Hopkinton -- He called himself a swami and wore the robes of a Hindu holy man. He took sacred lifelong vows of celibacy and eventually amassed a group of followers, but all was not as it seemed with the founder of the Ananda Church of Self-Realization.
James Donald Walters - Kriyananda as he dubbed himself - was charged and found guilty in 1998 of using his spiritual authority to exploit women. And last week Walters visited one of the sites of his Ananda Church, this one on Tomoquag Road in Hopkinton. In 2000, the Ananda Rhode Island community was established on a wooded piece of property in the village of Ashaway. Walters, who now resides in Italy, visited the church there on Tuesday and Wednesday. Several devotees attended the $75 per day event, to hear their "Swami" speak.
"Cults are created by narcissists," said former Ananda Church member Donald Price of California during a telephone interview. "Hitler was a narcissist. They only see themselves through the eyes of others so they convince people to see them as something more powerful than they really are. And the people who follow Walters are so desperate to believe that they blind themselves completely to the facts. First they deny, then they rationalize, then they become enraged if you don't agree with them."
Expert witness Pamela Cooper White told a California court in 1998 that Walters clearly fell within the profile of a clergy sex offender. She added that he was on the "most destructive, predatory end of that spectrum, that of the multiple repeat offender who deliberately seeks vulnerable women to exploit for his own sexual gratification."
Repeated attempts to contact Walters, at both the church and his hotel, for comment on this story were unsuccessful.
Follower Ann-Marie Berttolucci accused him of making her into his sexual slave.
Marilyn Stuart says he exposed himself to her.
Sunny Plant and Denise Peterson say that he asked them to perform erotic massages on him.
Kamala Wiley says she had physical relations with him on eight different occasions.
Thora McDonnel says she has swum in the nude with him.
Deborah Donie-Seligson claims Walters insisted he was married to her.
Chandra Slavonic claims she had sexual relations with him which he told her to keep secret.
All these women were his followers, convinced that being close to him meant being close to God.
Both Walters and members of his church were found by the court to have committed "constructive fraud," "intentional infliction of emotional distress" and "malice and fraudulent conduct" in a 1998 California court trial.
Yet, many continue to follow him. To defend him, even worship him.
"[Walters] was always very respectful toward both men and women," said Karen Rider, who runs the Ananda Church in Hopkinton with her husband, Larry, in a January interview. "The testimony in court didn't describe the person I had known. When I moved to Ananda in 1988, it was the only place in my life I'd ever felt safe. I feel heartsick over the accusations."
James Donald Walters, a former minister of the Self-Realization Fellowhip, went on to create his Ananda Church of Self-Realization in 1968, after being dismissed from SRF. The Ananda Church in California was supposedly based on the teachings and principals of Paramhansa Yogananda, an Indian Master. Ananda Churches eventually sprang up in Nevada, Palo Alto, Portland, Ore., Sacramento, Seattle, Europe and Rhode Island.
Walters, also known as Swami Kriyananda, was the church leader. However, controversy surrounding Ananda, in the form of fraud, trespassing and sexual abuse has been documented in court transcripts and witness depositions since 1994. Although many members eventually turned away from the group due to these situations, there are hundreds of others who remain dedicated to Walters and leave some to wonder just whom the Ananda Church is really worshipping.
"When Walters began Ananda, he started using all the same books that the Self-Realization Fellowship used," said former member Price. Eventually, according to Price, "He started changing those teachings to his own and claiming they were the teachings of Yogananda."
Price said this situation at Ananda became "weirder and weirder" before he decided to leave the church. "Everything has Walter's name on it. The books, the music. It stopped being a cooperative village. It was all about Walters," he said. Price said he no longer follows any outward form of religion.
"Groups like Ananda ultimately destroy people's religious faith," he said. "Their bizarre and hypocritical behavior make you begin to doubt God. But you eventually learn that's not what God is about. God and real spirituality are much deeper than groups or personalities."