Since at least the spring, agents with Homeland Security working out of its Tampa office have been interviewing former members of the church who have information about the way children are used as laborers in Scientology’s “Sea Organization” and other matters.
We put in a call to the lead investigator of the probe at the Tampa office, Justin Deutsch, who has been questioning former church members. We have not received a reply.
But we decided to reveal this news after talking to four different ex-Scientologists who gave us detailed information about being interviewed by Homeland Security, and after learning that the probe has been going on for so long.
“Human trafficking is one of the most heinous crimes that our special agents investigate,” said Sue McCormick, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations Tampa after the sentencing of a trafficker in September (an investigation unrelated to the Church of Scientology).
According to the Homeland Security website, “Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery, and involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to exploit human beings for some type of labor or commercial sex purpose.”
For years, former Scientologists have gone public with stories of how children as young as 10 years old are signed to billion-year contracts in Scientology’s “Sea Org” and are made to work incredible hours of menial labor for little to no pay. Many Scientologists, young and old, tell of working under inhuman conditions in involuntary servitude, held at locations where they had no contact with family members and no way to get messages to the outside world.
This isn’t the first time that such allegations have been investigated by the federal government. In February 2011, New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wright revealed in “The Apostate,” his lengthy story about film director and former Scientologist Paul Haggis, that the FBI was investigating Scientology for human trafficking.
In a story we wrote at the Village Voice in March, we revealed that by the time the FBI investigation became public in February 2011, it had actually been dropped by the agency several months earlier.
In the summer of 2010, the FBI was so serious about raiding Scientology’s international base east of Los Angeles, it had gathered high-resolution images of the base with drone aircraft, had asked several ex-Scientologists to ride along in vans as the raid occurred, and had even recorded the tail numbers on Tom Cruise’s airplanes in case church leader David Miscavige tried to escape via Cruise’s Burbank hangar. By October 2010, however, those plans had been scuttled, and the FBI soon notified ex-church members that they were no longer confidential informants.
Informants in the Homeland Security investigation tell us they believe the DHS probe is currently active, but they also say it may be losing steam.
Multiple informants tell us that Deutsch and his fellow agents were extremely active as they picked up where the FBI had left off. But in recent weeks, those agents sound less energetic.
One informant described the DHS investigators as “dispirited.”
There are precedents which suggest that proving human trafficking offenses in the Church of Scientology is a legally difficult proposition.
Earlier this year, Marc and Claire Headley lost an appeal in their four-year attempt to sue the church under trafficking law.
In his decision, Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain of the Ninth Circuit described the harsh life the Headleys experienced in the Sea Org…
In keeping with Church disciplinary policy, the Church censored the Headleys’ mail, monitored their phone calls, and required them to obtain permission to access the Internet. In addition to their normal work, Marc and Claire were at times assigned manual labor, sometimes as discipline. This labor was often yard or kitchen work, but some of it was more difficult or unpleasant. In 2004, for example, Marc (along with hundreds of others) was assigned to hand-clean dried human excrement from a large aeration pond. This two-day assignment was levied as discipline for problems in Marc’s work. As another example, in a six- to eight-month period in 2002, Claire was denied dining hall privileges, had to subsist on protein bars and water, and lost about thirty pounds.
Marc and Claire experienced and observed verbal reprimands and physical abuse while in the Sea Org. A senior Scientology executive physically struck Marc on two occasions and another official punched him on another occasion. A co-worker shoved Claire once. Marc and Claire allege that they saw senior Scientology leaders physically abuse other staff.
As noted above, Sea Org members may not have children while in the ministry. Yet in the mid-1990s Claire twice became pregnant. Each time she had an abortion. She testified that she was told that she would be placed on manual labor and required to participate in confessionals if she did not have the first abortion. She testified further that she was told that she would face “consequences” if she did not have the second abortion. She says that other Sea Org women who became pregnant were assigned manual labor (such as yard or kitchen work) as co-religionists to convince them to have abortions.
Despite that evidence, Judge O’Scannlain suggested that the Headleys might have had more success in court if they had not sued under the trafficking statute.
(We asked Marc Headley if he had been interviewed by Homeland Security for its investigation, and he said he had not.)
If the DHS probe is winding down, its agents may have discovered, as did the FBI and the Headleys, that proving human trafficking abuses can be a daunting proposition, particularly when, as is often the case, ex-Scientologists do not open up about their experiences until years after they leave the church. Many say they fear to speak earlier because of the church’s well-established reputation for retaliation.
We will update this story if we get a response from Deutsch or a spokesperson for Homeland Security.