updated Apr. 30

Gawain Baxter was 6 years old when he signed a contract agreeing to work for the Church of Scientology for 1 billion years.

He said he spent his childhood doing manual labor at Scientology’s Flag Land Base in Clearwater, and getting no education beyond basic reading, writing and math.

At 15, Baxter attempted to leave by writing a letter to a superior about constant abuse and intolerable living conditions. Instead, he said, church officials sent him to Scientology’s Freewinds ship in the Caribbean, where he worked for little or no wages for 14 years.

Through its highly regimented Sea Org workforce, Scientology officials systematically trafficked Baxter, 39, and others by indoctrinating them as children and making it financially, physically and psychologically impossible for them to leave as adults, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday in Tampa federal court against Scientology leader David Miscavige and five church entities.

The 90-page complaint was filed on behalf of Baxter, his wife, Laura Baxter, and Valeska Paris, who all were raised in Scientology and worked on the Freewinds, where they said the church confiscated their passports and identification documents. They allege six counts of forced labor and peonage in violation of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act.

“The culture of the church is defined by Miscavige,” Gawain Baxter said in an interview. “The best thing I could really hope for is to try and create awareness and try to hold him accountable for, in my opinion, the inhumane and barbaric treatment that people go through, that we’ve gone through.”

Related: Scientology members fuel another land-buying surge in Clearwater

In a statement, Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw stated “the allegations are both scurrilous and ridiculous and the lawsuit is both a sham and a scam.”

Since the IRS reinstated Scientology as a tax exempt religion in 1993, the organization has faced persistent allegations of abuse but rarely met legal consequences.

In November, a federal appeals court upheld a ruling that sent a California couple’s fraud lawsuit against Scientology into the church’s religious arbitration because they had signed various contracts while members. But in a separate case in January, a California appeals court ruled that plaintiffs who sued Scientology and actor and parishioner Danny Masterson for stalking and harassment should not be bound to religious arbitration contracts they signed years earlier.

The three plaintiffs in the Tampa human trafficking complaint are being represented by a team of law firms with extensive records in human rights and anti terrorism litigation. One of them, Kohn Swift and Graf P.C., is also representing 80 plaintiffs in a civil case against the founder of the Nxivm cult, who was sentenced in 2020 to 120 years in prison for sex trafficking and other crimes.

Another firm, Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC, has represented Indonesian villagers in litigation against ExxonMobil for human rights abuses and the families of Colombian banana workers and political organizers killed by a terrorist group funded by Chiquita Brands International.

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The Tampa complaint alleges that Scientology counseling, called auditing, lays the groundwork for the church to subjugate a large workforce and gain control over its members.

Scientology teaches that a so-called reactive mind is the source of all human pain and suffering, and that a person can clear the reactive mind by talking through memories and past traumas with an auditor.

But auditing sessions can become brutal interrogations that last hours, according to the lawsuit. It says subjects are often pressured into giving false confessions when they haven’t disclosed anything sufficiently compromising. Auditors record every detail discussed in order to obtain information that can later be used as leverage, the lawsuit states.

The auditing process “induces experiences of dissociation, which is intended to normalize the extremely abusive superior-subordinate dynamic that is central to (Scientology’s) operations,” according to the complaint.

Through the Cadet Org, the version of the Sea Org for children, Scientology separates minors from parents to further indoctrinate and manipulate its members, according to the lawsuit.

After signing a 1-billion-year contract at age 6, Valeska Paris lived in a dormitory for children in England near Scientology’s United Kingdom base. She did five hours of unpaid work a day, like landscaping, washing dishes and providing childcare for newborns, according to the lawsuit.

At age 14, Paris said, she was sent to the Flag Land Base in Clearwater, where she worked 12 to 18 hours per day for $15 per week. During hourslong counseling sessions with an adult male, the lawsuit states, the auditor interrogated her about sexual abuse she experienced as a child in the Sea Org. It said Paris “would be required to work out how she had caused the abuse and accept responsibility for causing it.”

A senior Sea Org member repeatedly sexually assaulted her, according to the lawsuit. Paris reported it to a superior, who reported it to Elizabeth Miscavige, David Miscavige’s sister-in-law, who was a senior officer. However, the lawsuit states, Paris was punished instead.

When she was 17, Paris’ mother fled the Sea Org without authorization. The next year, the lawsuit states, Paris was deemed subversive and sent to the Freewinds, where she worked 16- to 18-hour days. She also was subjected to intensive auditing, constantly forced to confess to alleged crimes.

For one punishment, Paris was confined for 48 hours in the engine room, where the temperature was over 100 degrees, according to the lawsuit.

After 11 years on the ship, she was sent to a work camp in Australia called the Rehabilitation Project Force. There, following multiple requests to exit the Sea Org, she was permitted to leave by going through four months of intensive interrogation called security checks.

When she left Scientology in Australia, “she had no money, no official identification and no ability to even open a bank account because she was not legally in the country in which (Scientology) had sent her for punishment,” according to the lawsuit.

The church launched a website attacking Paris after the Australian government contacted her in 2011 about inadequate compensation at Scientology’s work camp, according to the lawsuit. The website remains active today.

Laura Baxter was raised in Scientology in Germany, joined the Sea Org at age 16 and was sent to work on the Freewinds. As a prerequisite, the lawsuit states, she was subjected to interrogations that lasted 12 hours at a time, where she was asked explicit questions about sex, past criminal behavior and any affiliations with law enforcement.

During a birthday celebration on the ship for a celebrity in 2004, the lawsuit states, a superior falsely accused Laura Baxter of trying to monopolize the unnamed actor’s attention. As punishment, the lawsuit states, she was confined to the engine room for three days, “allowed to leave for only a few minutes at a time for meals and to return to her room for a few hours of sleep.”

She was also assigned to what Scientology calls a lower condition, where she was subjected to forced confessions and not paid for her manual labor.

Gawain Baxter and Laura Baxter met on the Freewinds in 2004. After they got married, the lawsuit states, Gawain “began to consider the possibility of a different and better life in the world that Scientology had taught him to distrust.”

But the lawsuit explains that even considering leaving Scientology is a high crime, punishable by intense physical labor. So the couple hatched a plan.

At the time, Scientology had a ban on Sea Org members having children. Forced abortions among the workforce were getting negative media attention.

According to the lawsuit, Laura Baxter deliberately became pregnant by her husband and refused superiors’ orders to get an abortion.

As punishment, the Baxters were ordered to undergo intense security check interrogations and put under full-time surveillance, according to the lawsuit.

Before being allowed to leave the ship in 2012, the Baxters were compelled to sign a series of documents that they did not have time to review while being videotaped.

“They were trapped on the ship, and the only way off was to submit to the demands of (Scientology) and sign the documents,” the lawsuit states.

Today the Baxters “are regularly intimidated by phone calls from Scientologists” soliciting them to resume participation in the church, according to the lawsuit.

“These calls are intended to remind them that (church officials) continue to monitor them and test the extent to which they pose a risk” to Scientology, the complaint states.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a statement from the Church of Scientology.

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