Yesterday, we were visited by Aaron Saxton, who is in town visiting friends.
Saxton is a former Scientologist, and his Orwellian tales of being one of the Sea Org's ruthless enforcers during the 1990s are part of a national scandal that has become big news in Australia.
In November, an Australian senator with the unlikely name of Nick Xenophon stunned his colleagues and the nation with a surprising speech filled with allegations of abuse by Scientology and calling for a federal investigation of the "church" there. (Let that sink in. Just imagine, for a moment, a Chuck Schumer or John McCain standing up in the U.S. Senate to call for a probe into John Travolta's bizarro buddies and the allegations - proven many times over in numerous court cases - that Scientology is more economic scam than "religion.")
For his screed against Scientology, Xenophon was relying on the testimonials of numerous former Scientologists, but many of the worst abuses he cited came from the online writings of Saxton, who had been posting harrowing tales he had witnessed of families split apart, of Scientologists starved as punishment for nonsensical reasons, of forced abortions for Sea Org members, and of severe retaliations against anyone who dared leave the organization.
Saxton's profile in Australia blew up overnight after Xenophon's speech, and his story quickly became familiar there: Born into Scientology, he became a member of the Sea Organization - a hard-core inner group that requires billion-year contracts and total devotion - at only 15 years of age. He was so young, his parents mother had to sign over guardianship of him to the church.
Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard had set up the Sea Org in the late 1960s as a force of young, completely dedicated believers that he could trust to run things and keep his growing empire in line. (At the time, he was sailing on a ship from port city to port city, avoiding tax hassles, hence the name "Sea Organization" and the goofy quasi-naval uniforms, worn even on land.)
Stories of harsh treatment of Sea Org members, and of the Sea Org swooping down to take over Scientology organizations to mete out discipline, are legendary in the organization. Ex-members often tell of harassment and intimidation by ruthless thugs posing as church officials.
Saxton says that's exactly what his role was for Scientology in both Australia and the United States from 1989 to 2000.
His allegations became some of the most cited after Xenophon's speech. From the country's largest national newspaper, The Australian:
During his time as a security guard at the church in Sydney - a job he started at 16 - Saxton says he assisted in the "forced confinement and torture" of a female church member who was kept under "house arrest" on a farm in western NSW for a month, after she began screaming outside the front of the church headquarters. He also details how church officials bullied pregnant staff members into aborting their babies.
"The staff that got pregnant were taken into offices and put under duress," he wrote.
"They were informed that their getting pregnant was not in line with the Sea Org [Sea Organisation, an elite division of Scientology] plans, and that their departure represented a failure for the greatest good and that they should abort."
Many women were demoted - or "assigned to lower conditions" - if they refused an abortion, he wrote.
"At the time I assigned the [lower] conditions it was always in the hope that the person would miscarry the child or abort at a later date," his letter says.
"We had one staff member who used a coathanger and self-aborted her child . . . all her files were destroyed."
Saxton also admits in his statement to helping track down 10 staff members who left the church "without authorisation," and misusing confidential information - including priestly confessions - held in their personal files.
"We used the information to call banks and cancel credit cards," his letter states.
"We used the information to falsely contact airlines and cancel their tickets [by pretending to be them]."
Scientology vehemently denied all of the allegations in Xenophon's speech, and called his act "an outrageous abuse of parliamentary privilege."
The Australian senate voted down Xenophon's call for an official inquiry into Scientology, but that hasn't stopped the publicity there and the heightened interest in Hubbard's wacky cabal.
It's also brought Saxton several lawsuits. (For a brilliant analysis - and debunking - of one legal attack on Saxton, watch this nice bit of investigative television by the Aussie program "Today Tonight"):
Taking a break from the lawsuits and notoriety, Saxton is in New York and asked to come round the Voice offices.
We asked him, so what does Scientology say about you after all of these allegations?
"That I'm a liar and I'm a young, mean, spiteful man, according to their statement on me. Actually, I kind of agree with them. I am a young, mean, spiteful man. And I love pointing that out to them when I'm on a microphone."
It's really no wonder why Xenophon zeroed in on Saxton's story among the many he heard from numerous ex-Scientologists. We wanted to hear, for example, more about the abuse he witnessed of a woman when she freaked out during the teaching of Hubbard's "tech."
"Bettina Lockland was her name. This was in Australia. I was 16 at the time, and I was in charge of security [at an "Advanced Org" or "AO," a sort of diocesan office]. Bettina was doing the famous OTIII."
As Larry Wollersheim explained in our long telling of his story, it's at OTIII ("Operating Thetan, third level," is what it stands for) that some Scientologists have a hard time keeping things together. Up to that point, they've spent incredible sums - it reportedly costs about $100,000 in training costs and several years of dedication to reach OTIII today - and during that time they've been trying to get "wins" while "clearing" their minds of detritus left over from traumatic events in their lives or in their past lives. It's only at OTIII, however, that Scientologists are filled in with Hubbard's stunning backstory to the religion, that a galactic overlord named Xenu had used the primordial Earth as a sort of concentration camp for an overpopulation of aliens, who were destroyed, but whose disembodied souls now cling to human beings, causing all of their problems. Hubbard's weird mind-training, it turned out, was the only way to free people from the invisible aliens hanging on them like parasitic worms.
Some Scientologists, when this is revealed to them, don't handle it well.
"She flipped. She just came out of the course room one day and just lost her marbles," Saxton says.
Saxton himself was a hardcore Scientologist, but he didn't go through the kind of training that leads to OTIII. He was not privy to the information that caused the woman's freakout, and in fact he says it was his job in part to make sure that no one saw those materials who was not being trained in them.
"OTIII is not discussed in Sea Org. I had the keys to the OT course room, and I'd go in there periodically to make sure that someone hadn't broke in. And I'd be like this."
He stands up and shows how he'd walk with his hand shielding his eyes - he dared not even glance at the documents he was guarding, such was the power they reputedly had.
"I had to be sure I didn't see one word. According to LRH [Hubbard], you will get pneumonia, and you will die if you see even one word."
[Saxton, after he left Scientology, perused these documents - as has much of the world, thanks to the Internet - and without so much as a sniffle.]
Lockland, the girl, however, was having a different reaction than pneumonia. She was raving.
"We threw her into an office until we could decide what to do with her," Saxton says. Later, he and others decided she needed to be driven to a remote farm.
"They took her out there for two months. And to help her, they audited her in a barn," he says, shaking his head.
"Every day at two in the morning, I'd get info about her faxed to me. I'd take that to the other officers to decide what to do with her. Then I got a phone call that she'd escaped. She was so insane the first place she came back to was the AO where I was working. She was demanding an e-meter so she could audit herself," Saxton says. "This time, they drove her off, and I never heard of her again. Totally vanished."
Today, Saxton says it's easy to see how wrong his actions were, how Scientology's nutty beliefs became toxic through intimidation and harassment. But why, we asked him, couldn't he see that then?
"I believed 100 percent that Earth was doomed without me.... I believed that we had 76 other planets to clear. Dude, I believed it," he says. "And if you really know that you're going to come back in another life, then giving up one lifetime means nothing. You can give any sacrifice if you know these things.
"I recruited about 50 people between the age of 15 and 17 to join the Sea Org. It always surprised me that parents would just turn their kids over like trinkets to be dressed up in naval uniforms.... But for Scientologists, giving up their daughters and sons doesn't bother them because they don't see it as their only life to give."
Saxton says he wishes the outside world could see what it's like for the youngest Scientologists who, like himself, are brought up in the quasi-military organization.
"Imagine this. You're a 10-year-old cadet. You form seven lines for division 1, division 2..." he says as he gets up and stands at attention to illustrate what he means.
"The commanding officer is 12 years old. You have an MAA - master-at-arms - he's another kid. 'All present and accounted for, sir.' Three times a day. 10-year-old kids. Morning, lunch, dinner.
"I'd love to see a poster of those kids, in their uniforms, saluting each other, and the words, underneath, 'Is this religion?'
"I want Scientology recognized for what it really is. It's a mental health practice, without the responsibilities. The claims are innumerable. 'We can cure psychosis. We can cure neurosis. We can make the blind see again.' And they are all medical practice claims," Saxton says.
"Scientology is an unregulated mental health practice masquerading as a religion."
And, it's tiny.
Like others coming forward recently, Saxton says that Scientology - which claims 10 million members - is kept going by only a very small number of active members.
"I was over the world statistics. I always saw Scientologists being lied to about the numbers by [church supreme leader] David Miscavige at events.
"There aren't a lot of Scientologists. There are a lot of ex-Scientologists."
In 1996, Saxton says there were "maybe 45,000 active Scientologists, worldwide." That's consistent with recent revelations by Marc Headley, who says Miscavige once ordered the manufacture of 30,000 e-meters - so there would be enough for two machines for every active church member on earth. And the New York Times recently pointed out that a 2008 survey of American religion found only 25,000 Scientologists in the country.
So how, we asked Saxton, does Scientology seem to have so much money?
"It's about orders of magnitude. The way we thought was, if we can get $10,000 per annum out of each Scientologist, it only takes 100 of them to make $1 million. And if you can get that from 10,000 people, that's a hundred million dollars.
"And it's all tax free, and shipped offshore," he points out.