DALLAS (AP) -- 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 court suit, filed in Dallas, 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."
A Hare Krishna spokesman in Washington, Anuttama, 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."
He said ISKCON's Child Protection Task Force, formed in 1998, has investigated 50 cases of alleged abuse and raised $250,000 to aid victims.
Turley said the abuse started in 1972 with 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 a 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.
The Eastern 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, while parents were then freed 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.
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