Religious News Service
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Updated: Thursday, Oct. 8, 1998 at 14:41 CDT
Hare Krishnas lift the lid on history of child abuse
By Ira Rifkinc 1998 Religion News Service
The Hare Krishna movement, one of the most controversial religious movements to emerge from the 1960s, has voluntarily detailed one of its darkest episodes -- the widespread abuse, sexual and otherwise, of children who attended the group's boarding schools during the 1970s and 1980s.
Until now, only limited knowledge of the abuse by some teachers, older students, supposedly celibate monks and other Hare Krishna leaders had dribbled out in court cases, media interviews with victims and academic writings.
But in the latest issue of the biannual Hare Krishna publication ISKCON Communications Journal, two articles -- one written by an outside academic with long experience studying the movement; the second by a member of the group -- extensively detail the extent of the abuse.
They also note the movement's long delay in fully addressing the problem despite the acknowledged trauma suffered by hundreds of individuals and the group as a whole through the wholesale abandonment of the faith by angry, disillusioned parents and their offspring.
"Children suffered denial of medical care for life-threatening illnesses, serious bruises, lost teeth, broken noses, scarring from caning, repeated sexual abuse and even homosexual rape at knife point," wrote Bharata Strestha Das, a Hare Krishna since 1983 who has taught English literature at the University of Massachusetts.
"The perpetrators of these very serious crimes were none other than the teachers, the ashram leaders, the administrators, and in some cases even sannyasis (monks) and ISKCON gurus (spiritual leaders).
" . . . An entire generation of children had been subjected to horrendous treatment at the hands of those entrusted with their welfare by parents who thought that they were doing what was best for their children."
Middlebury College sociology professor E. Burke Rochford Jr. said in his article that the schools -- known as "gurukulas" -- "were staffed by devotees untrained and generally ill-prepared to take on the demands of working with children." The lack of institutional support for the schools "contributed directly to acts of child abuse by teachers," he said.
As word of abuses spread through the movement, said Rochford, "some efforts were made to intervene. Yet this very intervention sometimes resulted in new strategies of coercive abuse. Most significant was enlisting older boys in (one school in India) to physically abuse younger students who were deemed troublesome and unruly by teachers."
A Washington-based spokesman for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), as the movement is officially called, said the group's decision to publicly confront the abuse issue was made "to reestablish a level of integrity that the organization has to function on (and) to educate people inside the movement so that this can never happen again.
"We didn't react as quickly as we should have, in large part because we didn't know how to react . . . We're trying now to be pro-active," said Anuttama Dasa, who said his stepson was among the physically abused.
ISKCON is by no means the first religious movement born of the '60s to face the issue of sexual and other forms of child abuse. David Bromley, a Virginia Commonwealth University sociologist, noted the case of the Children of God, a group based on quasi-Christian teachings also known as The Family. The group has released internal documents detailing the movement's own widespread child sexual abuse.
Nor are established churches immune from the problem.
The Roman Catholic Church has long struggled with cases of priests molesting young boys. In Dallas recently, the Catholic diocese there agreed to pay about $30 million to settle the largest judgment ever ordered in a clergy sex abuse case in U.S. history. But elements in the church have repeatedly been accused of protecting pedophile priests and seeking to keep information about such cases from becoming public.
By way of contrast, Bromley said ISKCON's decision, no matter how belated, "reflects a decision within the organization that this has to be cleared up. They realized that the alternative is something like the Clinton thing; continual scandal that continues to ebb out and eats you up forever," said Bromley, who co-edited a 1989 book about the Hare Krishnas.
Thomas L. Bryson, associate executive director of the American Academy of Religion, called ISKCON's decision to allow Rochford to detail the abuse in the movement's premier scholarly journal "highly unusual."
"It's rare for a group to invite an outsider in and give him carte blanche to say what he wants in one of their forums," said Bryson, whose Atlanta-based academy is a professional group for academics whose specialty is religion.
In his article, prepared with the help of student assistant Jennifer Heinlein, Rochford said ISKCON's philosophical emphasis on a "renunciate elite" and its denigration of sex and marriage as symbols of "spiritual weakness" laid the groundwork for the abuse.
"Children were abused in part because they were not valued by leaders, and even, very often, by their own parents who accepted theological and other justifications offered by the leadership for remaining uninvolved in the lives of their children," Rochford wrote.
In the heyday of the Hare Krishna boarding school system, children as young as 3 or 4 were separated from their parents and often sent thousands of miles away to gurukulas established at movement ashrams, or spiritual communities, in India, North America, Europe, South Africa and Australia. Roughly 2,000 young people passed through the gurukulas, which Rochford said were more "the functional equivalent of an orphanage" than educational institutions.
Freeing parents of the burden of raising children, noted Rochford, allowed the saffron-robbed adults to engage fully in proselytizing and selling Hare Krishna books and magazines on street corners and at airports -- the movement's hallmark and, until the early 1980s, its predominant source of income.
Rochford said some of the worst abuses at gurukulas in the United States occurred in Dallas -- where the first such school in the United States was opened in 1971 but closed by the state in 1976 for a variety of health and safety infractions -- and Seattle.
In Dallas and Seattle, where the school also has long since closed, "there were an awful lot of children with few adults, none of them qualified teachers or even interested in teaching," Rochford said. "The adults least qualified to do other things were put in the schools."
Perhaps the most widely publicized abuse occurred at New Vrindavana, the showcase ashram near Moundsville, W. Va., where the spiritual leader was charged with ordering the murders of two Hare Krishna members after they publicly branded him a pedophile. In a plea bargain arrangement, the guru, Kirtanananda Swami, later pleaded guilty to mail fraud and racketeering and is serving a 20-year prison term.
But the worst abuse, according to Rochford, occurred in gurukulas in India, where adolescent boys -- on their own, far from their parents and in a cultural setting where corporal punishment is more accepted -- were "particularly targeted."
To keep information about abuse from reaching parents, the India gurukulas "censured" childrens' letters home and forced them to write more positive notes, Rochford said.
Rochford said it is difficult to know how many Hare Krishna children were abused, sexually or otherwise.
"Clearly, it was extensive in particular places, although it was not something present at all gurukulas," he said. Still, "abuse directly and indirectly influenced the lives of a sizable number of children."
Nor is it clear to what degree the movement's founder, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, an Indian guru in the Hindu tradition known to his followers as Prabhupada, was aware of the abuse.
In an interview, Rochford said Prabhupada, who died in 1977, was at the very least aware of reports of excessive "corporal punishment" through letters he received from upset parents, although there has never been a hint of his participation in the abuse in any way.
"He had an awareness, but it is not at all clear to me that he knew of sexual abuse. But he did know that things were not going as they should," said Rochford, who has studied the Hare Krishna movement for more than 20 years.
Rochford also wrote that "Prabhupada himself discouraged parent involvement in the gurukula," maintaining that away from their influence "a child would more readily take to a life of spiritual practice and renunciation."
Spokesman Anuttama Dasa said "Prabhupada was aware there were problems in the schools, but I don't think he had an idea (abuse) was going on. He was juggling huge problems all over the world. When told of problems he would tell others to go fix them. I don't think he conceived at all there could be sexual abuse in the schools. If he understood that he would have directly intervened."
In any event, noted Rochford, the mid-`80s demise of the gurukulas -- brought on by the movement's general financial collapse -- "all but eliminated the context" for the systematic child abuse he studied. Today, Hare Krishna children generally attend day schools and live with their parents. Any abuse that continues, Rochford said, is "likely to occur within the context of the nuclear family," just as it exists elsewhere in society.
In 1997, in response to the history of abuse, the movement -- which at its peak numbered no more than 10,000 American converts and today claims far less -- established a Child Protection Office.
Headquartered in Alachua, Fla., the site of one of the movement's largest remaining U.S. communities, the office helps fund psychological counseling and vocational and educational training for those abused in the gurukulas.
Office director Dhira Govinda Das, who has a master's degree in social work, said he also helps Hare Krishna temple leaders establish systems for preventing and dealing with abuse and investigates cases of past child abuse that continue to surface -- and reports them to local law enforcement when applicable.
"Practically every week we hear about cases we had never heard of before," he said. "Some cases involve people still in the movement, so we're obliged to deal with them."
Some 25 years ago Christopher Walker -- whose Hare Krishna name is Chaitanya Mangala -- was sent by his parents to the Dallas gurukula. He was, he said "four or five." He attended gurukulas in Detroit, India and New Vrindavana in West Virginia.
At each school, he said, he experienced and witnessed sexual, physical and psychological abuse. Today, he still lives in Moundsville, near New Vrindavana, but is no longer connected to ISKCON.
As far as he's concerned, the movement's newfound desire to deal with its
history of abuse is too late in coming.
"It's always better late than never for the general health of a society. For individuals, it's different," said Walker, who owns a farm and markets incense and body oils. "For a large portion of people raised in Hare Krishna, it's too late. They've left and they're never coming back and they have been damaged by it."
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