Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes in Sunnyvale, CA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Following the news that Katie Holmes reportedly blindsided Tom Cruise by filing for divorce last week, the burning question is what went wrong between the couple, whose relationship at one time was so passionate that Cruise was literally jumping up and down on national television about it. Numerous reports link the split to Cruise's devotion to Scientology, stating that Holmes, 33, became concerned for the welfare of their 6-year-old daughter, Suri, as the girl's involvement with the controversial religion was set to increase. Holmes' divorce papers, seeking sole custody, spoke volumes.
According to TMZ, Holmes is divorcing Cruise in part because she believed he planned to send Suri away from home to a hardcore Scientology association known as Sea Organization. "Sea Org, as it is known, is where the highest levels of Scientology are taught and kids as young as five can be sent to live there ... without their parents — and our sources say Tom is a big fan," states the website. "The Sea Org has been often compared to a boot camp and several ex-Scientologists (including Oscar winner Paul Haggis) have been outspoken against its military-like conditions."
The official Scientology website has a different description for the group, which it calls "the singularly most dedicated Scientologists," who "have committed their lives to the volunteer service of their religion." Established in 1967, the Sea Organization once operated from a number of ships, but today the majority of the 5,000 members are based on land — though they still "wear maritime-style uniforms and have ranks and ratings." The Scientology boat Freewinds — on which Cruise celebrated his 42nd birthday during a party that cost an estimated $300,000 — is operated by members of Sea Org.
"As volunteers and members of a religious order, Sea Organization members work long hours and live communally with housing, meals, uniforms, medical and dental care, transport, and all expenses associated with their duties provided by the church," states the Scientology website. "They also receive an allowance to purchase personal items, as all of their other expenses are fully covered by the church." Minor children are permitted to voluntarily join with the consent of a parent and schooling is provided, but the children also work. However, the website emphasizes: "The Church of Scientology adheres to all child labor laws and no underage Sea Organization members are permitted to perform tasks or to work hours longer than permitted by law."
Although Scientologists deny there is any wrongdoing in relation to the group, there have been numerous reports stating that conditions for children within the organization — who, according to the Scientology website, are made to sign "a one-billion-year pledge to symbolize their eternal commitment to the religion" — are less than optimal. "Crash" screenwriter/director Haggis, who was a member of the church, has said that allegations of abuse of the children were partially behind the reason he left Scientology after 34 years. In a 26-page article in The New Yorker, he said he heard about horror stories from men and women who joined Sea Org before turning 18. “They were 10 years old, 12 years old, signing billion-year contracts — and their parents go along with this?” Haggis said. “Scrubbing pots, manual labor — that so deeply touched me. My God, it horrified me!” In the same article, a former employee claimed to have worked 15-hour days as a teenager, seeing her parents only two times between the ages of 12 and 18. Another said he earned $17 a week for his work, and resided in living quarters that were so lacking that his room didn't even have a door knob.
Outside of that, the website Ex-Scientology Kids, which was started by three women who had grown up in the church but later left, has a forum where many people share stories of mistreatment. Additionally, in 2010, a former Scientologist named Keryn (she didn't disclose her last name) went public with her story, claiming she was a "child slave" for Sea Org in the 1960s. Her mother was a high-ranking Scientologist and at the age of 12 Keryn started working on one of the church's ships, where the church's elite followers stay and study, before her grandmother helped her escape at the age of 13. "When we were on the ship, we had people working 20 hours a day, seven days a week," she told Australia's ABC News. "A lot of the children hadn't seen their parents for months, and their parents were on the same ship." She also alleges that she saw a 6-year-old boy chained up by the leg in a ship's hold for days. "He was fed, but he was chained," she said.