Hare Krishnas on the hotseat
By Jean Sonmor
June 14, 1999
Things seemed a little tense yesterday at the Hare Krishna temple on Avenue Rd. just south of Davenport Rd. Word was just out that a big lawsuit was coming down the pike, a class-action lawsuit that would put ISKCON, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, on the hotseat once again. This time for alleged sexual and physical abuse of children in their residential schools going back 20 years -- "and even today," says the Dallas lawyer preparing the case to be filed in the next couple of weeks.
Although the Toronto temple is unlikely to play much of a role in the case, fuses were short when I tried to get information. Bhaktimarga, the spiritual leader who has run the temple for 26 years, was away, but Keshava, the spokesman, explained that they were ready for "these articles ... You better not make any mistakes," he threatened. "We have our lawyers ready. I'll sue you." It seemed a little extreme. I was simply asking about the school they'd run in the temple.
"We never had a school," he insisted. When I persisted that they had not only had a school but in 1981 I had visited it and written a story about it, he started talking wildly about lawsuits and counter stories. Hmm!
It turns out that Bhaktimarga was in Vancouver visiting society members there and he did remember the school, which functioned only briefly, he said, and not as a residential facility. My story, which according to our files was not challenged, described a "live-in" school for a half-dozen kids under 12. I don't remember the details except that it was incredibly focused on religion. They were described to me as children of "the harsh bliss" in a system where "more time is spent on religious studies than on science, geography and French combined," I wrote.
But more interesting, in retrospect, is the discussion of discipline. "Sometimes I hit my hand on the desk to get attention or hit a student on the shoulder. You have to or they won't take you seriously," said Krishna Das (Chris Zajchowski), who was their teacher.
All that the relatively benign Toronto experience does is give a flavour of the rigours in the hundreds of residential schools across North America and India where children --even some Canadian children -- were sent away from their parents as young as four.
Gradually through the 1990s, stories have begun to emerge about the humiliations and abuse some of these children suffered. Anonymously on Web sites like VOICE (Violations of ISKCON Children Exposed) or in very public fashion -- when 10 former students confronted the movement's leadership. According to a New York Times report, they complained of being caned, denied medical attention and sexually molested -- even raped homosexually at knifepoint.
The society commissioned a Middlebury College sociology professor, E. Burke Rochford Jr., to report on the allegations. The harshly critical report said it was impossible to quantify the abuse but that a "sizeable number" of the hundreds of children in the system had been abused, especially adolescent boys sent to India for schooling. But in an age where many religions and institutions are struggling with how to react to similarly ugly stories, ISKCON has taken the bold step of publishing Rochford's report in its official journal.
"We're still shocked out of our minds that this went on," says Padya Vali, Vancouver-based communications director for ISKCON in Canada. She also ran a school in Seattle for 45 children and claims they never had a single case of abuse. "We weren't looking for it," she says. "Our philosophy is simple living and high thinking ... We could be accused of naivete -- thinking we would escape this worldwide problem ... We didn't know that some pedophiles had come into our system disguised as members."
The naivete continues. Vali says she's not too worried about the lawsuit. "We're not turning a blind eye to the problem," she explains. They've responded to the complaints by putting in a number of checks and balances to codify their new "zero tolerance" policy. They've pledged to spend $250,000 a year for the next four years on their Child Protection Office, helping victims and charging perpetrators. When the courts look closely at how proactively they've gone after the problem, Vali believes they will have significantly mitigated their damages.
But it's hardly likely the victims will agree. After all, they sought out Dallas attorney Windle Turley, who won a $120-million lawsuit against the Catholic church recently. No wonder they're nervous at the temple on Avenue Rd.
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