The Church of Scientology faces the prospect of a police investigation in Australia after being accused of torture and embezzlement and of forcing employees to have abortions.
Nick Xenophon, an independent senator, presented letters to the Australian Parliament from seven former Scientologists which he said showed that the secretive church was a front for physical violence, intimidation and blackmail.
"I am deeply concerned about this organisation and the devastating impact it can have on its followers," he told the Australian Senate in Canberra. He called for a Senate inquiry.
The State Crime Command of New South Wales police yesterday confirmed that Mr Xenophon had handed over the letters for investigation. Fed- eral police have also been contacted.
Kevin Rudd, the Prime Minister,said that many Australians had "real concerns" about Scientology. "I share some of those concerns," he added. "We would like to proceed in a cautious and methodical way in examining those matters and then we’ll decide what, if further, parliamentary action is necessary."
Aaron Saxton, a member of the church in Australia and the US between 1989 and 1996, said in one of the letters that he had participated in the "forced confinement and torture" of others. Other letters described how individuals were pressured to hand over large sums of money to the church, leaving them in poverty.
Carmel Underwood, a former executive director of the Sydney branch of the church, wrote that Scientology executives covered up a case of child molestation and pressured pregnant staff to abort their babies so they could keep working for the church. "There are many who are still suffering and being abused financially, physically and mentally," she wrote.
Kevin Mackey, 46, a farmer, wrote that the church sought cash donations from members for the "crimes" of drinking alcohol or watching pornography.
"Scientology is not a religious organisation - it is a criminal organisation that hides behind its so-called religious beliefs," Mr Xenophon said. "The letters received by me contain extensive allegations of crimes and abuses that are truly shocking.
"These victims of Scientology claim it is an abusive, manipulative, violent and criminal organisation, and that criminality is condoned at the highest levels."
The Church of Scientology has dismissed the allegations as "an outrageous abuse of parliamentary privilege" but said that it will co-operate with police. "Senator Xenophon is obviously being pressured by disgruntled former members who use hate speech and distorted accounts of their experiences in the church," it said. "They are about as reliable as former spouses are when talking about their ex-partner."
Mr Xenophon is a maverick independent politician from South Australia. He was a compensation lawyer before he won a seat in the federal Parliament in the 2007 election on an anti-gambling, pro-consumer protection platform promoted by his "No Pokies" (slot machines) group.
The Church of Scientology traces its origins to 1950 and a self-help book by the science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard. It is officially recognised as a religion in Australia, where it has tax-free status. It claims 12 million members worldwide, including the Hollywood stars Tom Cruise and John Travolta.
Last month the Church of Scientology in France was fined €600,000 (£545,000) after being found guilty of cheating vulnerable members out of their life savings.
Former followers, who are willing to be questioned by police over the allegations, reported crimes ranging from forced imprisonment, coerced abortions, embezzlement of church funds, physical violence, intimidation and blackmail.
- Paul Schofield admitted to being part of a campaign to cover up the facts surrounding the death of his two daughters, including two and a half-year-old Kirsty, who died during a purification programme.
- Aaron Saxton confined and tortured a follower and coerced females to have abortions, one who used a coat hanger for fear of punishment. He also has details of murder confessions from members in the US, information that was never passed on to police.
- Carmel Underwood was put under "extreme pressure" to have an abortion, and witnessed a young sexually abused girl being coached on how to keep it secret.
- Anna and Dean Detheridge, who were forced to reject a gay relative, provided evidence that personal information was used to blackmail and control them.
- Kevin Mackey revealed how he handed over nearly a million dollars in exchange for services and products after he was conditioned by the sect.
- Peta O'Brien was discouraged from seeking treatment for cancer, was cut off from her son and provided evidence of being assaulted.
- Founded in 1954 by the science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology describes itself as a religion that seeks spiritual enlightenment; it says that it has more than 3,000 churches in more than 133 countries
- Celebrity members include Tom Cruise, below, John Travolta and Lisa Marie Presley
- Full knowledge of Scientology's holy books is reserved for those who have completed a series of courses, at a cost estimated by anti-Scientology campaigners to be £190,000. There is no official confirmation to outsiders of what scientologists believe
- According to popular culture, Scientology teaches that 75 million years ago the intergalactic tyrant Xenu brought millions of aliens to Earth. These aliens, called Thetans, cling to human bodies. Scientologists try to re-create the Thetans’ painful experiences in order to free themselves
- Scientology members usually undergo personality tests and a form of counselling known as "auditing". A counsellor or "auditor" locates the spiritual problems of the subject - known as the "preclear" - through questions and the use of an implement called an "e-meter". Scientologists say that the sessions help members to reach levels on which they are "literally seeking immortality, which is priceless"