The six Hare Krishna temples in California, along with several other Krishna organizations here and in West Virginia, took steps Tuesday to identify minors who may have been sexually abused or mistreated at boarding schools during the 1970s and 1980s.
A lawsuit over the alleged abuse prompted the Krishna movement, which is known officially as the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, to file for bankruptcy last year to protect its assets and, the group said, to prevent the closing of temples and other facilities across the United States.
As part of the bankruptcy process, the Krishna temples plan to publish legal notices today in major newspapers, magazines and Web sites urging victims to make claims if they want to be compensated under a proposed bankruptcy reorganization plan.
The move is the latest development in a three-year legal battle over the abuse allegations.
In charges that echo the sexual abuse scandal in Roman Catholic dioceses across the United States, plaintiffs allege that they were raped or otherwise physically and emotionally abused while living in Krishna boarding schools away from their parents.
The U.S. boarding schools, known as ashram-based gurukulas, were all closed by the mid-1980s. In the United States, schools were in Los Angeles and Three Rivers, Calif., Moundsville, W. Va., and Dallas. Other boarding schools were in India.
A suit was filed in 2000 in Texas against the Los Angeles, Moundsville and Dallas schools. The six California temples were also named as parties in the suit, which seeks millions of dollars in damages on behalf of more than 90 alleged victims. An attorney for the victims said the number could rise to as many as a thousand.
Victims were subjected to “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,” Wendell Turley, the Texas plaintiffs’ lawyer who is handling the suit, said when it was filed.
A Los Angeles attorney for the Krishna movement, David Liberman, said Tuesday that he had no idea how many victims will step forward. “Well over” 2,000 to 3,000 children went through Krishna boarding schools during that period, he said.
Liberman said the lawsuit “threatens to close places of worship and punish innocent families that had nothing to do with these allegations.”
The movement reports about 75,000 members in the United States. Worldwide, it claims 10,000 temple devotees, who live at Krishna temples, and 250,000 congregational devotees.
An article on child abuse within the movement between 1971 and 1986 now appears on the movement’s Web site. In it, E. Burke Rochford Jr., professor of sociology at Middlebury College in Vermont, said U.S. boarding schools first opened in 1971 in Dallas.
Rochford wrote that during those “formative years” of the Krishna movement in the United States, children were educated in boarding schools, living apart from their parents and returning home only occasionally during vacation.
“It was here that some ... children were physically, psychologically and sexually abused,” Rochford wrote. Estimates of the number of students abused have ranged from 20% of all students who attended an ashram-gurukula to as many as 75% of the boys enrolled at a boarding school in Vrindavan, India, according to Rochford.
“Whatever the actual incidence of child abuse, it remains clear that abuse directly and indirectly influenced the lives of a sizable number of children,” Rochford wrote.
Beginning in 1990, according to the Krishna society, the group put anti-abuse safeguards into place, including mandatory training in abuse prevention and the reporting of allegations of abuse to government authorities. In 1998 a professionally staffed Child Protection Office was organized to investigate abuse allegations and to offer grants to abused youth.
Liberman said the Krishna society hopes to settle as many cases as possible under the proposed bankruptcy proceedings, including cases of those who have not yet filed suit. He said the reorganization plan will be submitted to federal bankruptcy courts in California and West Virginia in June.
“We’re not just doing this in response to the lawsuit filed against us,” Liberman said. “If there’s a problem out there, then it shouldn’t be confined to those who chose to litigate .... For purposes of equity and fairness and real ultimate justice, we’ve decided not to take an approach that would simply extinguish this lawsuit. We want to deal with the bigger issue and resolve the global issue worldwide in one proceeding.”
He said those who make claims after any bankruptcy is approved could be prevented from receiving compensation. But he said the society could choose to voluntarily compensate them.