Facing suit, Hare Krishna temples eye bankruptcy

Abuse victims say religion trying to reduce payments

Chicago Tribune/February 7, 2002
By Julia Lieblich

More than a dozen Hare Krishna temples plan to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy this month in an unusual attempt to protect their assets from a $400 million lawsuit that accuses the group of abusing hundreds of children in the 1970s and '80s, according to a spokesman.

Anuttama Dasa, a Hare Krishna leader, called the decision an effort to save the group from a suit that "threatens to shut down an entire religion" as well as to free limited assets for a fund to aid abused children.

"We will help people who have suffered and protect innocent people in our congregations," he said.

But plaintiff Krisna Avatara, 34, a math teacher who alleges he was physically and emotional abused at a Hare Krishna boarding school in India, calls it an attempt to avoid responsibility and slash payments to victims.

"Nothing these people would do would shock me at this point," he said.

The bankruptcy filing would be the latest chapter in a decades-long dispute that has divided adherents and cast a pall over the movement. It comes at a time when a more mainstream religion, the Roman Catholic Church, is again confronting allegations of sexual abuse, most recently in Tucson, Ariz., and Boston.

1998 Revelations

Hare Krishna leaders were heralded for candor when they acknowledged in October 1998 that numerous children had been sexually molested, beaten, publicly humiliated and isolated in roach-infested closets in its boarding schools in the United States and India in the 1970s and '80s.

All but one of the schools have been closed.

Back then, Anuttama asked devotees "to put everything on the table and do everything to rectify past mistakes." Movement leaders promised to pledge money to investigate child abuse and aid victims, and Krisna Avatara was among the younger generation of Hare Krishnas who worked with leaders to tackle the problem.

But soon many devotees accused the leaders of reneging on their pledges. Investigation into alleged abusers, they said, proceeded at a snail's pace, and some victims said they found themselves worshiping in the same temples as their abusers.

Dhira Govinda, director of the religion's Office of Child Protection, said this week that even today some "rank-and-file devotees" doubt the organization's commitment to protecting children.

"There's the perception that certain members of top-level leadership are very protective of perpetrators," he said.

Lawsuit in Dallas

Initially, 44 people joined in a accusing the organization of "sexual, physical and emotional torture inflicted upon them as children." Dallas lawyer Windle Turley, representing the plaintiffs, had already won a $30 million settlement in a sex-abuse case against the Catholic Diocese of Dallas.

The federal case against the Hare Krishnas was thrown out in September 2001, but the plaintiffs took their complaints to state court in Dallas.

"I just want to see other children protected," said Krisna Avatara of his reasons for joining the suit. "And I don't want people to forget about what happened."

Turley would not comment on the planned bankruptcy filing. Neither Anuttama nor the movement's bankruptcy attorney, Sanford Frey, would say how much the Hare Krishnas can afford to contribute to a fund for victims based on the value of their real estate.

But Dhira Govinda said, a fund of a "few million" dollars will be available for all victims who come forward with complaints, not just the more than 90 plaintiffs now in the Dallas suit.

DePaul University law professor Steven H. Resnicoff said he does not know of any religious group that has filed for bankruptcy.

In this or any case, he said, "The bankruptcy court will be asked to estimate the claims individual plaintiffs have against the debtor. There are going to be technical questions addressed about whether money is owed to these people and how much."

Frey said he can't imagine a court determining that the Hare Krishnas are attempting to defraud their creditors, but he acknowledged that a judge could reject the fund for children as too small.

Hare Krishna History

The Hare Krishna sect was founded in the 1960s by Swami Prabhupada, an Indian who believed his destiny was to relay the teachings of the Hindu god Krishna. The devotees were known in the 1970s for shaving their heads, living communally and handing out flowers in airports, but today the religion is largely made up of members who live in their own homes and worship on Sundays.

In the early 1980s, the sect claimed 5,000 members living in communities centered around temples. Today, the group said it has about 100,000 congregational members.

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