Cruise ship prison? Not so fast say Scientology captors

A cruise ship prison story has been floating around about an Australian woman who says she was held for years against her will aboard the cruise ship Freewinds, a floating Scientology cathedral of sorts. To many, the idea of living aboard a cruise ship might seem like a dream come true. To Valeska Paris, held on the ship starting in 1996 then spending the next twelve years there against her will, it was much more a nightmare.

Paris joined Scientology’s Sea Organization, signing its standard billion-year contract at age 14. Three years later, after her stepfather committed suicide and her mother denounced Scientology on French television, Paris was ordered to “disconnect” from her family.

Paris was taken in by the Church of Scientology at age 17 then transferred to the Freewinds a year later. The Village Voice reports that for several months she was punished with an assignment in the ship’s engine room, where at one point she passed out from the noise and heat. During the first years of her imprisonment, an escort went with her whenever she left the ship but over time she was conditioned to believe there was no escape possible.

“When I first went there, I hated being there, and I wanted to leave,” Paris told the Voice. “I knew that wasn’t going to happen, so I began to accept that that was the way it was going to be,” she says.

Paris compared the experience to that of of Jaycee Lee Dugard, held for 18 years in a California backyard and despite the ability to escape, felt resigned to being held captive.

“You’re so resigned to it,” said Paris. “I never had a bank account. You get 50 dollars a week. You don’t have a passport. If you want to leave the ship, you have to go down the gangway, and there’s a security guard there 24 hours a day.”

Valeska’s passport had been taken from her when she first boarded the ship, a procedure the church reportedly says was just routine.

“You were taught that Scientology was the only answer. You think you’re doing the right thing,” she says, adding that Sea Org members are constantly made to feel that they haven’t done enough to “clear the planet” for Scientology’s advancement. “They make you feel that you could always do more. I never really took any days off. That’s your whole life, basically.”

The Church of Scientology flat out denies the whole story saying

“Valeska Paris was a crew member aboard a ship.

All passports of crew members were held by the Port Captain in accordance with maritime regulations so they can be stamped in and out of ports as the ship sailed.

Valeska left the ship hundreds of times to go shopping, for outings with her husband on islands such as Aruba, St. Barts and Curaçao, as well as for numerous other reasons while aboard.

In 2001, she hosted six members of her husband’s family. She participated in extended projects in the UK, US and Denmark. She certainly wasn’t “forced” to be there.

She was also never forced to perform labor in the engine room.”

An exclusive report on the Australian Broadcasting Company program Lateline tells a different story:

UPDATE: Following publication of the story, the Church of Scientology reached out with the following comment:

The weblog posting concerning the Church of Scientology (“Cruise Ship Prison? Not so fast say Scientology captors”, November 30) is a repetition of a false tabloid story from Australia. Valeska Paris Guider was serving as a crew member aboard the Freewinds religious retreat as a volunteer, adult religious worker. She was there of her own free will as part of her religious commitment to the Church of Scientology. The Freewinds is a passenger vessel with hundreds of people aboard. Ms. Guider’s staff positions as a waitress, course instructor and staff counselor regularly placed her in contact with many parishioners and staff. She met and married her first husband there to whom she was married from 1998-2005 and who affirms her statements are false. She left the Freewinds hundreds of times to go shopping, for outings with her husband on islands such as St. Kitts, Aruba, St. Barts and Curaçao, as well as for numerous other reasons. She participated in extended trips to the UK, US and Denmark for which she passed through Immigration and Customs when entering and exiting these countries. Her claims are false.

The Freewinds, based in the Caribbean, is a religious retreat where Scientologists come for events, conventions, courses and spiritual counseling. The Freewinds is visited regularly by officials from the islands and countries it visits. It also serves as a training vessel and has become the regional authority on maritime security, training law enforcement and military personnel. A recent Meritorious Public Service Award from United States Homeland Security, awarded to the Freewinds by the United States Coast Guard describes the Freewinds as the “premier training platform throughout the Caribbean Basin.” It further acknowledges continuous instruction of Caribbean personnel in what is described as the “highest traditions of the United States Coast Guard’s core values-honor, respect and devotion to duty.” The Freewinds also helps to promulgate the Church’s humanitarian initiatives throughout the Caribbean region and has received numerous acknowledgements for its work in the fields of drug abuse education, human rights, morals education and literacy.

Based on the above reports from Lateline and The Village Voice, we’ll let you pick a side.