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What is Scientology's Elite "Sea Organization?"

The Church of Scientology is back in the news, this time dealing with accusations against its elite Sea Organization -- or "Sea Org" for short. But just what is this "Sea Org," what role does it serve in the church, and why is it so controversial?

According to Scientology's official Web site, the Sea Org was established in 1967 by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard (pictured at left). It earned its name because initially it operated from several ships that sailed the seas to "research earlier civilizations and supervise Church organizations around the world."

The site goes on:

The Sea Org is a religious order for the Scientology religion and is composed of the most dedicated Scientologists in the world—individuals who have dedicated their lives to the service of their religion...

The first Sea Org members formulated a one-billion-year pledge to symbolize their commitment to the religion as immortal spiritual beings. It is signed by all members today.

There are some 5,000 members of the Sea Org. It appears an individual's entire life is centered around it:

Sea Org members work long hours and live communally with housing, meals, uniforms, medical and dental care provided by the Church. They participate in Scientology training and auditing during a portion of each day, but otherwise dedicate themselves to furthering the objectives of Scientology through their particular functions.

That's Scientology's official line on the Sea Org. But critics have their own take. First off, they say Hubbard established it so he could live at sea and thus escape investigations by various law enforcement agencies. A Web site created by former Scientologist and 16-year member of the Sea Org Jesse Prince says:

In 1967, L. Ron Hubbard raised a private navy, appointed himself Commodore, donned a dashing uniform of his own design and set forth on an extraordinary odyssey, leading a fleet of ships across the oceans variously pursued by the CIA, the FBI, the international press and a miscellany of suspicious government and maritime agencies.

In an affidavit, Prince explains the role of the Sea Org:

The Sea Organization is the actual nexus that controls the scientology empire. Sea Organization personnel are authorized to take over and control scientology organizations and to demote personnel, move bank accounts and run the corporation as if the SO personnel were employees or representatives of that corporation but they are not.

But life at sea for the early members of the Sea Org was difficult. According to a book called  "Understanding Scientology" by Margery Wakefield, during the initial Mediterranean voyage, Hubbard applied a variety of physical punishments, including the practice of "overboarding," or throwing offenders over the side of the ship. Former Sea Org members have stated that punishments in the late 1960s and early 1970s included confinement in hazardous conditions such as the ship's chain locker.

The Sea Org is now largely located on land, yet it keeps its maritime theme "in celebration of the fact that Mr. Hubbard’s life was frequently connected to the sea." Controversy also carried onto shore. Former Sea Org members tell stories of abuse by church members. For example, some say female Sea Org members who get pregnant are either forced to get an abortion or leave the Sea Org.

"A very high-level Sea Org member one day saw me and asked me what I was doing and I said I was leaving and I said I was pregnant and he said, Oh, is it too late for an abortion?" former member Astra Woodcraft told ABC News in 2008. "I didn't even know what to say in response."

In a San Francisco Chronicle article from 2001, Church leaders said that the Church has no policy on abortion, leaving the choice up to individual couples.

Former members also tell how being in the Sea Org was supposed to be the only thing in their lives, including family. Jenna Miscavige Hill, is a niece of Scientology's leader David Miscavige, and whose parents were high-ranking members of the Sea Org. "What we're told is that [members of the Sea Org] have to work so hard because they're helping other people," Hill said. "Your family isn't the most important thing."

When she was 12, Hill paid a visit to the Church's so-called "mecca" in Clearwater, Fla. She said Church elders asked her to remain there and become a full-fledged member of the Sea Org, while her parents remained in California.

"I wanted to go back and see them," Hill said. "And I was even about to get on a plane, and I just got pulled into a room and screamed at, telling me that, you know, I'm here to be a Sea Org member."

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