Church of Scientology investigated by FBIFebruary 6, 2011
The Church of Scientology is being investigated by the FBI over allegations of human trafficking, it has been claimed.
The controversial and secretive group - whose celebrity backers include the actors Tom Cruise and John Travolta - has effectively been accused of enslaving members.
FBI agents are said to have interviewed defectors across the US about the techniques used by church leaders to control members' lives and track down those who attempt to leave.
The leader of the church, David Miscavige - who was best man at Cruise's wedding in 2006 - is accused of repeated violence towards staff and members, which he has denied.
Much of his alleged violence is said to have taken place at Gold Base, a church headquarters in the Californian desert, which houses 800 members of Sea Org, its religious order.
Mr Miscavige is also accused of living the lifestyle of a "Hollywood star", spanning personal chefs and a fleet of cars, despite it being illegal for the head of a tax exempt organisation to receive perks and high pay.
The claims were made in an extensive investigation into the church by Lawrence Wright, a highly-respected and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, in the New Yorker magazine.
He was given details of the church's internal workings by defectors including Paul Haggis, the Oscar-winning filmmaker, who quit in 2009 over its opposition to gay marriage.
Mr Miscavige "expected Scientology leaders to instill aggressive, even violent, discipline" at Gold Base, Wright reports, citing court papers.
Those who stepped out of line are reported to have been sent to "The Hole", a confinement area in which they were made to confess and fight over the right to remain at the base.
Others were allegedly beaten, sentenced to manual labour or declared a "Suppressive Person" - effectively an internal enemy.
Meanwhile members who "failed to fulfill their ecclesiastical responsibilities" were sent to "punitive re-education camps", Wright reports.
Valerie Venegas and Tricia Whitehill, agents from the FBI's office in Los Angeles devoted to fighting human trafficking, are said to now be investigating the group.
Wright reports that Valerie Venegas and Tricia Whitehill, agents from the FBI's office in Los Angeles devoted to fighting human trafficking, have been investigating the group.
While federal trafficking laws are typically used to tackle forced prostitution, they also apply to slave labour, defined by conditions such as imprisonment and psychological abuse.
Haggis and other defectors complain about the church's policy of "disconnection", under which they are allegedly told to disown friends and family who criticise Scientology.
Wright reports that California law states that "being afraid or unable to talk, because of censorship by others or security measures" is one indication of human trafficking.
Another sign, according to California law, is "working in one place without the freedom to move about".
A former head of security at Gold Base told Wright that a special unit was formed to prevent members leaving, and brought more than 100 people who had tried to flee back to the base.
"When emotional, spiritual, or psychological pressure failed to work," Wright reports, "physical force was sometimes used to bring escapees back." Special Agent Whitehill reportedly kept the investigation secret from colleagues in Florida, where she carried out an interview, in case the regional FBI office had been infiltrated by Scientologists.
The church attempted to dismiss the allegations as the work of "discredited individuals" who held a grudge against them. It denies all claims of violence and punishments at the base.
In a statement, it said the article was "little more than a regurgitation of old allegations that have long been disproved," adding: "The Church has never been advised of any government investigation.
"Moreover, the subject of the alleged investigation was recently raised in a lawsuit by the same individuals who are the sources for the article and the complaint was resoundingly dismissed by a Federal District Court Judge." Laura Eimiller, a spokesman for the FBI's Los Angeles office, said: "The FBI does not confirm or deny investigations. Special Agents Venegas and Whitehill did not respond to requests for comment.