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Sadly, Another Wakeup Call For Us All To Help Prevent Child Abuse
HH Tamal Krishna Goswami once spoke at an ISKCON Communications Conference in Dallas. His advice: “ISKCON devotees need to stop thinking they’re God’s gift to mankind.”
I’ll reword that: ISKCON devotees need to quit thinking we’re immune to the same human frailties, sins, and corruption that tempt every person, and plague every community, in the world. It’s time to wake up.
The question is not if ISKCON suffers the ubiquitous problems of human error, sin, and deceit. It’s how do we respond and prepare against them. Are we mature enough to recognize those frailties, guard against them carefully, and respond with openness, honesty, and humility? Or, do we hide, pretend, fool ourselves, and make the same mistakes over and over?
I was jolted into confronting ISKCON’s shortcomings in 1996. A dozen former gurukula students told their histories of being abused as children to seventy-five leaders at the annual North American meeting in Alachua. The vivid details of beatings, abandonment, emotional abuse, and sexual abuse were heartbreaking. Grown men and women were crying. Some fell to the ground, begging forgiveness from the youth for not being aware of the abuse and not doing more to prevent it. We were stunned. Abuse “wasn’t supposed to happen here.” Not in the Hare Krishna movement. Abuse happens elsewhere, we thought. In other religions. In other communities.
Yes, there were rumors and isolated cases of abuse, but overall, we believed that gurukulas in Vrindavan, Mayapur, New Vrindaban, and elsewhere were manifestations of the love Srila Prabhupada taught us. We assumed that every child was safe; every teacher was good; every devotee was pure-hearted. Sadly, it wasn’t true.
In 1998, the ISKCON Communications Journal published an article by Dr. Burke Rochford, a Professor of Sociology, documenting widespread physical, psychological, emotional, and sexual abuse in ISKCON schools in the 1970s and 1980s. If you haven’t read that article, you should. Every ISKCON member should know this terrible history. See https://www.iskconcommunications.org/iskcon-journal/vol-6
The extent of the abuse was so terrible that it led to a front-page story in the New York Times. (Amid graphic portrayals of abuse, the Times wrote that ISKCON was “unusually candid” in documenting child abuse in its own publication.) The widespread abuse led to a multi-million-dollar lawsuit and global settlement in 2005 that involved more than 500 former ISKCON students.
Recently, the new revelations of sordid incidents of abuse in Mayapur involving a now former swami are forcing ISKCON into another wake-up call. We shouldn’t have needed one.
That many ISKCON members are unaware of the exposé of abuse 20 years ago—including the lengthy court cases and the financial sacrifices ISKCON members made the world over to help the youth and settle the suit—is a problem. We all need to be aware and informed. (To see a series of official ISKCON media statements during that time, see https://www.iskconcommunications.org/resources/media-releases/iskcon-child-abuse-lawsuit-media-releases)
An ISKCON member who is 30 today was only 12 when the ‘Turley suit,’ as the lawsuit was known, was settled. In other words, it’s ancient history. But we need to study our history and learn from our history. The good, the bad, and the ugly. To not know our history means we may repeat it.
For most of us who lived through that era, it left an indelible mark of pain, humiliation, and fear for the well-being of children. It’s again shocking to learn that the abuse in the Mayapur gurukula was much worse than we knew. It impacted boys first, but later also girls and young women. The recent revelations, including heart-rending testimonies by Vedasara Prabhu and others, have again roiled the ISKCON world.
These revelations have also fed discontent and anger toward the leadership of ISKCON. As a leader of ISKCON, I say that’s a good thing. Every leader (starting with me), every GBC member, every zonal supervisor, guru, sannyasi, and president needs to do more to protect children and other vulnerable members.
At the same time, it’s not just up to the leaders. We need your help. Every teacher, every parent, and every community member needs to be on guard to protect children. We all have a duty to assure our young people are safe. It’s not just a slogan, it’s a fact. We can’t protect children without the commitment of every community and every member of ISKCON.
Some criticized the Communications Ministry in 1998 for publishing articles exposing child abuse via our Communications Journal. But, it had to be done. Why? Because abuse, whether of children, women, or elders or other vulnerable people, festers in the dark. It festers in ignorance. It festers in an atmosphere of fear of asking tough questions, fear of demanding accountability, and fear of being willing to be open, and transparent in our communities.
If we can’t talk about something, we should start worrying about it. That goes for child abuse, domestic abuse, pastoral abuse—any kind of abuse. We need to be on guard to create and protect a culture of openness, accountability, and transparency.
Regarding child abuse especially, no one is above suspicion. The recent Mayapur exposé has again proven that. Anyone who ever took child protection training understands this critical aspect of protection. No one, whether a swami, guru, GBC member, Prabhupada disciple, senior Vaishnavi/lady, brahmacari, teacher, Sunday Feast guest or your favorite uncle—none of them, none of us, is above suspicion or above being held accountable.
In Alachua, within hours of that fateful meeting in 1996, Children of Krishna, Inc. (CKI), an organization for helping devotee youth, was created. Over the next ten years, CKI raised and granted several hundred thousand dollars to youth for counseling, education, and personal development.
In 1998, the ISKCON Child Protection Office (CPO) was formed, empowered, and funded by the GBC. CPO procedures for the protection of children and adjudication of allegations of abuse were established. The CPO global office, under capable leaders from Dhira Govinda dasa, to Tamohara dasa, to Champakalata dasi, to Kamalesh Krishna dasa today, did their best to protect kids and our temples, investigate abuse and keep abusers out of ISKCON.
What went wrong? Frankly, over time much of ISKCON became complacent. Temples–which are all mandated to have a local Child Protection Team as a first line of defense–grew lax. The numbers of volunteers willing to serve on Child Protection Teams and to serve with the CPO dwindled. As CPO Directors were increasingly willing to serve without salary, the funding from the GBC, which should facilitate support for expanded CPO efforts, instead diminished.
Today, ISKCON has awakened to the horror of learning that a former ‘sannyasi’ sexually abused young boys and a young girl, and had sexual relations with a much younger adult woman thereby committing pastoral abuse—in our international headquarters! Such a horrible revelation. We must each ask ourselves, as we did almost 25 years ago: How did we not know? Why didn’t someone do something? Why didn’t the leaders protect us? And, when are we going to wake up and not let down our guard?
As I told People Magazine, Dateline, Dallas Morning News, and countless other media outlets that covered the Hare Krishna abuse scandal 20 years ago: Child abuse is a societal sickness that we all need to be on guard against.
Devotees of all sorts and all statuses in ISKCON need to ask questions, starting with me. I was on the Mayapur Executive Board for the last few years. Why didn’t I demand to know: “Why does that swami disappear when the GBC is in Mayapur?” When we saw a wall had been constructed around a girl’s ashrama why didn’t I demand to know: “Why are they isolating these girls? What are you hiding?”
When I would ask young men in crisp white dhotis what school they attended, and they responded, “Maharaja’s school,” why didn’t alarm bells go off about this person who was banned from managing schools or projects because of a history of physical and emotional abuse, yet who had continued influence? Why didn’t parents speak out? And, why did so many of us buy into the bogus propaganda that because this school was founded on ‘Vedic principles’ it couldn’t fester abuse?
In hindsight, I see that the same ignorance that I succumbed to previously blinded me again. I continued to believe the myth that “it’s not happening here.” But I’m older now and I should be wiser. Why didn’t I do more to be sure that the kids were not suffering? As a devotee, a Prabhupada disciple, and a GBC member who visited Mayapur every year at least once, I should not have allowed myself to be duped that all was well in our international headquarters.
There are good and great things happening in Mayapur and ISKCON communities around the world. I believe with all my heart that ISKCON is one of the best organizations in the world, with the highest philosophy and wonderfully dedicated and selfless members and leaders. But, despite all that, we must never let down our guard in protecting children, protecting women, protecting the vulnerable. It requires ongoing vigilance and healthy skepticism.
We have to ask now: Are we ready individually and collectively to do the needful to stop abuse?
Abuse won’t just be solved by international policies. ISKCON has good policies (see the CPO Manual). The problem is maintaining the commitment to apply and enforce those policies in every temple around the world—forever.
To do that, we need the help of every devotee in ISKCON. Being shocked that such things can happen in our movement is good. Being angry at the leadership may also be helpful. But, responding to a call for action is far better. Here are a few practical things the GBC has recently done:
Here is what you can do:
Anuttama dasa serves as a member of the Governing Body Commission (GBC), the ISKCON Communications Minister, and Advisor to the International Child Protection Office
Mar 18, 2023
Achintyarup Das, PA to Devakinandan Prabhu
Mar 14, 2023
NA Regional Governing Body
Mar 12, 2023
Khusboo Basan, ISKCON News Staff Writer
Mar 12, 2023
Khusboo Basan, ISKCON News Staff Writer