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Krishna Payouts Begin

Society starts resolving its $9.5-million child abuse case. Bankruptcy filing, school closures precede compensation to 535 former students.

June 26, 2005|Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writer

Leaders of the Hare Krishna faith last week began carrying out the terms of a $9.5-million settlement that closes the books on a long-running child abuse scandal.

Under the plan, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness organization has filed for bankruptcy in Los Angeles while it determines how to compensate 535 former students who say they were abused in the 1970s and '80s by adults at boarding schools run by the society.

The settlement covers abuses at Krishna temples and schools across the United States and India that resulted in a 2001 class-action lawsuit.

Some Hare Krishna devotees and gurus, including at least one in Los Angeles, were subsequently convicted of child abuse, and others were barred from visiting temples, said Anuttama Dasa, spokesman for the society.

The Krishnas also closed all the boarding schools in the United States, where much of the abuse allegedly occurred. Last week, the organization began paying off attorneys, accountants and others involved in the case, a first step in eventually making payments to the alleged victims.

"It's heartbreaking to know that many of our children were abused in some of our schools and communities," Dasa said. "Hopefully, this decision allows us to reach out to these young adults, these former students, and provide as much support as we can."

Though the scandal is far smaller in scope than the sexual abuse allegations facing the Roman Catholic Church, it has roiled the Hindu-based society with 100,000 members in North America and brought about much soul-searching.

The plaintiffs' attorneys had originally sought $400 million but say the settlement, though much smaller, is important because the organization admitted that widespread abuse had occurred.

"It's a kind of therapy," said attorney Windle Turley, who represented 95 of the alleged victims. "This bankruptcy, where the defendant explicitly apologizes and acknowledges their wrong, and arranged some compensation for the victims, is a type of validation that will have a strong therapeutic impact."

The Hare Krishna movement was founded in New York City in 1966 by Indian guru Srila Prabhupada. He preached about nonviolence, vegetarianism and celibacy under a theology known as "God consciousness."

His teachings won popularity during the counterculture movement of the 1960s and '70s. Movement members are best known for chanting "Hare Krishna," wearing saffron robes and shaving their heads.

Prabhupada said children as young as 5 should be sent to boarding schools so they could learn to be pure devotees. This also freed parents to sell devotional books and perform other duties for the society.

Schools, known as ashram gurukulas, sprouted across the country, including Los Angeles.

Plaintiffs later charged that much of the abuse occurred in the boarding schools, and the organization now admits that the arrangement made children particularly vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse because they were separated from their parents.

"I hardly ever saw my parents, but when I did, I would ask my mother every two seconds, 'What time do I have to go back?' " said plaintiff Anya Pourchot, now 37. "I was so fearful that if I did not get back to the ashram in time, they would take away my privileges of seeing my mother."

Pourchot, a Santa Monica beautician, said she was able to fend off sexual advances from gurus, teachers and other devotees in a Dallas boarding school, but she was frequently beaten. She said she saw other children put inside gunnysacks and barrels as punishment. Children were locked in closets and told that rats would attack them if they moved, she said.

When she was 16 and staying in a boarding house for women and girls in Los Angeles, Pourchot said she was engaged against her will to a 32-year-old devotee. She said he later raped her.

"He used to say he was my guru, that I had to do everything he said I had to do," Pourchot said. "He said I couldn't tell anyone else what was going on between us."

She said she escaped before having to marry him.

Pourchot said the incidents still haunt her. "If I hear any of their chants ... I have to run away or I'll start hyperventilating," she said.

Allegations of widespread sexual and physical abuse at the schools emerged publicly over the last decade. Authorities filed criminal charges against some adults, and the order expelled others.

Then, in 1998, leaders published details of the abuse in the society's official journal. At the time, the religious order was praised for its candor by some, who contrasted the disclosure to what critics saw as stonewalling by the Roman Catholic Church about alleged sexual abuse.

But some victims were not satisfied and filed suit in 2001.

A year later, some of the society's temples and other organizations filed for bankruptcy. Officials said they feared that litigation would destroy the society by causing the mass shutdown of temples.

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