Two FBI agents who specialize in rooting out human trafficking abuses are investigating the Church of Scientology, according to a lengthy New Yorker feature on the religion by Lawrence Wright.
The FBI inquiry is still open, Wright says, though no charges have been filed. The agency is looking into labor practices in the church's Sea Org arm, which counts 6,000 Scientology devotees in its ranks who "sign contracts for up to a billion years of service," Wright writes. Defectors claim they were paid as little as $50 a week—and that when they sought to leave the group, they were issued "freeloader tabs" claiming they owed tens of thousands of dollars to the church.
[FBI agents] Whitehill and Venegas worked on a special task force devoted to human trafficking. The laws regarding trafficking were built largely around forced prostitution, but they also pertain to slave labor. Under federal law, slavery is defined, in part, by the use of coercion, torture, starvation, imprisonment, threats, and psychological abuse. The California penal code lists several indicators that someone may be a victim of human trafficking: signs of trauma or fatigue; being afraid or unable to talk, because of censorship by others or security measures that prevent communication with others; working in one place without the freedom to move about; owing a debt to one's employer; and not having control over identification documents. Those conditions echo the testimony of many former Sea Org members who lived at the Gold Base.
Sea Org members are not allowed to have children, and one former member Claire Headley alleged in a lawsuit that she was pressured to have two abortions. Scientology has many celebrity adherents, including actor Tom Cruise, pictured with church leader David Miscavige, above. One such celebrity adherent, the film director Paul Haggis, tells Wright why he ended up defecting in the fascinating story.
(Cruise and Miscavige: AP)