VANCOUVER - For Maya Charnell, and others who claim they were "tortured" as children in the Hare Krishna religious cult, the road to justice started on the Internet.
Ms. Charnell, who lives in a small British Columbia town, is one of four Canadians in a group of 44 former Krishna students who have banded together to launch a US$400-million lawsuit against the International Society of Krishna Consciousness.
She said it was only through the Internet that the group, known as Children of ISKON, was able to get in touch and organize its legal action.
"We were able to get in contact through a Web page we set up," said Ms. Charnell, who was raised for 10 years in the insular International Society of Krishna Consciousness, which is called ISKON.
"That was the way we found each other, and people started to share their stories [of abuse]," said Ms. Charnell, who, like other children, was separated from her parents and sent to Krishna boarding schools known as gurukulas.
"I think this is only the tip of the iceberg," she said of the 44 who have come forward so far. "I think there are a lot more out there who are going to come forward now that it's become so public."
Two gurukulas were in Canada, but have been closed for several years. The majority of the schools -- where widespread physical and sexual abuse allegedly took place -- were located in the United States and India.
Ms. Charnell spent time at schools in Seattle, Wash., and Dallas, Tex. Those schools are the focus of a lawsuit launched earlier this week by the former Krishna students.
Four of those who have filed claims come from British Columbia. The lawsuit, which was filed in Dallas, alleges abuse of children, as young as three.
The plaintiffs' lawyer, 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."
He said the organization knowingly allowed suspected sex offenders to work in gurukulas, and that young girls were sometimes given "as brides" to older men who donated financially to the society.
The abuse allegedly took place over a period of two decades, and "continues to the present."
"In many instances, the abuse could be accurately described as torture of children," states the complaint, which names ISKON as lead defendant, along with 17 members of the group's governing board and the estate of the movement's founder, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.
One of the defendants, Gopal Khanna, lives in Montreal.
Patricia Flynn, Canadian spokesman for the Krishnas, said in Vancouver the Society acknowledges there was widespread abuse of children in its schools. She said the merits of the suit filed in Texas will have to be decided by the courts, but noted that a Krishna child protection group has already identified 50 people who were victims of abuse.
"They are working with the police ... to bring these people to justice who have hurt children," she said. "We are trying to be pro-active."
Mrs. Flynn also said that all gurukulas have been closed, and children now attending Krishna day schools are monitored by "child protection teams" made up of parents.
Mrs. Flynn said the abuse cases mostly took place decades ago. "Until the children grew up and told us, we didn't know," she said. "We feel very sorry ... it's something we're going to have to deal with," she said.
Mrs. Flynn said sexual predators took advantage of the Krishna organization, as well as victimizing children. And she vowed: "It will not take place again."
There were two gurukulas in Canada -- in Vancouver and Toronto -- but they are not named in the suit.
The Texas complaint alleges a number of offences, including "rape ... beatings of children with boards, branches, clubs and poles ... beating by adult teachers and school leaders with fists to the head and stomach ... Kicking the children into submission."
The court document also alleges children "were sometimes kept in filthy conditions," and at least one group utilized what had recently been a cattle or horse barn for a nursery.
It states that in almost every school "children were kept in severely overcrowded conditions, often forced to sleep shoulder to shoulder on the floor or in small rooms in three-high bunks with 10 or 12 children to each tiny room."
The suit alleges the abuse was made possible because the parents were kept busy soliciting money for the gurus.
Greg Luczyk, 30, a plaintiff, 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 Mr. Luczyk, who lives in Vancouver.
Examples posted on the victim's Web site, recall beatings, rapes and other assaults.
"One boy in my ashrama had his food saved and then saved again, without refrigeration. The teacher finally became very angry and induced him to eat the portion of food, which by now had mould spots," states one anonymous posting. The writer says when the boy vomited, the teacher forced him to eat that, too.
Another recalled being forced to eat food off the floor.
"I can still remember what the floor in Dallas tasted like," states the posting.
"A female teacher taught an ashrama for young girls. One day she got mad and hit a girl with a tennis racket, breaking the racket over her back," states another.
"I was three-and-a-half little girl, mother away in India, he [a teacher] took me into the boy's shower room, stripped off my clothes and beat me until I was unconscious," writes one.
The Hare Krishna spiritual community flowered in the 1960s when Prabhupada brought his distinctive form of devotional Hinduism to the United States.
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