Childhood Of Shame
Monday November 27, 2000
(This is an unedited, uncorrected transcript.) Prepared by Burrelle's Information Services, which takes sole responsibility for accuracy of transcription.
JOHN QUINONES, ABCNEWS Good evening. I'm glad you could make it DOWNTOWN. You're familiar with Hare Krishnas, you see them on streets like these across the country. Throngs of orange robed young people, chanting. You may find them intriguing, mysterious. Some call them annoying. Above all, it seems they're harmless. Well, their peaceful image is now being shattered. There are astounding allegations being made by some of the thousands of children raised in Hare Krishnas schools over two decades. When we come back, I'll have a story of stolen childhood and the victims who have found the courage to speak out.
ANNOUNCER DOWNTOWN begins with CHILDHOOD OF SHAME. Once again, John Quinones.
JOHN QUINONES Say Hare Krishna and groups of orange robed, chanting believers spring to mind. Followers are convinced that what we do in this life directly affects the next one, and that good deeds must atone for bad. If that is true, some Hare Krishnas may have plenty of atoning to do because of the shocking allegations about what was happening away from the chanting, behind closed doors. (VO) They were part of who we were. In the late '60s and '70s, some of us were just annoyed by their overzealous chanting and aggressive pitches for money. Others joined the ranks, seduced by their promise of spirituality and bliss during the turbulent Vietnam War. Even some of the Beatles had a fling with Krishna consciousness. Today, the Hare Krishnas had receded into the background, quietly practicing a religion that has roots going back 5,000 years. It's a branch of Hinduism that singles out one of the Hindu gods, Krishna, as the supreme God. But now the Hare Krishnas are in trouble, their very existence in jeopardy, and the assault comes from within, from the babies of those first American devotees.
ANUTTAMA DASA Our scriptures teach that-that children should be protected and should be treated with love.
JOHN QUINONES (VO) That was the way it was supposed to be, but now come horrifying allegations from men and women who were raised in boarding schools run by the Hare Krishna movement.
BRIDGETTE RITTENHOUR We were terrorized, and-and I-I had no childhood.
JOHN QUINONES (VO) Bridgette Rittenhour went to Krishna schools in Los Angeles and Dallas, where she says there were regular acts of violence and abuse.
MELODY GEDEON I could never get back what they've taken.
JOHN QUINONES (VO) In a Pennsylvania Krishna school, Melody Gedeon says, for punishment, she was locked in a room full of rats. Ben Bressack says he was brutally molested in schools in the US and India. And like all the children, some as young as three years old, Laksamana Keyes was forbidden to talk or even touch her parents. (OC) Where were your parents?
LAKSAMANA KEYES On the commune doing service, just completely enwrapped in their service, trying to be good devotees, trying to do everything right, trusting that we were learning how to be good devotees.
JOHN QUINONES Could you hug them and...
LAKSAMANA KEYES No.
JOHN QUINONES Could you complain to them?
LAKSAMANA KEYES No.
JOHN QUINONES (VO) Without the comfort of mother or father, even the youngest Hare Krishna students led austere lives. This is a Krishna boarding school in the 1970s. The former students we spoke with, who were not seen in this film, say that their food was often infested with bugs, they slept on the floor, took cold showers and were required to pray incessantly. They say it was all in keeping with a kind of blind devotion to the Krishna cause. Any suffering was blamed on so-called karma and should be accepted. They were taught that their bodies were unimportant, just a temporary resting place for the soul. That belief, Melody says, gave her teachers license to dole out cruel punishments. Like when she wet her bed.
MELODY GEDEON I got to the point where I stopped telling my teachers that I urinated because she would put my face in it and I would get all of this-I remember my eyes stinging from the urine getting in my eyes.
JOHN QUINONES That's what people do to dogs.
MELODY GEDEON Well, that's what they did to us. They treated us worse than dogs.
JOHN QUINONES (VO) You make this sound like a sadistic cult.
BEN BRESSACK It is.
MELODY GEDEON It is.
BRIDGETTE RITTENHOUR It was sadistic.
JOHN QUINONES (VO) And now they are taking their nightmare to court. More than 80 children of Krishna are suing Hare Krishna organizations and their leaders for $400 million.
(OC) The world's first Hare Krishna boarding school was founded inside this temple here in Dallas in 1972. Parents were told to, in essence, give up their children and go and serve their God. And that, of course, included soliciting donations on street corners and airports.
(VO) Ben and Bridgette wanted to come back to the place they called home as children of Hare Krishna. It's still a Krishna temple but no longer a boarding school. Today, each turn of a hallway brings back intense images, memories of strict rules and vicious punishment. Beatings, they say, for the most mundane of reasons.
(OC) What happened here?
(VO) Ben, for example, remembers that Krishnas view the left hand as dirty. He happened to be left-handed.
BEN BRESSACK I touched the food with my left hand. They took me outside here, tied my hands behind my back and tied my neck to this tree that was right here, and put my food there and told me I had to eat like a dog. So that's where they left me to eat, you know, and that's - I was, like, three years old.
JOHN QUINONES With your hands tied behind your back?
BEN BRESSACK And a rope around my neck.
JOHN QUINONES (VO) Bridgette was anxious to see a stairway that has been etched in her memory all of these years. It was right here she says that a fellow classmate once fell and hurt herself badly.
BRIDGETTE RITTENHOUR And that's where she laid was at the bottom.
JOHN QUINONES (VO) Bridgette then just five years old was blamed for causing the accident.
BRIDGETTE RITTENHOUR And the next thing I know, another devotee came along and he came and got me and he dragged me to the temple room and stripped me naked and made me kneel on the floor and beat me, had like a strap or a a belt or something. I don't know what it was and he just beat the crap out of me.
JOHN QUINONES (VO) After the beating, she says, she was locked in solitary confinement with no food or bathroom for two days.
BRIDGETTE RITTENHOUR I lived with that memory so long, just lived with it, and now I'm standing here and-and I can see it all, just like-just like it just happened.
JOHN QUINONES (VO) Twenty-five years later, the sickening memory is just too hard to take. (OC) It takes you back.
BRIDGETTE RITTENHOUR I held it in so long and I never talked to anybody about it because it was too unreal. And here I am.
JOHN QUINONES (VO) The lawsuit alleges a pattern of sexual abuse. The worst of it, Ben says, occurred at the Krishna school in India.
BEN BRESSACK I was pretty much sexually raped every day. My monitor was a teacher that I lived with in the same room with, like, five other students and he used me as his-for his sexual pleasures at any time, you know, and...
JOHN QUINONES You were-you were like a sexual slave?
BEN BRESSACK Right.
JOHN QUINONES (VO) And, he says, the sexual abuse was not just the assault of one man.
BEN BRESSACK This was probably the one person that raped me the most, but I had maybe 10 or 15 different men rape me as a child.
JOHN QUINONES How could this happen in a so-called spiritual environment?
ANUTTAMA DASA It shouldn't happen in a spiritual environment. It shouldn't happen in any environment. It shouldn't happen in a school.
JOHN QUINONES (VO) Anuttama Dasa is a spokesman for ISKCON, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Anuttama calls the lawsuit vague but says he assumes that some of the charges are true.
ANUTTAMA DASA These types of horrible, horrible atrocities committed against our children, they're terrible and they're complete violations of what our religion teaches.
JOHN QUINONES (VO) The Krishna movement found out about the abuse of children in their boarding schools about 10 years ago. All of the schools have since been closed, and recently ISKCON formed a child protection office to investigate specific allegations of abuse. (OC) Do you think the children can ever be paid back for the suffering they endured?
JEFF HICKEY No.
JOHN QUINONES (VO) Jeff Hickey should know. He was the man in charge of all the Krishna boarding schools, and one of the Krishna leaders nowbeing sued.
JEFF HICKEY I really believed that I was doing the best for my children. I thought that this was a divine system that would give them the best training for the future that they were going to meet.
JOHN QUINONES You were looking out for your child's best interest?
JEFF HICKEY I thought so.
JOHN QUINONES (VO) Jeff was 19 when he became a Hare Krishna devotee in 1968. He followed the teachings of this man, the guru who brought the movement to America. Swami Prabhupada, who died in 1977, is still the most revered man in the religion. The swami put Jeff in charge of the Dallas school, then appointed him to be his minister of education, even though Jeff admits he had absolutely no experience in the field. It was Jeff who kept the children away from their parents. Now, he regrets following the swami's orders.
JEFF HICKEY It is my opinion that he didn't know what he was doing, and that he-he made a huge mistake by separating the children from their parents and-and really, like, crushing their emotional lives.
JOHN QUINONES (VO) He had three children, all of whom went to Hare Krishna schools, but Jeff rarely saw them. His oldest son, Nirmala, was one of the first students in Dallas. Nirmala remembers crying himself to sleep every night as he lay on a cement bed in the basement. He recalls hardship and abuse, and his own father was in charge of the school.
(OC) So your father knew about it? Must have?
NIRMALA HICKEY Yeah, yeah.
JOHN QUINONES That must have angered you?
NIRMALA HICKEY I thought this went on everywhere. I thought this was what the world was like.
JOHN QUINONES (VO) And now Nirmala is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit suing, among others, his own father. Paralyzed from a fall when he was a teen-ager at a Krishna commune, he spends much of his time online, exchanging information with other former Krishna kids. He says he managed to fend off sexual abuse due to his father's position, but he says, he saw it all around him.
NIRMALA HICKEY I remember nights sleeping all night with the boy next to me being raped. Yeah, and-and hearing the sounds of it and, you know, wanting to just close my eyes and not, you know-but this was normal.
JOHN QUINONES When you hear your son talk about the horrible things he witnessed...
JEFF HICKEY Yeah, I just become quiet. What can I say? I feel terrible for my part in it.
JOHN QUINONES For not doing anything?
JEFF HICKEY Yeah, for-for thinking it was a good thing and just trying to keep it going when it was obviously, you know, a rotten thing to begin with.
JOHN QUINONES (VO) Not of the plaintiffs we spoke with accused Jeff Hickey of actually abusing anyone. But Jeff says, he accepts his part of the blame and even welcomes the lawsuit.
JEFF HICKEY What can I do? I'm stuck in the middle, but I have to-you know, I'm following my heart now.
JOHN QUINONES (VO) And that means speaking out about the Hare Krishna schools. It also means being a father perhaps for the first time in his life.
(OC) He says he's still trying to forgive you.
JEFF HICKEY Well, I hope someday his attempt is successful.
JOHN QUINONES (VO) But Nirmala will not soon forgive the Hare Krishnas. Even his disability, he says, has been dismissed by the religion as being the result of his karma, that in some way Nirmala deserved to be paralyzed for sins he committed in a prior life. Anuttama Dasa says the lawsuit, if successful, would wipe out the entire Krishna movement in the US. For Nirmala, that would be justice. It's time, he says, that the Hare Krishnas learn their own lesson about karma.
NIRMALA HICKEY It's no longer our karma. You know, now they have to accept this as their karma.
JOHN QUINONES Only a few of the former Krishna children we spoke to are in touch with their parents, but most have family members who are still believers, including Nirmala's mother, who actually runs a school for Krishna girls.
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