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Young Victims of Krishna Consciousness

Religion: Child-abuse accusations threaten to tear faith apart as atonement falls short.

June 13, 1999|JULIA LIEBLICH | ASSOCIATED PRESS

ALACHUA, Fla. — Hare Krishnas with shaved heads and saffron robes still preach "God consciousness" on the streets and in temples. But in private talks and on public Web sites, many accuse their fellow devotees of the most godless of crimes. After surviving scandals involving drug and weapons charges against some leaders, the movement is in crisis again. This time the issue is child abuse.

For at least a decade, current and ex-devotees claim, leaders of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, or ISKCON, knowingly permitted suspected sex offenders to work among 2,000 children in its boarding schools. Now a law firm that has won millions from the Catholic Church is taking their case.

All of this could threaten the Hare Krishnas, the Eastern spiritual community that flowered in 1960s America only to wither in the '80s, a reminder of a lost ideal.

When the charges surfaced last fall, leaders pledged to atone. They were lauded for extraordinary openness when they acknowledged sexual, physical and emotional abuse at the schools.

Hare Krishna leaders announced in May that they would pledge $250,000 a year to investigate past child abuse and aid survivors. The group's Office of Child Protection compiled the names of 200 people who allegedly inflicted abuse in the 1970s and '80s.

So far the office reports it has finished investigating 30 cases. The organization says the investigators' pace is appropriately deliberate, but it has some former students questioning how serious movement leaders are.

"It's spin control," says Nirmal Hickey, 28, a boarding school veteran whose father was the Hare Krishna minister of education. "It's totally phony."

After years of silence, former students are lashing out at the movement. While some, like Hickey, have left completely, more live on the fringes. They chant in Hare Krishna temples, sometimes side by side with people they accuse of abuse.

Dallas attorney Windle Turley is building a case on those survivors' behalf. "We just made a decision to plunge forward on a very large scale," he says, refusing to provide details of a planned lawsuit. In 1997, Turley won a $120-million judgment in a sex abuse case against the Catholic Diocese of Dallas and agreed to a $30-million settlement.

How movement officials respond will likely determine whether they hold onto their second generation, whether they become a model for religious groups or a warning.

"We have nothing to lose," says ex-student Arjuna, who like many Hare Krishnas adopted a single Hindu name. "They have us to lose."

It was the height of the '60s when the Indian guru A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada brought his distinctive form of devotional Hinduism to the United States. Soon thousands of Westerners were wearing saris and pajama-like dhotis, living in Hare Krishna temple compounds and chanting the mantra they believed would lead to a greater awareness of God known as Krishna.

George Harrison of the Beatles turned the chant into a pop mantra--but this wasn't rock 'n' roll.

Prabhupada taught that celibacy was a means to achieve the highest spiritual state, and even married couples were not to engage in sex more than once a month. Children, he said, should be sent to boarding schools at age 5 so they could learn to be pure devotees, liberated from familial "ropes of affection." Parents were then freed to sell devotional books and do other jobs.

"I sent my son away so I would be acceptable in the movement," says one mother, Nikunjavasini. "I thought he would have a more simple life in a more pure environment. I wanted so badly to believe in purity."

By the end of the 1970s, 11 schools, known as gurukulas or houses of the guru, were operating in North America with several more around the world.

Krsna Avitara, still boyish and lanky at 32, remembers seeing the movement's promotional films of children running through fields in Vrindavan, India, home of a Hare Krishna boys' boarding school. His parents, a pharmacist and a real estate broker in Miami, had joined the movement when he was 7. He grew up surrounded by pictures of his namesake, Krishna, a puckish, blue-skinned deity who frolicked with the cowherds in his Vrindavan paradise.

"I thought that we were going to do the same," Krsna Avitara says.

But there were no cowherds to greet the American boys with shaved heads and topknots when they arrived in Vrindavan in 1980. Home was a square concrete building with stone floors. One hundred boys ages 5 to 18 slept on mats and picked worms from their meals.

The day began at 3 a.m. with a march to the showers, followed by chanting in the temple.

"Hare Krishna. Hare Krishna. Krishna Krishna. Hare Hare."

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