Tortured Souls

Horribly abused children of the Hare Krishna movement seek justice--and peace--through a multimillion-dollar lawsuit

"Many of us thought the organization was finally going to do something to help these kids," Muster says. "But when they set up the board, one of its directors was an abuser. And it turned out the money could go to any child of Krishna, abused or not."

By 1998, the governing board appeared to be making progress, setting up its own internal Child Protective Office to investigate abuse. Devotees were trained as prosecutors and judges. Tribunals were impaneled to mete out punishment. "If a devotee has abused a child, we will ban them from the temples, prohibit them from being around children, order them to undergo psychological counseling," says Anuttama Dasa, ISKCON's national director of communications. "We have a policy of mandatory cooperation with the authorities to arrest and convict individual perpetrators."

A year later, the office had identified more than 250 abusers and seemed sincere as it began to target many leaders and gurus within the movement. Like many organizations that police themselves, ISKCON was accused of protecting its loftier members and watering down the sentences of those it did punish.

Bridgette Rittenour, left, and Ananda Tiller return to the Hare Krishna temple in East Dallas where they claim they were abused as children while attending the temple's boarding school.
Mark Graham
Bridgette Rittenour, left, and Ananda Tiller return to the Hare Krishna temple in East Dallas where they claim they were abused as children while attending the temple's boarding school.
As a high-spirited 6-year-old, Ananda Tiller was told by a gurukula teacher that she was a prostitute and would be reincarnated as a tree, much like the one growing at the Dallas temple.
Mark Graham
As a high-spirited 6-year-old, Ananda Tiller was told by a gurukula teacher that she was a prostitute and would be reincarnated as a tree, much like the one growing at the Dallas temple.

Dillon Hickey and some of the more activist gurukula kids wanted nothing to do with the Child Protective Office, believing it was a sham set up by the governing board as a pre-emptive strike against possible litigation. At a gurukula reunion in 1998, ISKCON social workers approached victims and offered some $2,000 for counseling. "In return for this insulting amount," Muster says, "they were asked to sign hold-harmless agreements waiving their rights to sue ISKCON."

Also in 1998, Burke Rochford, a sociology professor at Middlebury College in Vermont, wrote a scholarly study that placed much of the blame for the gurukula abuse on the movement's spiritual teachings. "Children were abused in part because they were not valued by leaders," Rochford writes, "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."

The study created a tidal wave of bad publicity, not only because it became a front-page story in The New York Times, but also because it was commissioned by ISKCON leaders and published in the movement's own ISKCON Communication Journal. As ISKCON's chief spokesman, Anuttama attempted to soften the blow. He issued a press release pointing out that even the Times called ISKCON's "openness" to the problems of child abuse "unusually candid...in contrast with other religious organizations, including the Roman Catholic Church."

Within the temple walls, the study was even more controversial. Devotees argued bitterly among themselves; fistfights broke out. Some believed the findings were long overdue; others blamed reformers like Anuttama for exposing the problem. Many figured it was just a matter of time before they would all be sued.

Dallas attorney Windle Turley had received national fame when a Dallas jury returned a $119 million verdict against the Catholic Church for concealing abuse by one of its priests. During the trial, Turley received a phone call from a former ISKCON leader who asked him to investigate allegations of child abuse in the Hare Krishna movement. But he didn't speak for Dillon Hickey and five other gurukula kids, who later contacted Turley and became his first plaintiffs.

"What happened to the victims in the Catholic Church case was bad, but I had never seen this kind of abuse before," Turley says. "I spent a year investigating this case, talking to these young people. Some of them had become street kids. They have no education, no family support, no understanding of how to survive in the outside world."

In June 2000, Turley filed a lawsuit in Dallas federal court seeking $400 million in damages against ISKCON, its various entities and several dozen individual defendants including many of Hare Krishna's gurus and leaders. Ninety-one plaintiffs would eventually join the lawsuit, which was pleaded as a stinging indictment of the entire Hare Krishna movement. But perhaps its most inflammatory charges were those leveled against its spiritual founder Prabhupada, who was cast as a knowing accomplice, aware of the abuse and unwilling to stop it. This allegation alone has polarized the gurukula survivors, separating them into warring factions--those who have joined the lawsuit and those who oppose it.

Plaintiffs contend that Prabhupada's spiritual contempt for women and children created a breeding ground for abuse. "It's impossible not to assign some responsibility to him," Dillon Hickey says. "Although Prabhupada was not personally abusive, there is lots of evidence that he was very nonchalant about it." That evidence may be supplied partly by Dillon's father, the former education minister and a defendant. "Early on, Jagadish told the guru that the kids were being physically abused," Turley claims. "And Prabhupada tells him, 'What do you want me to do? Go and do the best you can.'"

Despite being the first victim to publicly expose gurukula abuse, Raghunatha refused to join the lawsuit. He wants all abusers and the leaders who concealed them brought to justice, but not at the expense of destroying Prabhupada and his religion. "Prabhupada was like this little old grandpa, and then you had these wicked stepdads, who are now the fathers of the religion," Raghunatha says. "But don't go after grandpa or a religion that offers us an irrefutable spiritual experience. Go after the wicked stepdads."

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