My cousin, along with some 90 of her peers, joined a lawsuit in October of 2001 and went public with allegations of "sexual, emotional, mental and physical abuse and exploitation" against the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Many of her number appeared in magazines and on TV talk shows to tell their stories.
The allegations are that Krishna Consciousness schools used to operate as follows: The parents would do their thing as emissaries for the cause, and the kids would be left in boarding schools, and it appears that many were abused.
The ISKCON of Philadelphia has a temple on Allen's Lane in the Mt. Airy section. The Philadelphia Inquirer did a story on March 10, 2002, which notes that the Mt. Airy temple is not named in the suit, and also that E. Burke Rochford Jr., a sociologist who wrote a 1998 report published by ISKCON documenting some of the abuse, said of the Mt. Airy temple's temporary school that "there was no indication of anything untoward there."
So fast forward to my very non-politically minded mother sitting at a meeting of the West Mt. Airy Neighbors. The meeting is held for representatives of the ISKCON temple to present their plans for building expansion and to gain the support of the neighbors before going in front of the zoning board. The expansion is aimed to accommodate, among other things, space for a school.
My mother is there because of my cousin's allegations against another school, which included sexual abuse and serving little kids food with bugs in it.
My cousin was married off at 13 years old. That's what my mother was thinking about at my bat mitzvah -- that at the same age that I was standing up there in the synagogue, my cousin was being married off to a stranger in India.
The other people at the meeting are there to make sure the building addition won't be ugly. As in: How tall will it be? Will you cut down any of the trees? How many more people will be parking on the street? One man says he has never had any problems with the people at the temple. They are good neighbors, he says. But I wonder, why does he consider them good neighbors? Is a good neighbor a person who will help you jump-start your car and keep a spare key in case you lock yourself out? Or is a good neighbor just a person who properly disposes of garbage and doesn't play loud music at 2 a.m.? What is the definition of a good neighbor? Just someone who makes the property values go up? (That's why West Philadelphia is so glad to have Penn around, right? To put the Thriftway out of business.)
Anyway, my mother is the one sitting there, waiting for a polite way to ask about the safety of any children who might become involved with the temple.
She finally decides on the wording, "Do any children live on-site?" Now that she has gotten up the nerve to ask, she gets her answer. But in so many ways, for my mother, it is already too late. She is, in her words, "trying to lock the barn door after the cows have already run away." She saw the notice in the paper and read in it an implicit responsibility, because there is a historical "what if?" What if somebody who lived next door to one of those boarding schools had gone to a meeting and asked some questions? What if a child had screamed and someone had heard and called the cops?
She is told that no children live on-site in Mt. Airy, and that the school will be open only on Sundays. She signs her name to a list so that she can get updated information on the expansion project, and goes home. The local paper writes up the meeting but says that there will be a preschool rather than a Sunday school. No updates ever come from the West Mt. Airy Neighbors.
The backstory to all of this alleged abuse has been talked about in my family for years, but these allegations have come to the attention of the public only more recently, as the children of ISKCON have grown up and told their stories. Now it's up to society to decide what to learn from them.
Certain religious frameworks -- the Roman Catholic Church, ISKCON -- have created situations that made it too easy for child abuse to occur. This may be one important lesson. But no matter how clean the organization, the bad guys will always be the bad guys. That's why it is so important for the good guys -- the good neighbors, the people who would condemn and prevent child abuse -- to do their part. Children everywhere have families and neighbors who must advocate for them.
And we are all neighbors to somebody.