Tortured Souls

Page 9 of 9

Of course, if Turley hoped to win, and win big, he had to go after everybody. To accomplish this, he sued all defendants in federal court, claiming they operated as one enterprise and violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). What better way to target ISKCON's 350 temples worldwide, its 60 rural communities and 60 restaurants?

The defendants, however, strenuously objected to this claim. "ISKCON? There is no one ISKCON," says Anuttama, who believes the plaintiffs' allegations are grossly exaggerated. "There is ISKCON of Washington, ISKCON of Detroit, all individually incorporated. Should the residents of Dallas, innocent devotees, risk losing their temple for abuse that occurred 25 years ago?"

To succeed as a RICO action in federal court, the plaintiffs' injuries had to be economic not personal, which is why Judge Sam Lindsay dismissed the lawsuit, ruling ISKCON did not abuse children for profit or benefit financially by depriving the plaintiffs of their rights. Undaunted, Turley filed the case as a personal injury claim in a Dallas district court in October. Same plaintiffs, same defendants, same claim of $400 million in damages.

It was getting dark outside the Dallas temple, but Ananda Tiller and Bridgette Rittenour didn't feel threatened--even after identifying themselves as plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Several devotees claimed they supported their cause, and the two women were told that things were different in ISKCON, more liberal. Women and children were shown more respect; the gurukula was just a day school; only a monastic few lived in the temple while most were householders living peacefully among the karmis. Signs of change at the temple were everywhere, from the male devotee who wore a Rage Against the Machine T-shirt, to the female devotee who hugged a male acquaintance, to the Indian immigrants who now outnumber their American counterparts.

"None of us who are here now were here 15 years ago," says Dallas temple president Vinod Patel, who is Indian. "We are a completely different group of people. We have a child-protection team now. We teach courses in preventing child abuse."

Tiller believes otherwise. Her gurukula teacher, though one of the nicer ones, was the head of the day school. And she saw several former gurukula kids at the Sunday feast, smiling warmly as they recognized her. That's why she felt guilty, her face breaking out in hives. They all seemed like family, and she was suing them, suing their religion. "One part of me was saying, 'Look at them, they're dealing with this,' and the other part was saying, 'No, they're lost. They don't know how to deal with anything.'"

She left in a hurry, going to her car to collect her thoughts. Even if she didn't get a dime from the lawsuit, at least she and Rittenour and the others knew the abuse they suffered was real. It wasn't their karma, their problem, their fault. The lawsuit was just a first step to get control over their lives--a step those other gurukula kids were unwilling or too terrified to take.

Just last month, Rittenour obtained her GED and was planning to start nursing school, finally getting the education she had been begging for her entire life. And Tiller had recently moved to Houston, following her parents, demanding they be a family. She wants her kids to have the things she was denied: fun, a childhood, grandparents. She and her mother talk constantly. She looked her father in the face the other day. And he even hugged her.

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Mark Donald
Contact: Mark Donald