Scientology leaders have launched a vigorous defence of their organisation amid what they described as “sensationalist” claims they have been under investigation by an FBI task force on human trafficking.
The move came after Paul Haggis, an Oscar-winning screenwriter who renounced scientology in 2009 after 34 years as a member, broke a long public silence to help the New Yorker magazine compile a lengthy investigation into the church's affairs.
Some of the most extraordinary claims raised by the 25,000-word article centre on the church's chairman, David Miscavige, who was best man at Tom Cruise's wedding. He is accused of a number of incidents of threatening behaviour towards followers.
Others revolve around ‘Sea Org’, an order of followers who work as activists at its churches, celebrity centres and missions. The apparent FBI investigation, which the church says it is unaware of, is believed to focus on Gold Base, a scientology headquarters near the desert town of Hemet.
The fenced property is home to about 800 members of Sea Org. It is also where Miscavige keeps an office. According to the New Yorker, which has interviewed several dozen former scientologists as well as Haggis, leaders there are encouraged “to instil aggressive, even violent, discipline”.
Quoting an estranged ex-scientologist called Mark Rathbun, the magazine claims punishments at Gold Base include being sent to the ‘hole’, a pair of trailers. “There
were between 80 and 100 people sentenced to the hole at that time,” Rathbun claimed.
The magazine alleges that Tricia Whitehill, an FBI agent stationed in Los Angeles — home to the church of scientology's Hollywood ‘celebrity centre’ — flew to Florida in December 2009 to interview former scientologists about their experiences at Gold Base. According to the article, the case remains open.
Church leaders deny the existence of places of confinement at any of their properties and say they told the New Yorker they had never been advised of any government investigation.
Haggis has a lesbian daughter, and tells how he quit the church amid a row about its role in supporting Proposition 8, the ballot which banned gay marriage in California.