Dallas Morning News

Krishnas encourage disclosing abuse in sect's schools
But some critics suspicious of leaders' motives, willingness to change

10/20/98 By Jeffrey Weiss / The Dallas Morning News

The stories of abuse are numbingly familiar: religious leaders beating, raping and torturing children in their charge. What's more unusual is where the stories appear: the official journal of the faith whose leaders committed the abuse.

The ISKCON Communications Journal is published by the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, popularly known as the Hare Krishnas. The current issue describes in graphic detail life at Krishna boarding schools - the first school was in Dallas - during the 1970s and 1980s.

Krishna leaders say the public airing of this dirtiest of laundry is part of a concerted effort to accept responsibility and do what they can to redress the old wrongs.

"Child abuse thrives in secrecy," said Anuttama Dasa, the Krishnas' director of North American Communications. "We are trying to do the right thing and bring this out into the open."

Some who were abused are suspicious of the overtures. Maya Charnell is the co-founder of VOICE, an Internet news board for former Krishna students. She spent two years in the Dallas school in the 1970s and remembers senseless beatings and other abuse there and in other schools.

Some who suffered say that the fundamental beliefs of the Krishnas have not changed. "After years and years and years of distrust and programmed servitude, it's kind of difficult to trust that they are doing this for the good of the children," she said in an interview.

Motives aside, the Krishna openness is far from average for religious institutions, said the Rev. Thomas Economus, a Roman Catholic priest who heads a national network of clergy-abuse victims. He tracks cases such as the Dallas scandal involving former Catholic priest Rudolph "Rudy" Kos.

That case ended with Mr. Kos in prison for child abuse. The diocese and its insurers will pay $30.9 million to the victims, negotiated down from the $119 million awarded by a Dallas jury.

"What they've done is very rare," Mr. Economus said of the Krishnas. "The norm is to close the victims down, circle the wagons and give out no information whatsoever."

Some Krishna leaders are worried about getting sued as a result of their openness, Mr.Dasa said.

"There have been concerns voiced about the legal implications," he said. "But there is a consensus that we need to take the higher ethical ground."

The International Society of Krishna Consciousness is a Hindu sect brought to America in the 1960s by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami.

At first, most converts wore saffron monk's robes and became notorious for their public chanting and aggressive demands for donations. Leaders emphasized the need to do missionary work and sell Krishna books.

Families were viewed as an impediment to spiritual growth and Krishna work, so parents were told to send children to boarding schools and to have little contact with them, according to the ISKCON article, written by E. Burke Rochford Jr., a sociologist of religion at Middlebury College in Vermont.

About 2,000 children - some as young as 3 - were sent to the poorly financed, overcrowded schools in the United States and India. Many of the teachers and supervisors had little training.

The first school opened in Dallas in 1971. Ms. Charnell was 4 years old when she was sent there from Canada. Well into adulthood, she said, she was plagued by nightmares of being beaten and walking past a line of children awaiting beatings.

The VOICE Web site (http://www.ccrgroup.com/voice/) offers firsthand accounts of abuse from the '70s and '80s. Several stories are about life in the Dallas school: "A teacher took me in the boys' shower room, stripped off my clothes and beat me until I was unconscious." "I remember his wife locking me in a dark closet standing on a milk crate with the warning that if I got off the crate, the giant rats would eat my feet." "I still remember what the floor in Dallas tasted like." Underfed students described cockroaches as "flying dates." The Dallas boarding school closed in 1976, not because of abuse but because the building did not meet state codes.

Most other boarding schools closed by the mid-'80s as the direction and leadership of the Krishnas changed. Most members were married and not interested in demanding donations from strangers or separating from their children. Krishna officials and even many students say they were unaware of the widespread abuse at the time.

Manu Dasa (no relation to Anuttama; "Dasa" is a common last name for Krishna men) was a student in several schools but was generally unaware of abuse. Only after he formed an alumni newsletter and youth ministry did he begin to understand what had happened to some of his classmates.

In 1996, he brought 10 former students to tell their stories at a meeting of the Krishnas' North American leadership. An hour later, the room was filled with crying men.On the spot, the Krishna leaders pledged $100,000 of their own money, which was used to create Children of Krishna, a nonprofit group separate from the Krishna formal organization and dedicated to helping the victims of abuse.

The formal organization created a new child-abuse program this year. Headed by a social worker, it is working to find former students, offer counseling and other assistance, investigate cases of abuse - about 70 are active - and develop prevention programs.

Progress has not been smooth. A leader of a previous child-abuse program the Krishna formal organization set up in 1990 was expelled from the movement this year after three young men said he had fondled them years earlier.

But local leaders now understand that abuse cannot be tolerated, said Yudhisthira Dasa, president of the Dallas temple, which oversees a day school. Teachers are accredited. Parents and students - there are 15 kindergarten through eighth grade - are taught how to recognize and report abuse.

On the national level, Krishna leaders say much the same. Future journals will have more articles about abuse and its aftermath. This year, the international child-abuse section has a budget of $170,000. That will continue, leaders say.

"It is not enough," said Ms. Charnell of VOICE. "It's a potential start. But they have to realize that they have now opened themselves up to public investigation and can't control what will happen."

The public airing is necessary, Anuttama Dasa acknowledged. Even though the past abuse was sometimes done in the name of Krishna, that was a perversion of ISKCON's beliefs, he said.

One of the faith's sacred texts is the Srimadbhagavatma, the story of a boy abused by his evil father. The boy was boiled in oil, thrown off a cliff and beaten. But at every turn, God intervened to save the saintly child from his evil father. Finally, God incarnated on Earth to kill the father as punishment for the abuse. "The message," Mr. Dasa said, "is pretty clear."

-1998 The Dallas Morning News

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