Inside ‘Freewinds’, the Church of Scientology’s ship of fear
When Laura Baxter was accused of monopolising the attention of actor Tom Cruise aboard Scientology’s Caribbean cruise ship in 2004, she says her punishment was to be locked in an “extremely hot” engine room of the Freewinds ship.
She was shouted at by church officials and then for three days she says she was only allowed to leave to eat for a few minutes at a time or return to her room to sleep for a few hours. She had to urinate in a bin out of fear of being punished for going to the bathroom unaccompanied, she alleges.
The Freewinds cruise ship docked in the port of Castries, the capital of St Lucia.Credit:AP
And in the months after she was finally allowed out, the woman who is now an Australian resident was subjected to intense surveillance and interrogations.
That 2004 birthday celebration for Cruise is mentioned – although the actor is not directly named – as part of an important legal claim lodged in a Florida court that accuses Scientology of child trafficking, covering up multiple sexual assaults and forced labour. There is no suggestion Cruise was aware of Baxter’s situation.
The plaintiffs in the case are all now resident in Australia. Gawain Baxter, who is a citizen, and residents Laura Baxter and Valeska Paris, are seeking significant “compensatory and punitive damages” against Scientology leader David Miscavige and five Church-related organisations for alleged human trafficking.
Former Scientologist, US actor Leah Remini, welcomed the lawsuit.Credit:Greg Allen
The three were part of Scientology’s “Sea Org” and “Cadet Org” entities. They were required to sign billion-year contracts to provide free or cheap labour to the church that, in Australia, is considered a legitimate religion. The new lawsuit, backed by three plaintiff law firms, alleges that their pay was sometimes withheld or set at a maximum of $US50 per week.
Prominent former Scientologist, US actor Leah Remini, praised the three plaintiffs and the law firms that launched the case, saying it was “rare for lawyers to take on Scientology”.
“So often, lawyers either won’t take on a case, agree to take it and back out when they deal with Scientology’s harassment, or take it and mess it up,” she said after news of the lawsuit broke. “And now, the attacks will begin in earnest. Look for Scientology’s websites set up and paid for using tax-exempt funds that lie about the plaintiffs and their lawyers. There will be co-ordinated harassment by Scientology social media accounts using fake names and front groups.”
Scientology was founded by US science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in the 1950s and has long attracted celebrities including Elisabeth Moss, John Travolta and Cruise. Some former adherents have accused it of being a dangerous money-focused cult that regularly tries to destroy the lives of critics. Scientology has been approached for comment about the allegations in the lawsuit but are yet to respond.
Scientology leader David Miscavige.
The plaintiffs say they endured years of emotional, physical and psychological abuse, in particular while spending more than a decade aboard Freewinds in what the lawsuit described as “a world filled with abuse, violence, intimidation and fear”.
The 86-page legal claim from US law firms Kohn, Swift & Graf, Preti Flaherty and Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, details 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 homes, members of “Orgs” work as indentured labour both on sea and on land, the lawsuit alleges. They accumulate large debts which are then held over them if they ever try to leave.
Gawain Baxter was raised a Scientologist and in 1982, at only a few weeks old, 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 was seeing his parents for only three hours a week and received very little education while labouring five to 10 hours unpaid per day. His work included food preparation, landscaping and garbage removal, he alleges. He says he was regularly verbally and physically abused by adults connected to Scientology.
While living on the Freewinds – which never docks in US ports or territorial waters – he had his passport confiscated and worked 16 to 24 hours a day in unsafe working conditions, he alleges. That included repainting pipes, cleaning the ship decks and cleaning fuel tanks without safety equipment. He claims after working with blue asbestos and concrete dust he later coughed up blood.
“Growing up in Scientology, being separated from my family and subjected to severe verbal and physical abuse has scarred me in ways that I am still working through and uncovering,” Gawain Baxter said. “All the while, Scientology continues to abuse and exploit its members, including young children, and does so with virtually unchecked power.”
Baxter and co-plaintiff Laura Baxter, who are married, were later able to leave Freewinds after they came up with a plan to get pregnant to escape. They were told to terminate the pregnancy but amid public criticism of forced abortions in Scientology they were eventually let off the boat after weeks of punishment, the lawsuit alleges.
Valeska Paris is making serious allegations of abuse and child trafficking against Scientology.
The other plaintiff, Valeska Paris, who now lives in Australia, had parents who were Sea Org members and was brought up as a Scientologist. By six years old she says she was in the Cadet Org and over more than a decade was sexually assaulted on multiple occasions as a minor, she claims.
She alleged the physical and sexual abuse was commonplace in the Cadet Org, and she had to relive her sexual assaults with adult male interrogators and was punished for reporting them. She was forced, on one occasion, to do the laundry of her alleged abuser, she claims.
Paris said she was a personal assistant to Miscavige and worked 16-hour days as a 15-year-old and was “sleep-deprived, poorly fed and constantly verbally abused by adult supervisors”. She said she became suicidal and eventually ended up doing forced labour at a Scientology site in Australia and had her passport confiscated. Scientology has been accused of running a “penal colony” at a western Sydney site.
“Scientology is a system that is designed to perpetuate fear, and I continue to struggle with the trauma. No person – child or adult – should have to go through the daily abuse and manipulation I faced,” said Paris.
The lawsuit describes how Org members have to self-report deviant thoughts and behaviour during repeated interrogations, material that is then later used against them. Kohn, Swift & Graf lawyer Neil Glazer alleged his clients were “groomed” for a “lifetime of servitude. “Their lives have been forever altered by this mistreatment.”
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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