Dueling views of accused guru open trial

Prosecutors say he groped girls; defense says no evidence exists.

The Austin American-Statesman/February 23, 2011

Was Prakashanand Saraswati , the spiritual leader of Barsana Dham, a lecherous old man who in the mid-1990s groped several teenage girls who lived on the ashram south of Austin? Or was he a devout holy man who has been made the target of a malicious smear campaign?

The two dramatically opposing views were aired in opening statements by prosecutors and defense attorneys Wednesday in the trial of the Hindu guru devotees call Shree Swamiji.

The 82-year-old Prakashanand has pleaded not guilty to 20 counts of indecency with a minor by sexual contact for allegedly groping two teenage girls more than 15 years ago. Each charge carries a potential sentence of up to 20 years in prison.

The proceedings in Hays County District Court are under unusually tight security. Three plainclothes officers kept a close eye on the courtoom, which was packed with spectators; two officers shadowed prosecutors as they came and went. District Attorney Sherri Tibbe declined to explain their presence.

In opening statesments, prosecutors characterized the girls as members of dysfunctional families that lived at Barsana Dham and placed the interests of their guru above their children's well-being. Even though their daughters told them they were being groped, "their parents did not protect them," said Assistant District Attorney Amy Lockhart.

The two girls "were raised to believe in this religion, and they believed in Swamiji," she added. "He was like a grandfather to these girls."

But, Lockhart added, when the girls entered their early teens, "their belief that Swamiji was an innocent and divine man who was celibate and devoted to God began to change" when he kissed them and touched their breasts. The girls, now in their 20s, were reluctant to come forward for fear of angering and estranging their families who lived on the ashram, she said.

"If they spoke out, they could be punished," Lockhart said. "They and their families could be exiled. Besides, no one was going to stop it."

Prakashanand's large defense team - four attorneys of record plus a half-dozen consultants - said there was no evidence that the groping incidents ever occurred.

"These are stories that cannot be verified by any other facts," said Fort Worth attorney Jeff Kearney. He described Prakashanand as a learned and spiritual man who has devoted his life to his religion.

Although the case against Prakashanand is based on the accusations of two girls, the day was dominated by testimony from one of the girls' older sister, who also asserted she was groped over a period of years at the ashram. She is not part of the case against Prakashanand because too many years have passed for her to bring charges.

Now 31, the woman said Prakashanand first pushed his hand up her shirt when she was 14 during a dining ceremony. "It was no ordained innocence from God," she said. "It was an older man feeling my breasts."

She said the groping incidents stopped for a time, but resumed when she was 16 and continued for two more years until she moved away from the ashram.

She came forward with her accusations when she suspected other children were being subjected to similar treatment from the guru, she said: "I had to do something to put a stop to it."

Prakashanand's lawyers questioned how she could have been groped in the same room with dozens of devotees who did not notice it was occurring.

In the courtroom, Prakashanand sat impassively in a special brown reclining chair designed to relieve pressure on his back, on which he recently had surgery. At times he removed his shoes and sat barefoot.

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