Scientology's Biggest Scandal Was Barely Mentioned in the HBO Documentary

April 3rd 2015

Alex Gibney's HBO documentary "Going Clear," which is based on a book of the same name, was seen by 1.65 million viewers during its Sunday premiere. That number will surely rise as DVD, movie theater, and HBO-Go audiences are counted. #GoingClear was a trending topic on Twitter with viewers expressing shock at the revelations made in the film -- revelations that are only startling if you haven't read any of the many books, blog posts, articles, and interviews of Scientology defectors.

Former Scientologists have been speaking out for years about the abuses of the church and this film has given them an even wider platform. The most common responses to the film were calls for the IRS to investigate removing the church's tax-exempt status and calls for high powered celebrities to renounce their religion. Both of these responses miss the mark. Shouldn't our collective outrage be focused on the actual human rights abuses? "Going Clear" alleges that Scientology literally has slaves. SLAVES, you guys. Tax revenue and embarrassing Tom Cruise should not be our primary concerns.

Scientology Big Blue Building on Fountain

Slavery in the Church of Scientology

Most Scientologists are average practitioners, who live their daily lives outside of the church just like most Christians. However, the particularly devout may wish to join the Sea Organization, which would be similar to becoming a monk or a nun. Some members of the Sea Organization are adult converts, but others are the children of Scientologists who grew up in the church and chose to join the Sea Organization at a young age.

Former Scientologists allege that members of the Sea Organization are required to sign billion year contracts of service to the church, and many of these members do so before their 18th birthdays. They are paid about $50 a month for their service. However, they often receive less than that (as low as $13 a month), if they are written up for minor infractions or are forced to "donate" the money back into the church (for things such as church leader David Miscavige's birthday presents).

Along with low wages, if they are found to have fallen behind in their work, perceived as having a negative attitude about the church or its leadership, or are being punished for any reason, they can be sent to labor camps known as Rehabilitation Project Force locations. There they are forced into demanding physical labor for long hours of the day, while living in inhumane conditions. Most importantly, they are not permitted to leave. Security is high at these facilities and those who attempt to escape are chased down, brought back, and punished further. One former security head, Gary Morehead, alleges that in the thirteen years that he worked in security he helped to capture more than a hundred Sea Organization members, who had attempted to escape. In addition to physical restraints, they are coerced from attempting to escape through the use of psychological abuse and social pressure, along with debt bondage. Sea Organization members are told that if they choose to leave the church, they will owe the church a "freeloader tab" of up to one hundred thousand dollars. 

The church alleges that Sea Organization members are kept in austere conditions similar to other religious orders (for example monks, or nuns). However, while it may be rare for monks or nuns to choose to leave their religious orders, and may face social pressures not to, they are not physically or financially restricted from leaving the church. 

According to The New Yorker,

Under federal law, slavery is defined, in part, by the use of coercion, torture, starvation, imprisonment, threats, and psychological abuse. The California penal code lists several indicators that someone may be a victim of human trafficking: signs of trauma or fatigue; being afraid or unable to talk, because of censorship by others or security measures that prevent communication with others; working in one place without the freedom to move about; owing a debt to one’s employer; and not having control over identification documents. Those conditions echo the testimony of many former Sea Org members who lived at the Gold Base.

The New Yorker goes on to report that in 2011 the FBI was conducting an investigation into the Church of Scientology for human trafficking violations. However, there are few media references to that investigation (most point back to the original New Yorker article) and it is unknown if that investigation was resolved or is ongoing. But nearly four years later there haven't been any publicized FBI raids of Scientology owned properties where ex-members have alleged that other members are currently enslaved.

Modern Day Slavery in the United States is a huge problem 

It's not just Scientology. Human trafficking generates $9.5 billion in the U.S. annually. Like Scientology, other aspects of human trafficking have been widely publicized and have also gone without widespread outrage or demands for change. For example, over the last couple of Super Bowls advocates have made an effort to increase awareness of sexual slavery and trafficking. It is estimated that in 2011 10,000 prostitutes were brought into Miami to service Super Bowl tourists (many against their will, and many underage). Currently, the most common forms of slavery in the U.S. are sex trafficking and labor trafficking.

Sex Trafficking (adults and minors)

Sex trafficking refers to any adult who is coerced into engaging in commercial sex through violence, debt bondage, lies, or threats. Minors who are engaged in commercial sex are considered victims of sex trafficking regardless of how they are coerced into it. While we may like to believe that all sex workers have chosen their work and find it empowering, some are actually trapped into sexual slavery. It is estimated that 300,000 children are at risk of being prostituted in the United States, typically being targeted between the ages of 13-14 years old. One in three teens who run away from home will be lured towards prostitution within 48 hours. They may be forced to work in escort and massage services, exotic dancing and pornography, are trafficked during sporting events and tourist destinations, or are being forced into gangs and organized crime networks. Victims are often groomed with kindness until they are trafficked away from their homes, and are often forced by a pimp to meet high nightly quotas in exchange for food and shelter. Victims are often threatened with violence, and due to this threat, coupled with victims' inability to earn money for themselves, they are unable to escape sexual slavery. 

Labor Trafficking (Forced Migrant Labor, and Forced Domestic Servitude, and Child Labor)

Labor trafficking refers to forcing workers to stay working for a business against their will, often in agriculture, or domestic service, but also in industries such as door-to-door sales and health and beauty services. While immigrants and migrant laborers are particularly vulnerable to this type of trafficking, U.S. citizens and children are made victims of labor trafficking as well. Victims are made to do difficult work for long hours for little to no pay. They are often coerced through violence, threats of violence, psychological control, and debt bondage. Debt bondage is incredibly common in these situations, and refers to when a victim is made to believe that they owe their captor a financial debt -- payment for trafficking them into the country, or for "buying" them, or for the food and shelter they use while being victimized, or in the case of Scientology, payment for religious services -- that they must work off. Of course the debt is continually increased so that it can never be worked off and the victim cannot escape. Workers movements are physically restricted and domestic workers are often isolated as well. 

Forget Tom Cruise

Instead of laughing at Tom Cruise's giant Scientology medal, we should be asking our government officials why more effort isn't being taken to eradicate slavery in the U.S. in all of its forms. In the case of Scientology -- thanks to several books on the subject -- we know where these forced laborers are allegedly being held. While the church has written letters and tweets denouncing the former Scientology members making claims in the film, they have not responded to the allegations of human trafficking presented in "Going Clear."

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