DALLAS, June 12 - More than three dozen former students of Hare Krishna boarding schools filed a $400 million lawsuit against leaders of the religious community Monday, alleging years of sexual, physical and emotional torture.
THE 44 PLAINTIFFS in the suit allege child abuse over two decades at boarding schools in the United States and India.
The federal lawsuit names the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) as lead defendant, along with 17 members of the group's governing board of top leaders and the estate of the movement's founder, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.
Plaintiffs' attorney Windle Turley called the abuse "the most unthinkable abuse and maltreatment of little children we have seen. It includes rape, sexual abuse, physical torture and emotional terror of children as young as 3 years of age."
He said ISKCON knowingly allowed suspected sex offenders to work in its boarding schools.
Anuttama, a Hare Krishna spokesman in Washington, said Monday that Krishna leaders have acknowledged abuse in the boarding schools and worked to provide counseling and financial support to victims.
"It's disappointing that it had to go to a court situation," he said. "We will try to do anything we can to address their needs."
ISKCON's Child Protection Task Force, formed in 1998, has compiled the names of 200 people who allegedly inflicted abuse in the 1970s and '80s, said director Dhira Govinda. The office has finished investigating more than 60 cases, he said.
"There is no doubt many children did suffer ... while under the care of the organization," Govinda said.
He said Krishna leaders have pledged $250,000 a year to investigate past child abuse and aid survivors.
Turley said the abuse started in 1972 at ISKCON's first school in Dallas, and continued in six other U.S. schools and two in India.
He said he believes more than half of the children in the schools were victimized.
"We believe the facts as they are developed will reveal more than 1,000 child victims, many of whom have already taken their own lives or are today emotionally and socially dysfunctional," said Turley, whose Dallas law firm won millions in a sex abuse case against the Roman Catholic Church in 1997.
In a statement faxed to The Associated Press late Monday, Vinod Patel, president of the Dallas Krishna Temple, said the temple is a "different corporation with different by-laws, management and staff from the organization that ran the school during the 1970s."
"Not a single person involved with this temple since 1980 had anything to do with the Krishna boarding school named in the lawsuit," Patel said.
Among the allegations against ISKCON are that young girls were given as brides to older men who donated to the religious community.
The lawsuit also claims that children were: Forced to sleep in unheated rooms and walk great distances in bitter cold without coats or shoes; Deprived of medical care for malaria, hepatitis and broken bones; Scrubbed with steel wool until their skin bled; Moved to different schools in different states without their parents' consent.
Plaintiff Greg Luczyk, 30, said he was beaten four or five times a day with a two-by-four while in a Krishna school in India in the early 1980s.
He said his mother tried to remove him from the school and sent him plane tickets to come home, but teachers would tear up the tickets in front of school assemblies.
"The parents were trying to get us out, but the ring of molesters had tight control," said Luczyk, who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.
The Hare Krishna spiritual community flowered in the 1960s when Prabhupada brought his distinctive form of devotional Hinduism to the United States.
Soon, thousands of Westerners were wearing saris and pajama-like dhotis, living in Hare Krishna temple compounds, and chanting the mantra they believed would lead to a greater awareness of God known as Krishna.
Prabhupada said children should be sent to boarding schools at age 5 so they could learn to be pure devotees, freeing parents to sell devotional books and do other jobs.
By the end of the 1970s, 11 schools, known as gurukulas or houses of the guru, were operating in North America with several more around the world. Now, the only boarding school in the United States is in Alachua, Fla., home to the largest American Hare Krishna community.
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