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.
Both sides later agreed to negotiate and recently came up with a settlement. As part of the agreement, Krishna temples around the world will contribute $6.5 million to pay the alleged abuse victims.
Local organizations in Los Angeles and West Virginia filed for bankruptcy, a move that officials say will allow them to compensate victims. They said the society’s operations and services would continue despite the bankruptcy filing.
The religious order placed advertisements in newspapers and other media seeking alleged victims of abuse. More than 430 came forward in addition to the 95 already named in the lawsuit.
The alleged abuse victims would be paid according to a point system -- or “matrix” -- that takes into account levels of physical, emotional and sexual abuse and the duration of the alleged abuse, said Sandford Frey, a bankruptcy attorney representing the Hare Krishna society.
Attorneys on both sides will eventually determine the amount of damages each alleged victim is entitled to receive, but the payments will generally range from $6,000 to $50,000, Frey said.
The settlement has elicited mixed feelings among some of the alleged victims.
“It kind of feels like a cop-out,” said Harry Watson, 31, who said he was sexually abused while at schools in West Virginia and India. “They have a lot more money, but they were basically crying, ‘We’re poor, we’re poor.’ Personally, I would have liked to have my day in court.”
Watson alleges that adults at the schools repeatedly abused him over several years.
“I was beaten, I was starved, I was punched in the face, I was raped,” Watson said. “I don’t consider myself to have been molested. I was raped.”
Watson said more than 10 years passed before he told his mother about the abuse.
“I was so young, I don’t even think I understood what rape was,” he said. “I don’t think I could say I was raped, because I had no idea. I had no knowledge about what they were doing to me.”
A 31-year-old personal trainer who lives in Newbury Park said she was sent to a boarding school in the 1970s so her father could become a Krishna priest in India. She said she was beaten and sexually abused there.
“Most of the relationships with adults were troubling,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous because she doesn’t want people to know about the sexual abuse allegations. “A lot of the people supervising us were young and troubled themselves, and they did not know what to do with all these kids. They didn’t know how to treat themselves, and they ... sure didn’t know how to treat children.”
Nevertheless, she said she thought the settlement was a positive step.
“In all honesty, I expected nothing,” she said. “I think for all the kids that were abused, this will offer them opportunities they did not have before, because a lot of us grew up without a family. I also think [the order] will take more steps to prevent things like this from happening again.”