Behind the guarded gates of Scientology's base

Irish Examiner/July 7, 2012

Welcome to the Church of Scientology's compound, known as Gold Base — come inside and pledge allegiance for 1bn years (obligatory) and dare to escape this heavily guarded fortress, protected by razor-tipped wire fences, motion sensors, and a bunker.

Disobedience, even for such crimes as looking at someone the wrong way, is punishable with 18-hour working days. Or beatings, allegedly, in one of two punishment-designated trailers nicknamed The Hole.

The California headquarters of the Church of Scientology, also known as Sea Org, has been grabbing the headlines this week following news of a divorce action taken by actress Katie Holmes against Hollywood heavyweight Tom Cruise.

Sea Org has 6,000 members but it is reported 100 people have tried to escape the religious order's 500-acre compound in Gilman Hot Springs over the last decade.

Granted, some were allowed to go, after pledging not to reveal intimate details about the day-to-day operations inside the compound. And only after being handed a six-figure bill for services they have received there.

But with most members only earning $50 a week inside there, many have been persuaded to turn their backs, again, on the outside world.

Back inside they'll be disciplined for their transgressions. The New Yorker reports members risk imprisonment and alleged beatings.

Former members also revealed they could endure punishments such as manual labour (18 hours a day), malnutrition, sleep deprivation, and isolation.

These are all very damaging allegations for the church, indeed. But surely the most damaging publicity has come in the last week.

Cruise's desire to raise Suri, the couple's six-year-old daughter, as a Scientologist has put the church in an unforgiving spotlight, with headlines splashing the words "cult" and "brainwashing" again.

Holmes decided to end her five-year marriage to Cruise fearing he was planning to induct Suri into Sea Org.

The Church of Scientology, however, maintains that nobody under the age of 16 is allowed to join the elite priesthood.

The Church of Scientology has spent years and tens of millions of dollars trying to cultivate an alternate image. Swanky living accommodation, schools, a golf course, a technology centre, and several worship areas were meant to sway new converts to the 60-year-old religion.

Sea Org says it uses "study technology" to educate its pupils but former members describe it as a quasi-military boot camp in which pupils worked up to 18 hours a day in cramped conditions.

A former senior member of the church, Marty Rathbun, told The Independent newspaper that Suri is "coming to an age where she gets educated enough to get locked into the faith. That's why there's almost certainly truth in the consideration that schools have started coming into play in all this."

The Sunday Telegraph in Sydney interviewed a former member of Sea Org in 2009: Aaron Judge said members live a communal lifestyle and wear uniforms.

"The Sea Org is like a military organisation. During the time I lived at the Sea Org with my dad, I only saw him for half an hour in the morning before we had to go to work," he said.

He said he was a slave to the "Hostile Contacts Policy" written by L Ron Hubbard.

"If there will be a long-term threat you are to immediately evaluate and originate a black PR campaign to destroy the person's repute and to discredit them so thoroughly that they will be ostracised," it states.

The official Scientology website describes itself as "the singularly most dedicated Scientologists", who "have committed their lives to the volunteer service of their religion".

Established in 1967, Sea Org once operated from a number of ships, but it is now based on land.

Although Scientologists deny there is any wrong-doing in relation to the group, there have been numerous reports stating that conditions for children within the organisation are less than optimal.

Paul Haggis, the director and screenwriter of the Academy Award-winning Crash, who was a member of the church, has said that allegations of abuse of the children were partially behind the reason he left Scientology after 34 years.

In a 26-page article in The New Yorker, he said he heard about horror stories from men and women who joined Sea Org before turning 18. "They were 10 years old, 12 years old, signing billion-year contracts — and their parents go along with this?" Haggis said. "Scrubbing pots, manual labour — that so deeply touched me. My God, it horrified me."

Holmes would be well aware of these stories and the "security checking", an interrogation process in which an ethics officer asks about 100 questions to children.

Holmes is seeking sole legal custody and primary residential custody of Suri, a move that ensures she'll be able to make decisions on the girl's education and religion choices. Her lawyer, Jonathan Wolfe, said in a statement that "Katie's primary concern remains, as it has always been, her daughter's best interest."

Cruise is waiting to make his move but the public will be behind Holmes's bid to keep her daughter from entering a compound where windows are barred up, the exits guarded 24 hours a day, and confessions of wrongdoing are violently extracted by the senior members who must be addressed as 'sir'. Or else.

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