Lawsuit claims Church of Scientology violated child labor and wage laws

St. Petersburg Times/March 5, 2011

A runaway from the Church of Scientology's restrictive religious order, the Sea Org, alleges in two lawsuits filed Friday that the church violated California laws regulating child labor, wages and school attendance.

Daniel Montalvo, who turns 20 today, also contends his parents, who remain in the Sea Org, neglected him and breached their duty to protect him from harm by ceding his care to the church.

Church spokesman Tommy Davis said Friday night the church had not been served with the suits and could not comment on them. He noted Montalvo took Church of Scientology property - computer hard drives - when he left valued at tens of thousands of dollars. Then, with the help of church defectors Montalvo moved them across state lines.

Born in Ecuador, Montalvo moved with his parents to the church's spiritual headquarters in Clearwater when he was 5. He stayed there until age 15, when he was transferred to Los Angeles, where he worked at church facilities until leaving last September.

The lawsuits filed in state court in L.A. include allegations that Montalvo:

  • Was permitted to attend school about one day a week because working for Sea Org took priority.

  • Spent his childhood working at least 40 hours a week, and often more than 100 hours a week for pay that ranged from $35 to $50 a week.

  • Had no work permits required of minors.

  • Was made to work back-to-back 12-hour days in the fall of 2007, when the church was pushing its staff to produce and sell a new book release.

  • From 2008 to 2010, was punished along with other workers for lack of production. He was made to run laps wearing a jacket and tie, clean grease traps and do push ups.

  • Worked past midnight for two months in 2009 after rising at 6 a.m. each day, and was made to do push ups and dig ditches for lack of production.

  • Suffered an accident at age 16 while cleaning a "notching" machine at the church's printing unit, Bridge Publications. Half of his right index finger was cut off and no ambulance was called, the lawsuit asserts. It says Montalvo was taken to the hospital but told by the Sea Org to tell doctors he was a volunteer. He was not to mention Scientology.

According to one of the two lawsuits, Montalvo's parents "effectively abandoned" him, and his caretakers in the church failed to adequately educate him or provide sufficient care, including medical treatment.

"Intentionally deprived of the basic skills needed to permit him to become a functioning adult member of society, Daniel now comes before the court a 19-year-old man with an eighth grade education, without assets, without a resume despite having labored for hundreds of hours per week over the last five years," the lawsuit states. "Every adult in Daniel's childhood failed him."

Montalvo also has filed a wage and hour claim with the state's Division of Labor Standards seeking more than $150,000 in back wages for the three years - 2007 to 2010 - he worked for Bridge Publications. Davis called the claim "absurd."

Other Sea Org members have taken the church to court in recent years, making similar claims. But Montalvo's case differs in that it invokes laws protecting children, said his lawyer, S. Christopher "Kit" Winter.

In one notable case, Claire and Marc Headley of California sued in federal court, contending they were victims of forced labor. Claire Headley's suit also alleged she was pressured to have two abortions to remain in good standing.

The church denied all claims and said Headley's abortions were her decision.

A federal judge dismissed the Headleys' suits last year, citing in part a "ministerial exception" that generally prevents courts from prying into the affairs of any church.

But Winter argued that Montalvo would not be considered a church minister because he never conducted Scientology's core religious practice of "auditing" and had little formal religious training in the church.

Even if he were to be deemed a minister, that "does not excuse you from having to attend school," Winter said. "There is nothing in the case law that says the ministerial exception overrides child labor laws and compulsory school attendance laws."

He also addressed remarks by the judge in the Headley case, who stated that the Headleys knew what they were getting into when they joined the Sea Org and could have left at any time.

Winter noted Montalvo was 5 when his parents entered the Sea Org with him in tow and he could not have been expected to leave the group on his own. The lawsuits seek unspecified damages.

The Headleys are appealing.

Their allegations and those of Montalvo echo the claims of former church members who recently disclosed that they have been interviewed at length by FBI agents specializing in human trafficking. The FBI has said it will not confirm or deny whether an investigation is taking place. Asked Friday whether Montalvo had been interviewed by the FBI, Winter would not comment.

Montalvo ran away from the Sea Org on Sept. 24, 2010, aided by former executives of the church whose accounts of abuse in the Sea Org were published by the St. Petersburg Times in 2009.

Two defectors picked him up in a car near a church headquarters building on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. He flew to Florida and moved in to the Palm Harbor home of former Sea Org executive Tom DeVocht, whom Montalvo had known as a child when his father worked for DeVocht at church facilities in Clearwater.

The plan was for Montalvo to work for DeVocht. But Montalvo's parents intervened by phone from California, DeVocht said, as did an aunt, who lives in Clearwater and also is a Scientologist.

After conversations with church lawyer Kendrick Moxson, Montalvo agreed to return to L.A. A church staffer met Montalvo at the airport, his suit says, and took him to church attorneys who questioned him about five missing church hard drives. He then was taken to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

Montalvo was arrested on grand theft charges in connection with the hard drives, which Winter says were returned within days, and briefly jailed until bailed out by former church members. He has not been charged. One of the lawsuits filed Friday accuses Moxon of false imprisonment for luring Montalvo back to L.A. with deceptive statements.

Montalvo has been living since then on a secluded, 12-acre estate in Malibu owned by actor Jason Beghe, a former Scientologist who told the Times on Friday: "I thought that he would need to have a little space and have a safe environment."

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