Lodi News-Sentinel

Former Scientolog­y workers say they were trafficked as children

- Tracey McManus

TAMPA, Fla. — Gawain Baxter was 6 years old when he signed a contract agreeing to work for the Church of Scientolog­y for 1 billion years.

He said he spent his childhood doing manual labor at Scientolog­y’s Flag Land Base in Clearwater, and getting no education beyond basic reading, writing and math.

At 15, Baxter attempted to leave by writing a letter to a superior about constant abuse and intolerabl­e living conditions. Instead, he said, church officials sent him to Scientolog­y’s Freewinds ship in the Caribbean, where he worked for little or no wages for 14 years.

Through its highly regimented Sea Org workforce, Scientolog­y officials systematic­ally trafficked Baxter, 39, and others by indoctrina­ting them as children and making it financiall­y, physically and psychologi­cally impossible for them to leave as adults, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday in Tampa federal court against Scientolog­y leader David Miscavige and five church entities.

The 90-page complaint was filed on behalf of Baxter, his wife, Laura Baxter, and Valeska Paris, who all were raised in Scientolog­y and worked on the Freewinds, where they said the church confiscate­d their passports and identifica­tion documents. They allege six counts of forced labor and peonage in violation of the Traffickin­g Victims Protection Reauthoriz­ation Act.

Church of Scientolog­y spokesman Ben Shaw did not immediatel­y respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

Since the IRS reinstated Scientolog­y as a tax exempt religion in 1993, the organizati­on has faced persistent allegation­s of abuse but rarely met legal consequenc­es.

In November, a federal appeals court upheld a ruling that sent a California couple’s fraud lawsuit against Scientolog­y into the church’s religious arbitratio­n because they had signed various contracts while members. But in a separate case in January, a California appeals court ruled that plaintiffs who sued Scientolog­y and actor and parishione­r Danny Masterson for stalking and harassment should not be bound to religious arbitratio­n contracts they signed years earlier.

The three plaintiffs in the Tampa human traffickin­g complaint are being represente­d by a team of law firms with extensive records in human rights and anti terrorism litigation.

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