By Brian Birmingham

The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (also known as ISKCON, or colloquially as “the Hare Krishnas”) was founded in New York City in 1966, by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. In its heyday in the late 1960s and early 1970s, ISKCON was one of the most recognized new religious movements introduced to the United States. ISKCON enjoyed some positive attention in the media. George Harrison of the Beatles was one of the most noteworthy of the celebrities who helped to promote ISKCON.

History of scandal

As it grew in the US, ISKCON became increasingly controversial and was one of most notorious groups called “cults” drawing increasing attention based upon the behavior of its leadership and devotees. At times families tried to rescue their loved ones through interventions with cult deprogrammers.

ISKCON devotees

ISKCON was likewise plagued by scandal. This included its most influential leader in the 1980s. Ultimately that leader Swami Bhaktipada (aka Keith Gordon Ham) was criminally charged. Ham was one of the first Hare Krishna disciples in the United States and he ruled over the largest Hare Krishna community in the country near Moundsville, West Virginia. Ham eventually pleaded guilty to racketeering, fraud and conspiracy to commit murder. But he ended up only serving 8 years in prison.

ISKCON moved on to more scandal, which involved child abuse that took place within ISKCON boarding schools in the United States and India.

The reportedly horrific physicals and sexual abuse began in the 1970s and continued through the 1980s. A class-action lawsuit was filed in Dallas, Texas on behalf of the victims in 2001. ISKCON subsequently sought refuge in Federal Bankruptcy Court, which ultimately forced the adult children to accept a greatly reduced settlement.

ISKCON claimed it would implement sweeping changes to ensure that no such abuse would ever occur again.

Changes

One of the most important changes is that ISKCON temples became independent and autonomous legal entities. This insulated ISKCON regarding legal liability. So certain temples today are not officially “ISKCON” temples, but rather only ISKCON-affiliated. Under this arrangement, if a temple is sued for misconduct or abuse, the larger organization ISKCON itself theoretically cannot be held liable, leaving liable only the local temple and its leadership.

In Dallas, Texas the local leadership does business as the “Texas Krishnas, Inc.” This supposedly means that Dallas temple is wholly independent and not an ISKCON temple at all.

ISKCON has made a tremendous effort at public relations to burnish its tainted image. In the past twenty years, the organization has become adept at PR. Anuttama das, is now ISKCON’s “Minister of Communications” and he has done his best to soften the media perception of ISKCON and persuade the general public that ISKCON has changed, and for the better.

ISKCON has apparently curtailed most of its questionable activities.

But has it essentially changed, at least at the local level in Dallas, Texas?

Recent events prove that the answer to this question is “no.”

Abuse in Dallas

It has come to light the families of several students in the Dallas Hare Krishna school were interviewed by ISKCON’s “Child Protection Office,” which revealed that their children were being abused by a certain teacher there.

Dallas Krishna temple

The mother of one abused boy has written about abuses in the school on her Facebook page. She describes physical, psychological, and emotional abuse that her son endured. The boy was forced to urinate and defecate on himself, and was humiliated by the teacher in front of his classmates. The teacher would ridicule the boy, denigrating him and encouraging his classmates to do the same.

Investigation

Quotes from an ISKCON mother’s Facebook page as follows:

“The ISKCON Child Protection Office investigated this abusive teacher, and found her guilty of child abuse. She was removed from her position and is not teaching in the school today. However, at every step of the investigation the Dallas temple management, headed by the temple president, blocked the investigation by telling school administrators and others to lie, and by threatening families in various ways. After the Child Protection Office made their decision regarding the abusive teacher, the Dallas temple management further tried to undermine their judgment by threatening legal action against that office, in an effort to have their judgment and decision reversed.”

The only way that this family found resolution in their situation, was to physically move and leave Dallas entirely.

They’d been banned from the Dallas temple, and told that their services at the Dallas temple were no longer required.

Accountability

The leadership of the Dallas Hare Krishna temple is no more accountable or transparent than they were in 1972. And the abuse within the local Hare Krishna school in Dallas is still apparently going on as the hierarchy of this temple chose to side with the teacher, not the students and their families.

Despite all of the public relations efforts of Anuttama das and whatever he might say to sway the media, the Hare Krishnas, at least in Dallas, have not substantially changed, it seems, very much at all.

Note: Brian Birmingham is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts in Boston with a BA in Psychology and Sociology. He is a native of Dallas.

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Stephanie Salter of the San Francisco Chronicle recently tangentially raised some meaningful questions about some sexual abuse allegations, which are based upon supposedly “recovered memories.” That is, memories claimed as “repressed,” which are then supposedly recovered through a controversial therapeutic process that may include hypnosis.

This issue arose through the appointment of a renowned psychiatrist, researcher and teacher, Dr. Paul McHugh, to a 12-member Catholic board that will oversee the church’s response to sexual abuse by priests.

McHugh has historically opposed and at times exposed what has become known as “false memories.” Now this history has caused him to be suspect by some Catholic victims groups. However, McHugh’s position has repeatedly been supported through numerous court cases. Likewise, many of the claims of supposed “Satanic ritual abuse” have been proven groundless through official reports and research.

It is important that despite the moral storm, which deservedly has now engulfed the Roman Catholic Church regarding clergy abuse, balance also be brought to the table through research and science, when it is necessary and indicated. Let’s not turn this crisis into a modern-day witch-hunt and demonize anyone who raises questions.

Simply put, some claims of sexual abuse against priests may be false. This was certainly the case regarding the now deceased Cardinal Bernadin of Chicago, who was falsely accused of sexual misconduct. His accuser later recanted those accusations and specifically cited the process of therapy, which formed the basis for his claims.

McHugh is clearly not an apologist for the Catholic Church. He describes its historical cover-up of sexual abuse as both a “betrayal,” and a “terrible sin.” And he has concluded that the church’s own conduct is responsible for the current “deep crisis of trust.”