The radio show 26-year-old Ananada Tiller was listening to in her car one day last year seemed innocent: The announcer was reporting on a children's balloon-blowing contest. Yet it triggered a memory so jarring that Tiller served over a median.
As a deejay described how the children's cheeks ached from blowing up the balloons, Tiller recalled a time when, at six years old, her own cheeks ached with pain. But it was not from inflating balloons. Tiller, she found herself remembering, had been tied to a chair as a man forced his swollen penis into her mouth. The scene Tiller describes allegedly took place in 1981 while she was living in a gurukula, one of the 11 ashram-based boarding schools across the nation for children whose parents were members of the Hare Krishna religious sect. The assault, Tiller says, happened in a garage where Krishna devotees made candles to sell on the street. She remembers the same man dipping his fingers into wax and using them to probe her vagina.
Although her parents removed her from the gurukula at around age 10, Tiller charges that the physical scarring from the abuse may result in her needing to have a partial hysterectomy. But the emotional scarring is what she is struggling most to heal. It's why she has joined the nearly 100 others who claim they suffered at the hands of the Krishnas in a $400 million lawsuit again the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), the founding organization of the Hare Krishnas, which has an estimated one million members worldwide and 75,000 in the United States and Canada. (The movement, founded by Indian guru Srila Prabhupada in 1966, sought to promote peace and love and became popular in the American hippie culture of the sixties and seventies.) The lawsuit, filed in June 2000, alleges widespread sexual, physical and emotional abuse of young children at many of the 11 gurukulas in the United States, primarily between 1972 and 1990. The plaintiffs maintain that Hare Krishna children were subjected to various types of child abuse, including rape, beatings and improper medical care. The suit also alleges that children were often denied food and confined inside trash barrels and frequently moved to other schools without their parent's knowledge.
Young girls like Tiller who lived in these gurukulas were particularly vulnerable to violation says Nori J. Muster, author of Betrayal of the Spirit (University of Illinois Press), an autobiography of her years as a Krishna. "Girls were married off as young as age 12 to men about three times their age," says Muster. "Since Krishna authorities often allowed men to hit their wives for misbehavior, a girl was at the mercy of her husband."
Although the case against the Krishnas may not go to trial for another year or more, the mere filing of the suit has helped former Krishna children mend their lives says Windle Turley, the plaintiff's attorney in Dallas who is best-known for winning a $120 million child-abuse suit against the Roman Catholic Church in 1997. "It helps victims feel validated," Turley explains. ISKCON's attorneys neither confirm nor deny that abuse took place at the gurukulas. Individual Krishna devotees, however, are being tried in court for these crimes. This summer, a man pleaded guilty to sexually abusing two girls and a woman at a Krishna community in the late 1980s and was sentenced to eight months in prison. Turley's suit, though, could have a far broader impact. "If the plaintiffs win it will wipe out the religion's existence," says David Liberman, a Krishna and an attorney for ISKCON.
So three-year-old Vilasini Silverman's parents were simply following their leader's doctrine when they sent their daughter to the Dallas gurukula in 1972 while they remained in Los Angeles to head the large Krishna temple there. "Our routine was to wake up at 4 A.M. and take cold showers," says Silverman of boarding school life. "The children then spent hours praying and chanting before breakfast, which was served on waxed paper on the floor, she continues. "The food frequently had bugs in it, but we risked punishment if didn't eat it."
In 1976, state school authorities closed the Dallas gurukula. For four years, Silverman and her older sister, Chandra, traveled with their parents back and forth between India and the United States and were rarely enrolled in school. But the nightmare of living in a gurukula began again for Silverman in 1980, when her parents moved to Saudi Arabia for work, leaving the children behind. This time, the experience was even more traumatic. Silverman recalls that at barely 13, she was attending a Krishna festival in 1982 in West Virginia when a devotee she knew who was in his late twenties invited her and a friend to see a waterfall nearby. As they descended into a ravine, Silverman realized that her friend had turned back. "That's when [the man] threw me down on the ground and raped me," Silverman charges. She says she remembers the anise aroma of Indian toothpaste on his breath as he pushed up her sari and forced himself between her legs. "I had no idea what he was doing."
The man never uttered a word and afterward rushed back to the festival, Silverman says. According to her, he was never charged with the crime-in fact, she was made to feel guilty. Her teachers accused her having lured the man to have sex with her, she says; as a result, they forbade her to speak to anyone or to leave the temple grounds for three months. Then, five months later, her mother came to take her to India to marry a devotee 11 years her senior, says Silverman.
Compared to Silverman's gurukula existence, married life wasn't so bad. Her husband never beat her, and she considered that a blessing. But hope disappeared when he divorced her a year later. She ended up at a temple in India, where she says she was raped by a worker. "" had absolutely no self-worth, no value. The rape made no difference to me," she says.
Being a victim was all Silverman knew. "When you grow up in a isolated environment of sexual abuse, you believe repeated abuse is normal, especially when you're a child," says cult expert Ross.
Krishna leaders say they are opposed to these violent acts. "It's not part of our spiritual teaching to abuse children," says Druta-karma Dasa, a member of the Los Angeles Krishna chapter. "We want to prevent this." Still, he adds, "if men are put together with women in certain situations, they might do things they might not otherwise do."
Silverman believes the abuse she suffered was encouraged by the Krishna religion. Says Ross: "Women are devalued by the Krishnas. Krishna women are even told that their brains are smaller than men's brains." ("Biologically, women's brains are smaller than men's," says Svavasa Dasa, the Los Angeles Krishna Temple president.) Anutama Dasa, ISKCON'' communications director, points out that the Krishna religion, unlike some other faiths, permits women to hold positions as high as men do.
When she was 15, Silverman escaped from the Krishnas for good. Now a 32-year-old wife and mother of three, she lives with her family in Gaithersburg, Maryland, a tranquil suburb of Washington, D.C. But the suffering she endured as a child has left scars. "Some days I feel at peace, strong and secure," she says. "But most days I just want to crawl into a hole and hide."
The isolation was made worse because the teachers weren't necessarily good with children. In fact, they were made teachers mainly because they weren't skilled at raising money, former members claim. Still, Krishna leaders maintain that this fact doesn't make ISKCON responsible for the abuse. "We were let down by some of the people responsible for child care education," says temple president Svavasa Dasa.
Tiller says she felt isolated when she entered the gurukula at age four. Across the street, "you could see children playing baseball. I loved their clothes, particularly their bathing suits, says Tiller, who was almost always dressed in a sari.
But in her world, she charges, there was persistent violence. "One boy was put in a trash can with a sock in his mouth, which was then duct-taped shut," she recalls. When a guru discovered that Tiller had a Barbie doll (she'd found it in the garbage), she was beaten with a belt, Tiller says.
But the sexual abuse Tiller says she suffered caused the most pain. One reason: When it came to sexual offenses, Krishnas often put the blame on the female, say both Ross and former Krishna Muster. "One man made me perform oral sex, then spit on me to purify himself because I'd made him sin," Tiller recalls.
Although it was "normal" for girls to marry at around puberty, Tiller's parents refused to let a 30-year-old recruit marry Tiller when she was 10. But he followed Tiller around and made her watch him masturbate, she says.
Tiller's parents removed her and her brother from the gurukula and moved them to a Krishna farm in Oklahoma. The family left the Krishnas for good when Tiller was 11, but "I was throwing myself out of cars because I couldn't put the abuse behind me," she says. At age 15, Tiller checked into a psychiatric hospital because of suicidal tendencies. Although she thought she was getting better, a year later she screamed at her boyfriend when he made amorous advances. He knew about her past and insisted she get help. "Only then did I realize I couldn't just jump into the real world," says Tiller, now a divorced mother of two. "My past was following me wherever I went."
The Child Protection Office aims, among other thins, to stop the policy of teaching children than even hugging is "subtle sex." Says Melody Romero-Gedeon, "I thought I was perverted because I liked it when my mom kissed me on the cheek."
And like Silverman, who alleges that she was blamed for provoking a man to rape her, Romero-Gedeon felt shame for the violence committed against her. "When I confided in my teacher that a devotee put his hand inside my underwear, she told me I incited him by acting like a prostitute," she recalls. Says Druta-karma Dasa of the L.A. chapter, "Obviously, that teacher was wrong."
Despite the abuse, Romero-Gedeon followed the religion until two years ago. "It was all I knew," she says. She credits her husband whom she met in 1995, for helping her disaffiliate. Her real moment of truth came two years ago when she attended a Krishna festival and noticed a teacher scolding a young girl. "Her chin quivered," Romero-Gedeon says. "I suddenly saw myself in that little girl, and for the first time I cried for myself."
Elaine Romero, Romero-Gedeon's mother, says she feels terrible guilt for putting her daughter in such a situation. "I thought she would get a great education," says Romero, who left the Krishnas two years ago.
Romero-Gedeon still has a fear of the dark and of roaches, the result of being forced to sleep in a garage, she says. "I ask my husband ho he fell in love with me. He says, 'Because I could see you in there honey! I just had to take you out of that negative environment.'"
"Demonstrating empowered us," says Silverman. "It made us feel like we have a voice and that our lives, unlike what the Krishnas may say, aren't worthless."
Numerous ex-Davidians claim that leader David Koresh sexually abused young girls, and former member Kiri Jewell testified that Koresh began having sex with her when she was 10. Koresh also fathered a child with his wife's 14-year-old sister because he was "commanded" to in a vision, according to David Thibodeau, co-author of [a book about the Waco Davidians].
Through his writings, called the "Mo Letters," founder David Brandt Berg advocated having sex with prepubescent girls, says cult expert Rick Ross. Berg fled to England in 1971 after a New York crime commission accused him of numerous offenses, including child molestation. Never indicted, he died in 1994.
Young girls in this cult were forced to strip and perform sexual acts in front of group members, says Kenneth Wooden, author of "The Children of Jonestown" (McGraw-Hill). Temple founder Jim Jones wasn't trying to punish the girls, Wooden says; he was punishing their parents for violating cult rules, including those barring escape.