Dark side of Krishna

Looming class-action suit alleges physical and sexual abuse of kids

Toronto Sun, July 4, 1999
By Jean Sonmor

"He was our live-in-the-room teacher and he molested me every day. I wasn't gay but I was eight years old and it was going on constantly among us. It was normal. life. I was his girlfriend. I thought I was doing something right. I didn't know."

Ben Bressack was one of the "special souls," the children born in the early flower-child days of the Hare Krishna movement. These children were gifts of Krishna, the devotees believed, born with spirits evolved enough to be reincarnated as part of the "God consciousness" movement that was poised to sweep the world.

Today some of the "special souls" are in disarray. Some live on the streets. Others can't make a commitment, hold a job or have a normal sex life. They were damaged by their freakish childhood and now they're coming together to hit back at ISKCON (The International Society of Krishna Consciousness) the group of about 1,000 that controls millions in land holdings. The class-action suit to be filed in Texas later this month may have 100 or more sexually abused plaintiffs.

Ben's name will be high on the list. But when he was born in the summer of love in '67, nobody could have predicted the misery to come. His parents named him Rainbow. They were Berkeley, Calif., devotees, young hippies consumed with their mission to save the world. His dad was on a natural high. He'd renounced a heroin addiction to get up at 3:30 a.m., take a cold shower and spend hours chanting and meditating.

Temple life was more ordinary and more disciplined than the druggy world he'd come from -- first Haight Ashbury and then living in a treehouse on a potato farm for gay nudists in California. ("My Dad wasn't the only gay potato farmer who joined up that day," Ben says with a chuckle. "A whole bunch of them joined together.)"

Once Bressack moved into the temple, he was all business, drug-free, and full of the magic of the crusade. The movement arranged the marriage with Ben's mother.

But Rainbow -- he later changed to make it easier to get through airports -- and a thousand other kids like him, was a casualty of his parents' ecstatic commitment.

He was three and living in the Brooklyn temple when he was sent to the "gurukula" (religious school) in Dallas. Except for a few months when he was 17, it was the last time he would live with his parents.


Today the gurukula life is coming under a microscope, in the massive lawsuit to be filed by Windle Turley, a Dallas attorney who won a $120-million judgment against the Catholic church. But in 1972, some of the sleep-deprived, brain-washed devotees were unconcerned as they packed up their toddlers to travel hundreds of miles to residential schools. Gurukula was a convenient way to educate children in the ways of Krishna. Also, it left the devotees free for the mission they were called to -- selling books on the corners and proselytizing in the alleys.

"These people were freaks," Bressack says about the devotees, including his parents. "They were so excited about the movement they didn't worry about their children."

Dallas was difficult and the humiliations, punishments and deprivations were constant. But Ben's "harrowing childhood" really began in 1976 when the guru, Prabhupada, decreed that the boys should go to India to complete their studies. And so at eight, he was abruptly plunked into abject poverty in a Third World country. His parents, whom he scarcely knew anyway, were half a world away living in a U.S. city -- he's not sure which one -- and apparently indifferent to his plight. Like many of the 300 other gurukula boys at Vrindavan, he got desperately sick. Malaria. Typhoid. Hepatitis. Boils all over his body. And worst of all, constant hunger.

"We suffered, we were starving and, meanwhile they were carving lions out of granite by hand."

The Bengali "scholarship students" from the slums of Mayapur controlled the school. They were bigger, older, spoke the language and they served as "monitors" for the younger Western kids. Sex abuse was everywhere you looked. "Ninety percent of it was the boys playing with each other," says Ben. "But it started from the teachers. They were total fruitcakes. Our teacher was supposed to wear a dhoti but his had huge gold borders like a sari. He carried a peacock fan."

Ben was his 18-year-old monitor's favourite. Just about every day from the age of eight to 12 he was molested. "He pushed me to do everything you can imagine. I guess I even had feelings for him. Certainly I was afraid of him. Only at the end did I start to understand what it was about when I started to have sexual feelings myself."

Bressack is 30 this year and works as a carpenter in Gainesville, Fla., in the midst of Alachua, the largest Hare Krishna community in North America. Although he builds houses for them he doesn't have any other connection to the movement. Except that he's there to be close to his mother.

"I moved here to try to help heal this family," he says. "I love my mother to death but I still don't have the kind of relationship with her that other people have with their mothers."

As for the lawsuit, he knows the society is wealthy but money is not all it's about. "I want to know how these people take it, if they are still the animals they were. ... I have a right to stand up for what they took from me."

"I gave my life to my guru and didn't take care of my family. Today, the way I would have conducted my family life would be very different."

This sad admission comes from Jeffrey Hickey who in 1970 was one of a small group of American Krishna devotees struggling to get the Toronto temple started. He went on to become ISKCON's education minister for a dozen years from 1974-86 when the sex abuse was most pronounced.

He joined the movement as a bespectacled, ascetic, young man, a college dropout with a penchant for philosophy. He was ripe for the counterculture appeal of Krishna consciousness. "I'd come to the conclusion I wanted a guru or spiritual leader. I was anticipating that kind of a spiritual development in my life," he says.

Arranged marriage He was much less sure about the carnal side of life. He expected to marry late. He wasn't sure about children. But part of his renunciation was doing his guru's bidding. So he went along with the arranged marriage. "I felt impelled," he explains. "There wasn't an attraction to her as a mate." His son Nirmal, one of the main forces behind the class-action lawsuit, was born here in the Toronto temple shortly after.

Today, Hickey is talking over the phone lines from County Cork in Ireland where he surfaced three weeks ago after being "incommunicado for nearly three years." In October '96, he left his life as a guru and a sanyasi -- those who renounce the material world -- including, as their guru says, the "bondage of the attraction to women."

"I came to the conclusion I wasn't spiritually equipped to be a guru or a sanyasi," Hickey admits.

"He went into hiding," says Maya Charnell, 29, another child of the gurukula and the key force behind the lawsuit. "He left with an Italian woman."

"That was only one factor," Hickey explains. However, now the Italian is gone and Hickey is on his way back to B.C. to try to reconstruct the long dormant relationships with his children. "That's the important aspect of my life now," he says "I will do my best to salvage them. I understand that Nirmal has a resentment. He has to choose completely whether he'll let me into his life ... "

Nirmal Hickey has plenty to forgive, but he wasn't sexually abused. However, he estimates 60% to 70% of his classmates were. If your parents were highly placed in the movement you were protected, he explains. "But if you were the child of a single mother or something, it was open season."

Jeffrey Hickey admits there were major issues. An ongoing "people crisis," in which only the dregs of the movement were pegged for the unimportant job of teaching, led to all kinds of problems including sexual exploitation of children.

"At first I was overwhelmed by shock that such people could be in our society. I didn't take it lightly but I grew up in America with innocent until proven guilty. As I learned about pedophilia I understood better."

But his distaste and disbelief meant pedophiles were allowed to continue teaching unless the child victim himself made a public and convincing case. This rarely happened. Hickey remembers about five or six removals, but acknowledges there were more who went undetected. "Too many."

He resigned because "I couldn't take it any more," he says.

Today, he claims not to know much about the lawsuit but doubts the movement will be destroyed by it. "I don't know the financial assets but that's not the biggest problem."

These days most of the supporters of Hare Krishna are Hindus who go to the temple once a week. If there's a big child sex-abuse judgment, it would provoke a crisis of confidence more serious than any financial penalty, he says.

He stops short of saying, as others do, that the lawsuit will be a much-needed purifier taking the society back to ground zero -- with their philosophy in tact and not much else.

Too scared to call an ambulance But Nirmal, Hickey's son, is highly critical not just of the practice but of the philosophy, too. He describes it as misogynist and anti-family and he longs to hear his father renounce the teachings, not just the practice. Teachings he believes have damaged his life.

Today he's a quadriplegic, confined to a wheelchair shortly after his 16th birthday when he injured his spinal cord falling from a tree. The devotees who found him were afraid to call an ambulance, "paranoid," Nirmal says, of the outside world. The worst damage was done carting him to hospital over 42 km of country roads. It wasn't his first serious injury. "I did reckless things," Nirmal says today. "I wanted my mother." But if Nirmal was hoping -- even unconsciously -- to make his parents or someone take heed, it didn't work.

"My mom was a bitch to me in the hospital," Nirmal says. "I couldn't eat anything but Jell-O, and she'd come and lay a guilt trip on me because gelatin is made from animals." (Krishna devotees are vegetarians) "I don't remember that my father ever came."

His father explains he was too busy for family. "We believed the world was in crisis from a loss of God consciousness. The devotees were asked to make the great sacrifice so they could be free to spread Krishna consciousness. It was like war: A young man, even if he has small children, must go to war for his country.

"My father's coming here this weekend," Nirmal said from his home in Courtney on Vancouver Island. "I don't really like him, but I want a family and if there's any way ... "

Maya Charnell, 29, was luckier than either Ben or Nirmal. She got out at 11 when her mother Cynthia Greenwood walked into the temple on Avenue Rd. with police and a court order.

But she remembers the accusations when she was six that her girlfriend wanted to have "subtle sex" with her. She remembers the absence of toys, the punishments, the small, dark spaces where they were confined, the soiled underwear they had to wear on their heads, the smarnam stick they were hit with daily for all their undetected offences. Still she ended up emotionally intact, she thought.

And then, in her early 20s, she had a mini-breakdown. She was a stellar student in fourth-year engineering and she was surprised by the anger that poured out against her mother for leaving her behind for four years after she left the movement. Eventually they worked through it. "I came to see that her role in the society was like an abused woman."

'Special souls' With her friend Nirmal, Maya has turned her considerable talents to righting some of the wrongs that were done to the gurukula kids. Three years ago they launched their Web site VOICE (Violations of ISKCON Children Exposed), where second-generation kids, the "special souls," can sound off anonymously about their childhoods. The lawsuit is taking shape and they have wealthy backers for a documentary.

And if they worry about retaliation from the sect that has had one devotee convicted of murder in recent years, it doesn't show. "How would it look if they murdered a quadriplegic?" Maya says gleefully. Besides when VOICE got the expected threatening messages, they hacked the phone numbers of their harassers and called back. The messages stopped.

ISKCON has held out the olive branch to the second generation. They've apologized, offered restitution and counselling. But Maya wants no part of it. The Canadian spokesman for ISKCON Canada is, after all, her stepmother PadyaVali, the woman who ran the Seattle school where some of the worst abuse is alleged to have taken place. "They've opened a Pandora's Box by admitting it," Maya says. "Let's see what happens with the lawsuit."

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