Holy abuse

Five years after the last U.S. Hare Krishna boarding school closed, 79 former students are suing, claiming widespread physical and sexual abuse. Their attorney wants to take down the Krishnas gangster-style.

Published July 2, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

How do you compensate an adult who, as a child, felt bones in her hands shatter while she vainly tried to shield herself from a violently abusive teacher?

Seventy-nine former students of Hare Krishna boarding schools, known as gurukulas, are seeking $400 million from the religious sect in compensation for enduring a range of physical, sexual and emotional abuse -- abuse the Krishnas have acknowledged in the past. The plaintiffs' attorney, Texas trial lawyer Windle Turley, filed suit last year in federal court using the civil Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute; it is a bold gambit that, if not dismissed, could put the former students in a good position to financially ruin the Hare Krishna movement. Any day they could learn whether the suit will be knocked out of federal court. If that happens, former students will have no choice but to pursue individual abusers and criminally negligent gurukula administrators rather than the entire Krishna establishment.

"I was a three-and-a-half [year-old] girl, mother away in India," reads one anonymous posting on a Web site for former students. "He [a teacher] took me into the boys shower room, stripped off my clothes and beat me until I was unconscious."

The allegations are horrific. Turley describes the Krishna students' suffering as "the most unthinkable abuse and maltreatment of little children which we have seen. It includes rape, sexual abuse, physical torture and emotional terror of children as young as 3 years of age." According to the Turley legal complaint, there were beatings with boards, branches, clubs and poles. In some cases, children were stuffed into trash barrels for two to three days, with the lid on, as punishment for their "sins." In a few schools, children were forced to lick up their vomit from any foul food they may have thrown up.

"It is terrible that child abuse has infected public and private schools, neighborhoods, churches, and families," Anuttama Dasa, director of communications for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness -- ISKCON -- said in a press release last year. "Sadly, many children of the Hare Krishna society have also been victimized. If the events alleged in this suit did occur, we regret that they did, and we will make every effort to help address the needs of the young people named in the suit."

Other Krishna representatives have been more direct. "There is no doubt many children did suffer while under the care of the organisation," the director of ISKCON's Child Protection Office, Dhira Govinda (aka David Wolfe), said in the London Independent last year.

The first U.S. gurukula, or "school of the guru," opened in Dallas in 1971, and eventually there were as many as 11 across the country, including ones in Seattle, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and West Virginia. Several opened abroad, too. Nobody knows how many of the approximately 2,000 gurukula students were abused. As one veteran gurukula teacher put it in a 1990 interview, the abuse was "in enough schools and affected enough children and it went on for enough time."

The U.S. has had a Hare Krishna movement since 1965, when A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada brought it over from India. Theological descendants of Vaishnavism, an ancient Indian strand of Hinduism, the Krishnas attracted thousands of American followers during the height of the counterculture movement in the late '60s. As the followers began to have children, ISKCON established the gurukulas.

E. Burke Rochford Jr., a sociology professor at Middlebury College in Vermont, has studied the Hare Krishna movement since the late '70s, and believes ISKCON's emphasis on celibacy inspired a devaluation of children. (Along with intoxication, meat eating, materialism and gambling, sex for purposes other than procreation was anathema to the Krishna doctrine.) Children were seen as manifestations of carnal weakness and an impediment to parents, who were urged to submit to a grueling life of proselytizing and selling spiritual books.

Devotees who failed at public work were relegated to teaching positions. Individuals with no teaching or child-care experience were entrusted with the care of 15 to 20 small children all day, every day. The circumstances invited physical and emotional abuse. It is also believed -- by former students and by Dasa -- that pedophiles infiltrated the gurukulas, as they do other institutions that afford easy access to children.

Dylan Hickey entered the Dallas gurukula at age 4 in 1974 and spent the remainder of his childhood in various Krishna boarding schools. At 31, he's helping lead the suit against ISKCON. Hickey says he forfeited his childhood to a regimented religious lifestyle that denied him affection and permitted severe neglect and pernicious abuse. He suffered a number of serious accidents, which he attributes to neglect or incompetence on the part of gurukula teachers and supervisors, including one that rendered him a quadriplegic at age 16.

Hickey's first injury happened at a French countryside gurukula, when he fell into a pot of boiling milk and suffered third-degree burns over most of his body. During his months of hospitalized recuperation, his mother visited once and his father, a high Krishna official, never came at all. Years later, Hickey fractured an arm leaping from a moving pickup truck, because "a teacher was chasing me and I was so scared." A visiting Indian doctor wrapped his arm and the next day Hickey was put on a plane for Vrindavan, India. Hickery recalls there was no follow-up care: "I just ripped the cast off myself a month later."

His final accident, a fall from a treehouse, left Hickey crippled for life. Two nearby adult devotees opted not to call an ambulance and instead rolled him onto a section of ply-board. "They knew I couldn't move, and that there was something seriously wrong with me," Hickey says. The devotees put him in the back of a station wagon and, "they drove me about half an hour to the hospital on my side with my neck broken without any bracing."

Hickey says he doesn't hate these devotees, though they're likely responsible for much of the permanent damage done to his cervical spine. He is most embittered by the abuse and neglect he saw around him -- especially at a gurukula in the land of Krishna's childhood, Vrindavan, India. The Turley legal complaint alleges ISKCON's two boys' schools in India were founded in response to the legal and regulatory problems that plagued the group's American gurukulas.

"Kids dealt with it in different ways," Hickey says. "Some of them just gave themselves to the teacher in exchange for food and partial treatment. They became the teachers' concubine for lack of a better word. My way of dealing with it was seething anger."

Hickey characterizes the Vrindavan gurukula of the early '80s as a place of widespread sexual predation, regular humiliation, violence and near total lack of healthcare. In the Vrindavan gurukula and at others, Hickey generally escaped the worst forms of overt abuse thanks to his father's position in ISKCON.

In the '70s and '80s, Hickey's father, Jagadish, oversaw the schools as ISKCON's minister of education. During his ISKCON career he rarely spent time with his son. Jagadish left the movement in 1996, 11 years after having been named a guru. He's a key defendant in the case, and in an interesting karmic twist, he now lives with Hickey.

Jagadish showed up at Hickey's British Columbia home two years ago in the hopes of making amends. The living situation is surprisingly comfortable for both, according to Hickey.

"My dad is doing my attendant care, which is daily help with getting in and out of bed and dressing and things like that. It's working out well," Hickey says. "He's not a follower anymore and he is not an ISKCON member, but we have been in a little bit of conflict because he still holds on to a few of the beliefs."

As the man who oversaw ISKCON's gurukulas, Jagadish could reasonably be expected to have some knowledge of the abuse that Krishna officials now admit occurred in the schools. Hickey believes his father and others in positions of authority in the gurukulas did know of the problem. The plaintiffs' case depends on just such a conspiracy of suppression.

"If they say they didn't know, then there are blocked memories," says Hickey. "I've had a couple conversations with my dad where I'll say, 'Hey this person says they told you, what are you talking about, saying you didn't know?' And he'll be like, 'Well, I don't remember it. They'll have to tell me in court.'"

The last of the live-in gurukulas closed in the mid-'90s. The Krishna society estimates it now has 90,000 followers in the United States, but only about 800 actually live in one of the 45 ISKCON spiritual communities. That number is down from about 5,000 live-in devotees in the late '70s. ISKCON says the plummeting number of full-time residents -- those devotees once ubiquitous in airports -- represents the trend in the movement away from monastic life and toward congregational weekend worshipping.

Former ISKCON public relations secretary Nori Muster disagrees: "They've been saying that for decades. I think most of the people who have left don't want anything to do with the organization. A lot ... don't ever reveal to people they were involved with this group. It would be like saying, 'Oh I was in the SLA' or 'I was in the Manson Family.' They're probably counting a lot of people who do not wish to be counted."

In her 1997 book "Betrayal of the Spirit," Muster details her decision to leave ISKCON in 1988 -- a decision motivated by what she sees as a "lack of accountability between leaders and followers" and "ISKCON's faltering honesty with the outside world."

It may be impossible to demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that the ISKCON leadership was aware of the abuse and conspired to keep it from parents and the public. Turley may not have to. Civil RICO is a powerful legal dot-connecting device designed precisely to bring down criminal operations in which the powerful have attempted to shield themselves from prosecution by remaining ignorant of as much illegal conspiratorial activity as possible. Accordingly, Turley will have to demonstrate both systemic abuse and a fraudulent conspiracy by a "preponderance of evidence" (rather than "beyond a reasonable doubt"). All this could change should ISKCON's lawyers have the civil RICO claim dismissed by the Texas federal court.

The case raises questions about the relationship between religious freedom and U.S. child protection laws. At what point does a program of spiritually motivated austerity for young children become child abuse? Is it abusive to terrify a 4-year-old by vividly evoking the threat of eternal damnation for misbehavior? If so, couldn't millions of overzealous Christian parents be considered child abusers?

Courts have historically granted considerable leeway to parents' who are bringing up children in a strict religious tradition. In Wisconsin vs. Yoder, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an Amish father's right to pull his daughter out of public school after eighth grade so she could learn to be a traditional Amish woman. Austerity is a defining, fundamental component of Krishna consciousness, a reality that could have been lost on only the most oblivious of Krishna parents -- many of the complaints about compulsory, predawn religious services, poor living conditions and uncompensated labor might be dismissed on freedom-of-religion grounds. Nonetheless, Hickey doesn't recall the daily morning ritual fondly:

"For the services we would get dumped out of our sleeping bags, and have to take a cold shower. We would walk barefoot in the middle of the winter. In Pennsylvania we walked a mile in the freezing snow with nothing but a sheet on to cover ourselves. Walking a mile at 4 in the morning in ice-cold Pennsylvania is damn tough."

The case could provide a unique opportunity for the judiciary to review and clarify the amount of deference it will show to parents and institutions that impose harsh regimens on the children in their care. Several mainstream religious institutions are deeply concerned about the Turley lawsuit's unprecedented application of the RICO statute, widely perceived as legal weapon against organized crime. On May 29, a phalanx of religious groups including the American Jewish Congress, the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, the Christian Legal Society and the United States Catholic Conference filed a friend-of-the-court brief on ISKCON's behalf. The brief argues, "The court should end the efforts of the plaintiffs to transform a statute written to put the Mafia out of business into a blunt weapon capable of destroying vulnerable, unpopular religious communities."

However, John Junker, who teaches white-collar crime law at the University of Washington's School of Law, does not see the statute as applying only to the Mafia. "The courts have refused on a number of occasions to limit RICO," he says. "Everybody thought that this was going to be a bill against organized crime, when in fact it has been used against white-collar crime and Croatian terrorists. The most surprising instance was when NOW [the National Organization for Women] took on the antiabortion people for their tactics and characterized that as a pattern of racketeering activity. Nowhere is it written that the pattern of racketeering has to have an economic motive."

Of course the Krishna Society isn't the only religion to struggle with insidious child abuse problems. In fact, Turley put himself on the map in recent years by successfully suing a Catholic diocese over a priest with a history of child molestation. The diocese settled out of court for $24 million.

Dasa wishes that Turley and his clients would pursue individual abusers rather than ISKCON and all of its assets. In recent years, the Krishnas have made efforts to atone for the past abuse. Children of Krishna Inc., a non-ISKCON affiliated outreach organization, provides educational grants, as well as career and personal counseling, to former gurukula students. The group is largely run by children of first-generation devotees. Dasa is a founding board member and a significant donor to the group.

"As an individual and a Krishna devotee, I think I am going to have to try and do whatever I can," says Dasa. "They're our kids. And however angry they may be, and however justified some of them may be in their anger, we have to try to assist as many as are willing to talk to us."

Though highly critical of ISKCON in general, Muster gives a great deal of credit to Dasa for his work with Children of Krishna. "He has done a wonderful job of trying to get donations. Some of the other officials have made small contributions to Children of Krishna, but nothing like the millions that the plaintiffs are asking. Besides, Children of Krishna gives grants to all ISKCON children. A special fund should have been set up specifically to help survivors."

Hickey and other gurukula plaintiffs have little faith in these overtures. They point out that Muralivadaka, a member of ISKCON's board of education, recently resigned after admitting to molesting gurukula boys.

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When Hickey was released from the hospital that treated his broken neck, he was reluctant to blame Prabhupada for what he had suffered at the hands of his followers. His fear of blaspheming the Indian missionary lessened over the years because devotees, as he puts it, "treated me horribly." He was living on Social Security, didn't know what a bank was and had no home. His request to return to the Pennsylvania Gita Nagari farm where he had been living was denied. "I guess because I was disabled. Maybe I was a liability. I don't know. That hurt me."

Hickey spent the next three years hanging out with locals and people he had known in the Vrindavan gurukula.

"We would get together and get drunk and trade war stories. I pretty much drank myself into a stupor for a few years -- 17, 18, 19. I just drank every night as much as I could drink."

In 1996, with the help of fellow ex-gurukula student Maya Charnell, Hickey launched the Violations of ISKCON Children Exposed (VOICE) Web site. The site contains a lengthy catalog of abuse accounts submitted by former students and posted anonymously. The Turley lawsuit eventually grew out of the VOICE site.

These days Hickey isn't worried about blaspheming the Krishna tradition. He considers the doctrine, as Prabhupada delivered it, deeply flawed and would like more candor from the Krishnas about the orthodox scriptural interpretations.

"I would be a lot more comfortable with it if they didn't hide the hardcore beliefs and ideas about women from new recruits and in the press," he says. "There's a whole story about how women's period is a curse, women's brains are not as big as men's brains, women are always meant to be controlled by men."

Rochford agrees, to some extent. "The women issue is more or less as Nirmal [Hickey's childhood name] describes," he says. "In fairness, ISKCON has undergone some real change with respect to women. Mostly this has been a consequence of an active women's movement within ISKCON itself."

Though Hickey says he's been able to adjust his way of thinking about women and sexuality, he believes that many of his former Krishna peers still see the world through the veil of 5,000-year-old Indian scripture. One friend and former gurukula student hasn't been able to maintain adult relationships with women, according to Hickey. "He sees prostitutes all the time. He wants to marry some bride from China or India so he can just tell her what to do and get sex, and she'll never think," he says. "He can't get along with American women because they have a mind of their own."

In the gurukulas, boys and girls were strictly segregated. Though Hickey was in both the Dallas and Seattle gurukula with Maya Charnell, his VOICE collaborator, the two never knew each other as children. Among the gurukula plaintiffs, communication between the sexes has only recently begun as a result of the lawsuit. For Hickey the communication has been very fulfilling.

"It's almost like getting a piece of your life back," Hickey says. "You feel like you're getting something of what you were as a teenager back by talking to the girl that you would have talked to if you were able to."

Hickey is now a parent, and the experience has taught him much about his gurukula experience and has reinforced his opposition to ISKCON.

"Every day I ask my daughter how her day was at school and every day I'm expecting her to tell me something horrible. But she always says, 'Oh, it was a good day.' I'm always surprised -- it's weird. You'd think that after 50 times of her saying it was a good day I wouldn't expect her to say it was a bad day. It's like I can't believe that she's actually having fun in school. I've learned that this is what's real in the world. What we were told is that it's all fake; parental feelings were not considered real -- love in this world is an illusion and doesn't mean anything. My child is reassurance. For me this is better than anything else you could have in this world. It is proving to me that life can be happy."

By Peter Brandt

Peter Brandt is a writer living in Seattle. His work has appeared in Punk Planet, Insound.com, Buddyhead.com, Theryecatcher.com and the San Francisco Examiner.

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