Australia's 'child labour camp'

In the middle of suburban Australia is a secret compound that's labelled 'degrading' and 'inhumane', with allegations of keeping children prisoner.

Today Tonight, Australia/February 14, 2012

Right in the middle of a quiet suburb is a place where children are separated from their parents, and forced to work full time for no pay, and live in squalid conditions.

Those who've survived this place say they were brainwashed into believing they could not leave, and that they deserved the shocking treatment dished out.

A young man who escaped the place with the help of his father, Shane Kelsey says "I lived in that garage for about a year and a half, maybe two years."

Shane is now 21-years-old. Until just over a year ago he had never used the internet, watched television or followed the media.

"You're not allowed to read any books other than scientology books, you can't read newspapers, no radio, no movies, nothing," Shane said.

Shane says he was held captive and groomed to see all of us on the outside as pathetic, useless and stupid.

More stories from reporter Bryan Seymour

"So I lived in a garage until that got flooded by a storm, and my mum got really pissed off and said 'what the hell' and so I got moved into a closet. It is a closet under the stairs - maybe two metres long and a metre wide," Shane said.

The true Australian headquarters of the Church of Scientology are located in the Sydney suburb of Dundas. The RPF base - which stands for Rehabilitation Project Force - is where Scientologists are sent for punishment and training, for crimes that most of us would regard as trivial.

More than 50 requests for interviews on camera with representatives from the Church of Scientology have been flatly refused.

The bottom line is they don't want people to know what's going on inside the centre, and those who've lived in there, like Shane, say it's like a gulag, or a prison. Yet it's in the middle of a suburb, which could be any suburb in Australia.

People would he horrified to know what has been going on in there for so many years, and continues to this day.

Shane Kelsey's mother and father were dedicated Scientologists in Sydney, so they put their son Shane into its highest core at the age of six - little Shane moved into a tiny room with eleven other children.

By the age of seven Shane says "we'd go down the streets and there'd be eight of us, ten of us, young as, and we'd go down and pledge people up to 'drug free lives'.

"I signed my contract when I was eight-years-old. It was a billion-year contract, which means you're volunteering or servicing the Church for the next billion years," Shane said.

"We used to do marching, close order drilling, things like that. Just because it was a form of discipline," he said.

Shane saw his parents once a week. His mother and father would soon separate, and his dad Adrian moved overseas, and then left Scientology.

Meanwhile, the work schedule for children was fulltime, hard and without reward.

Working 35 hours a week when he was eight-years-old, by the time he was fourteen, the work changed to kitchen duty.

A military muster every morning required marching and saluting to the cause of saving mankind from the intergalactic ravages, described by the Church's science fiction founder L Ron Hubbard.

The kids wore all black uniforms, and were always required to run, never walk.

So-called home schooling was provided in fits and starts, taking a back seat to hard labour and brainwashing.

"As soon as you turn fifteen, anyone, you're straight out of school. It doesn't matter what grade you're in, what level of maths, what level of anything, you're straight out," Shane said.

The mess hall served food priced at 30 cents per meal, mostly beans and rice. The adults ate first.

"They would all come in and eat whatever they wanted, and then we went after them to take what's there - sometimes there wouldn't be much, so you'd get little bits of food, and it wasn't really sufficient," Shane said.

Those who dared question the brutality of this place were dealt with swiftly and severely.

"They used to live under our squash courts - it's a mud, dirt floor," Shane recalled.

"We put people in there and they live in there, when they're on the RPF they'd sleep down there, and they'd study down there."

Why would you put people in a dank, mouldy, sinking foundation underneath a squash court?

According to Shane it's "because you're a bad person, you have to be segregated from everyone."

By the age of fifteen Shane was living a nightmare even he now struggles to believe.

"As soon as I turned fifteen I was working seven days a week, fourteen hour days."

That's 100 hours a week spent in a commercial kitchen. Shane and other children slaved away - cooking meals all day, every day, studying and snatching what little sleep they could.

"We'd get anywhere between $4 pay to $35 a week," Shane said.

Among those who needed to be fed was billionaire James Packer. For several years beginning in 2002, Packer came to the Church of Scientology in the early mornings to receive auditing and instruction.

There is no suggestion Packer had any idea who was preparing his meals, or their work conditions.

Packer left scientology around 2008. It would be more than two years until Shane made his break for freedom.

In late 2010, Adrian Kelsey decided to rescue his son.

He invited us to document his attempt, and informed police of his plans to go to the compound and demand his son's release. He had protest signs ready if they refused to let him come out. When Shane came out to meet his father it was the first time they'd seen each other in four years.

Shane and Adrian were followed by Scientology 'enforcers', so Shane reluctantly returned to the compound to avoid trouble. One week later he was sent to work near the compound's boundary, and made a break for it.

"Scientology have no right to mess with family," said Adrian Kelsey.

It took Shane fourteen months to shake off Scientology, discover the truth, learn about the real world and tell his story.

"One thing that would be good is if they actually just stood up and said 'sorry, it wasn't right, we're going to change it', but that is just not going to happen," Adrian said.

Peta Obrien, who lived at the RPF base between 1997 and 2000 confirms Shane's account of the appalling conditions.

"You do two hours of work, then you go and study for two and a half hours in the RPF. It was five hours, and then you go to work again - hard labour, picking with a rock pick, chipping away at rocks till they erode," O'Brien said.

Now a successful architectural designer, O'Brien believes Scientology has nothing of value to offer the community.

"Close it down, doors shut and all the staff members going back to their families, and living their lives," O'Brien said.

"I was there for ten years all up in the Church of Scientology as a staff member, and how could I inflict that on my children? Which I'll forever feel like I have to make up," she said.

Perth-based lawyer Grainne O'Donovan has devoted her time and expertise to helping survivors of the cult seeking justice.

"There's not a law in New South Wales that makes it illegal to work a child for those hours. That's extraordinary, but that's the case," O'Donovan said.

O'Donovan has also campaigned with the internet-based activist group Anonymous that has raised awareness about Scientology.

"This is degrading and inhumane treatment,' O'Donovan said.

"At some level they (Scientologists) have become convinced, I suppose, that it's appropriate, and that the group is more important than the individual," she said.

RPF bases like the Sydney compound exist in other countries. Those who've escaped from them tell similar stories – of having fingers broken on the orders of the leader of Scientology, screamed at, and slapped for twenty hours straight, whilst having cold water poured over their head, and much more.

Independent Federal Senator Nick Xenophon has championed a campaign to shed light on the darkness at the heart of this group.

"Shane's story is one of shocking abuse, child abuse, it's one of a child being enslaved," Senator Xenophon said.

"The authorities need to investigate this urgently. This is something that requires police investigation," he said.

"What makes this worse is that this organisation is being subsidised by Australian taxpayers because it doesn't pay any tax."

Meanwhile Shane has his father back, yet his mother Lesley remains inside Scientology.

"I hope she hears word of this and sums up the courage to actually find it and watch it," Shane said.

"She will have to escape. They won't let her go. Leaving's not an option, so she will have to escape," Shane said.

The Church of Scientology refused to be interviewed for this story. In a written response scientology denied any mistreatment of its members.

The response also declared that anyone on the program is there because they want to be there, and that they are completely free to withdraw at any time during induction or later.

"When Shane left the church in late 2010, he simply got his bag and walked out the door," said the statement.

The celebrities used to advertise Scientology likely have little idea that people like Shane Kelsey even exist, but now they do.

Adrian and Shane hope they do something about it for the sake of other families.

Senator Xenophon says he's taking this story to Bill Shorten, the Federal Minister for Workplace Relations.

If you have any information we should know about Scientology, let us know.

Download the response statement from the Church of Scientology

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.