Report details Hare Krishna child abuse
Associated Press, 10/09/98 6:22 PM Eastern

For years, rumors circulated about child abuse at Hare Krishna boarding schools in the1970s and '80s. But ultimately it was the group itself that confirmed the problem, exposing many of the shocking details just this week.

In an extraordinary display of candor by a religious group, the Hare Krishna movement published the findings in an official journal, recounting sexual molestation, beatings, public humiliation and isolation in roach-infested closets. Teachers, administrators and monks were among the abusers.

The report was written by an independent sociologist, Professor E. Burke Rochford Jr. of Middlebury College in Vermont. He said Friday he did not know how many children were abused mentally, physically or sexually, but his interviews of parents and children showed it was a sizable number.

One girl recalled she was spanked and made to wear dirty panties on her head as punishment for bedwetting: "I would cry ... for my mom, but that wasn't allowed. So I would say I was crying in devotional ecstasy."

A young man said it got to the point where he wasn't afraid of being sexually molested: "Sexual molestation, all of us, man, we'd just take it, you know. We didn't even consider it abuse back then."

Critics have attacked Hare Krishnas since the sect was founded in New York in the 1960s by Srila Prabhupada, an Indian who believed it was his destiny to spread the teachings of the Hindu god Krishna.

For more than two decades, Rochford studied the sect's devotees, known in the 1970s for shaving their heads and handing out flowers and literature at airports. He said he has a fondness for many of its members, even agreeing to serve on its North American board of education. So when he uncovered the abuse, "I was devastated."

One of the sect's official publications, the ISKCON Communications Journal, reported Rochford's findings in its current issue.

"We want people to be aware of the depth of the problem and do everything possible to rotect kids in the future," said Anuttama Dasa, the movement's North American director of communications. "The first step is to put everything on the table and do everything to rectify past mistakes."

Rochford said the stage for abuse was set by the Hare Krishna's elevation of celibacy and its belief that only the spiritually weak pursue sex and marriage.

"Children were abused in part because they were not valued by leaders and even, very often, by the parents who accepted theological and other justification offered by the leadership," he wrote.

Many members of the sect, he said, had no clue of the mistreatment because the
estimated 2,000 children who passed through the schools were removed from families at an early age -- some as young as 4 -- and sent to institutions throughout the world.

Children had only occasional visits with their parents, and letters home were often censored by school officials.

By 1986, all boarding schools in North America were closed except for one high school in Alachua, Fla., where a child protection office was established.

Steven Gelberg, a former monk and academic liaison for the Hare Krishnas, said he feels ashamed he wasn't aware of the abuse.

"There were rumors of isolated incidents of abuse, but the kind of systematic abuse of  kids in part based on religious ideology shocked me," he said.

At its peak in the early 1980s, the sect claimed 5,000 U.S. members living in  communities centered around their temples, according to Anuttama Dasa. Today there are about 90,000 U.S. members, with only 800 living in the spiritual communities, he said.

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