DALLAS (Reuters) - More than 40 former students of Hare Krishna schools filed a $400 million lawsuit on Monday against the religious movement, alleging they were sexually and physically abused as children over the course of two decades.
The suit filed in federal court in Dallas named the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), the movement's umbrella group, as the lead defendant along with 16 local ISKCON organizations, 17 ISKCON governing board members and the estate of the movement's founder, Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.
``This lawsuit describes 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,'' said the plaintiff's attorney, Windle Turley.
The lawsuit alleged children in Hare Krishna boarding schools were routinely abused by teachers and staff from 1972, when ISKCON's first school opened in Dallas, until around 1990.
The abuses ranged from rape and beatings to forcing small children to stand for hours in a darkened closet or sleep in soiled blankets as punishment for wetting their beds.
It claimed the abuse continued in a half-dozen other schools in the United States and eventually at two boys' schools in India.
``If the events alleged in this suit did occur, we regret that they did and we will make every effort to help address the needs of the young people named in the suit,'' he said.
``I think the size of the suit, $400 million, is excessive. It is far more than the total worth of temples worldwide.''
Anattuma said ISKCON started its own investigations in 1996 into at least 50 cases of alleged abuse going back to the 1970s and has spent $250,000 for counseling and treatment for victims.
The organization also created a full-time child protection division in 1998 in charge of preventing abuses at Krishna schools worldwide.
``This is something that affects many, many other organizations,'' he said, referring to other religious groups and school systems.
He said ISKCON had instituted a strict policy in the 1990s of reporting any suspected child abuse to police.
The schools, called gurukulas, were originally set up for the children of Krishna devotees so that their parents would be freed from looking after them and able to do the movement's work such as selling tracts and asking for donations in public places.
The Krishna movement was founded in the United States in 1966 by Swami Prabhupada. The Hindu-influenced movement quickly caught on in the hippie era and devotees became a common sight, chanting ``Hare Krishna'' and dressed in saffron and orange robes.
By the end of the 1970s, there were 11 gurukulas in the United States operating in association with local Krishna temples, where followers lived in a communal environment.
Most of the boarding schools were converted to day schools in the 1980s and 1990s, Anattuma said.
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