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June 15, 1999


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Child Abuse Victims to sue ISKCON

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Arthur J Pais

Three years ago, 10 former boarding school students addressed Hare Krishna leaders who had gathered in Alachua, a small Florida city about the sexual abuse they had allegedly received at the hands of Hare Krishna teachers in the 1970s and early 1980s. And now the former students plan to sue the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.

The abuses took place at more than 12 gurukulas, including one in Vrindavan, India. They warned there were many more victims but it was not easy for them -- as was the case with the 10 -- to discuss their past.

"I've never seen 100 grown men cry before,'' said Jahnavi, one of the victims, who decided to stay with the Krishna movement because she says she was convinced of the intrinsic value of the movement. Jahnavi revealed she was made to lick up a drink she'd spilled on the ground. She was ordered to sleep naked in a bathtub because she wet her bed.

"My security, love, peace of mind were taken away from me,'' she said. She has formed Children of Krishna to help abuse survivors like herself. "People ask us why did we wait for two decades to speak out. Many of us were not sure how to go about bringing up the subject; some of us had suppressed those memories."

Within a few weeks of the public revelations, Hare Krishna leaders asked sociologist E Burke Rochford, who has been associated with the Hare Krishnas for many years, to study the abuses in its gurukulas, formed its own task force to investigate the complaints, pledged to inform the police about their findings. Their own magazines carried detailed articles about the abuses, which led to many American publications to run stories on the issue. The New York Times ran a page one story last year.

"Swami Prabhupada (the founder of the movement) insisted on total transparency," said Anuttama Dasa, an ISKCON spokesperson, last year. "We are taking steps to help the victims."

Several Hare Krishna leaders pledged over $ 100,000 from their personal funds to the ex-students. And the Children of Krishna would give $ 85,000 in grants for counseling and education over the next three years. A few months ago, Hare Krishna leaders pledged $ 250,000 a year to investigate the abuses more vigorously and aid the survivors. Most of the gurukulas were closed in the last decade.

But some former Krishna children were not satisfied. And at their behest last week, Dallas attorney Windle Turley began building a case against a movement. He does not specify how much he would be asking. Two years ago, Turley won a $ 120 million judgment in a sex abuse case against the Catholic Diocese of Dallas, and finally agreed to a $ 30 million settlement. The diocese went bankrupt and closed many of its agencies and schools.

For a movement, that has survived scandals involving drug and weapons charges and jail sentence to some of its former leaders in New Vrindaban settlement in West Virginia, the law suit is yet another challenge in convincing the public that the Krishnas are serious about setting things right.

"It's spin control,'' says Nirmal Hickey, 28, referring to the movement's own efforts at the ongoing investigation and therapy efforts. "It's totally phoney.''

Many of the abused men and women look at publication of articles about child abuse in the Hare Krishna's own journals as nothing but a damage control exercise. They also do not accept claims of current Hare Krishna leaders that the governing body was completely ignorant about cases of child abuse. They say the governing body looked the other way, disbelieving the students or believing that the complaints were not worth investigating.

Krsna Avitara, 32, was seven when his wealthy parents joined the movement, and sent him to the boarding school in Vrindavan. Instead of a pastoral scene, he found himself in a stone building with stone floors. There was corporal punishment, he says; worse, there was sexual abuse.

In a recent media interview, he talks about a teacher, without mentioning the name: "A lot of my friends slept with him. We thought that this was what love was about.''

"We all had the same prayer,'' he says: " 'Krishna, get me the hell out of here'.''

Rochford says it is impossible to know how many of the 2,000 gurukula students were abused. He believes the harm occurred because the movement that prized celibacy did not value its children.

"Marriage and family life came to represent a sign of spiritual weakness,'' Rochford wrote in an article commissioned by an official publication of the International Hare Krishna Consciousness movement.

Most parents, he wrote, "accepted theological and other justifications offered by the leadership for remaining uninvolved in the lives of their children."

He also believes the movement has gained from the disclosures. "ISKCON now screens candidates for teaching positions in ISCKON schools, and children are taught about child abuse and what they should do if someone mistreats them emotionally, physically or sexually." The movement has also started paying significant attention in recent years to "social development", he adds. "What social development means quite simply is the support of family life, and it has become a mantra recited over and over by devotees in and outside of ISKCON."

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