Ship boat

Inside “Freewinds,” the Church of Scientology’s Vessel of Fear

Scientology was founded by American science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in the 1950s and has long attracted celebrities such as Elisabeth Moss, John Travolta and Cruise. Some former adherents have accused it of being a dangerous money-driven cult that routinely tries to destroy the lives of critics. Scientology has been approached to comment on the lawsuit allegations, but has yet to respond.

Scientology leader David Miscavige.

The plaintiffs say they endured years of emotional, physical and psychological abuse, in particular spending more than a decade aboard Freewinds in what the lawsuit describes as “a world filled with abuse, violence, intimidation and of fear”.

The 86-page legal complaint by US law firms Kohn, Swift & Graf, Preti Flaherty and Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, details allegations of how children as young as six were separated from their parents who handed over custody to the ‘Cadet Org’ and later the ‘Sea Org’, with family visits limited to once per week.

While public members of Scientology can live at home, members of the “Orgs” work as indentured laborers both at sea and on land, according to the lawsuit. They accumulate large debts which are then held on them if they ever try to leave.

Gawain Baxter was raised as a Scientologist and in 1982, when he was just a few weeks old, his family moved from Australia to the Scientology Flag Base in Clearwater, Florida. He became a member of the Cadet Org at age six while living in a dormitory with 100 other children.

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At the age of 10, he saw his parents for only three hours a week and received very little education while working five to 10 unpaid hours a day. His work included food preparation, landscaping and trash removal, he alleges. He says he was regularly verbally and physically abused by adults connected to Scientology.

While living on the Freewinds – which never docks in US ports or territorial waters – he had his passport confiscated and worked 16 to 24 hours a day in unsafe working conditions, alleges- he. This included painting pipes, cleaning ship decks and cleaning fuel tanks without safety equipment. He claims that after working with blue asbestos and concrete dust, he then coughed up blood.

“Growing up in Scientology, being separated from my family and subjected to severe verbal and physical abuse marked me in ways that I continue to work on and discover,” said Gawain Baxter. “Meanwhile, Scientology continues to abuse and exploit its members, including young children, and does so with virtually unchecked power.”

Baxter and co-plaintiff Laura Baxter, who are married, were later able to leave Freewinds after hatching a plan to get pregnant to escape. They were told to terminate the pregnancy, but amid public criticism of forced abortions in Scientology, they were eventually released from the boat after weeks of punishment, according to the lawsuit.

Valeska Paris brings serious allegations of child abuse and trafficking against Scientology.

Valeska Paris brings serious allegations of child abuse and trafficking against Scientology.

The other complainant, Valeska Paris, who now lives in Australia, had Sea Org parents and was raised as a Scientologist. At the age of six, she says she was part of the cadet organization and for more than a decade she was repeatedly sexually assaulted when she was underage, she claims.

She alleged that physical and sexual abuse were commonplace in the Cadet Org, and she had to relive her sexual assaults with adult male interrogators and was punished for reporting them. She was forced, on one occasion, to do her alleged attacker’s laundry, she claims.

Paris said she was Miscavige’s personal assistant and worked 16 hour days when she was 15 and was “sleep deprived, malnourished and constantly verbally abused by adult supervisors” . She said she became suicidal and ended up doing forced labor at a Scientology site in Australia and had her passport confiscated. Scientology has been accused of running a “penal colony” at a site in western Sydney.

“Scientology is a system designed to perpetuate fear, and I continue to struggle with trauma. No one – child or adult – should have to endure the daily abuse and manipulation that I face,” Paris said.

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The lawsuit outlines how Org members must themselves report deviant thoughts and behaviors during repeated questioning, material that is then used against them. Kohn, Swift & Graf’s lawyer, Neil Glazer, claimed his clients had been “groomed” for a “life of servitude”. “Their lives have been forever changed by this mistreatment.”

A 2021 survey by age and Sydney Morning Herald discovered some of the most detailed financial information available anywhere in the world about Scientology. He discovered he had transferred tens of millions of dollars to Australia, which has become an international haven and earns tax-free profits with minimal scrutiny.

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