Australians signed contracts to settle disputes in church, Scientology tells court

Scientology has told a US court that three Australians who have accused it of human trafficking and forced labour should have their claims heard by an internal arbitration panel of church members.

In a legal defence filed in a Florida court this week, lawyers for Scientology said the court should not hear the claims brought by Australian Gawain Baxter and residents Laura Baxter and Valeska Paris.

One of the plaintiffs, Valeska Paris, the Freewinds cruise ship, and a portrait of Scientology leader David Miscavige.

The three alleged in a case filed in late April that they experienced horrific abuse while part of Scientology’s “Sea Org” and “Cadet Org” entities that involved them signing billion-year contracts to provide free or cheap labour to Scientology. Pay was sometimes withheld or set at a maximum of $US50 a week, the lawsuit alleges.

Lawyers for Scientology said the three had signed contracts while members of the Sea Org that required them to settle disputes within the church, not through the legal system. Scientology has successfully used this legal defence on one occasion. Copies of contracts were included in the court filings.

The lawsuit, backed by US class action law firms, is regarded as an important test case by some former Scientologists who want it held to account for its alleged abuses.

The Australians claim they endured years of emotional, physical and psychological abuse, in particular while spending more than a decade aboard Scientology’s Freewinds cruise ship in the Caribbean in what the lawsuit describes as “a world filled with abuse, violence, intimidation and fear” and of repeated interrogation and forced confessions.

The legal defence from Scientology did not deal with the substance of those abuse claims on the Freewinds, but also argued the claims should be dismissed by the court as they happened outside the United States.

Scientology was founded by US science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in the 1950s and has long attracted celebrities including John Travolta, Tom Cruise and Elisabeth Moss. Some former adherents have accused it of being a dangerous, money-focused cult.

The case brought by married couple Gawain and Laura Baxter and Valeska Paris is suing both Scientology leader David Miscavige and a number of church-related organisations.

A bust of L. Ron Hubbard at the Ascot Vale centre

It detailed allegations of how children as young as six years old were separated from their parents, who relinquished custody to the Cadet Org and later Sea Org with family visits limited to once a week.

While public members of Scientology can live in their own homes, members of “Orgs” work as indentured labour both on sea and land, the lawsuit alleges. They accumulate large debts from their time in the Orgs, which is then held over them.

In his filing, Gawain Baxter described being raised as a Scientologist and in 1982, when he was only a few months old, how his family moved from Australia to Scientology’s Flag Base in Clearwater, Florida. He became a Cadet Org member at six while living in a dormitory with 100 other children.

By the age of 10 he saw his parents for only three hours a week and received little education while labouring unpaid five to 10 hours a day, doing jobs including food preparation and garbage removal.

He alleges he was regularly verbally and physically abused by adults connected to Scientology and subject as a teenager to explicit questions about his sexual experiences by adult Sea Org leaders.

Valeska Paris alleges by six years old she was in the Cadet Org and over more than a decade was sexually assaulted on multiple occasions as a minor. She claims she became suicidal and later did forced labour at a Scientology site in Australia and had her passport confiscated.

A 2021 investigation by The Age and Sydney Morning Herald uncovered some of the most detailed financial information available anywhere in the world on Scientology. It found it had shifted tens of millions of dollars into Australia, which has become an international haven and makes tax-free profits with minimal scrutiny.

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