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ISKCON’s Response to Child Abuse: 1990-1998

Bharat Shrestha prabhu

“In his article in this issue, Professor Burke Rochford has outlined the sociological factors that led ISKCON away from any concern for healthy family life and into an era in which children, especially, were marginalised. He explores some of the agonising consequences of this marginalisation. The sad reality was that schools and other child-centred environments were often managed by untrained people, often lacking even rudimentary parenting skills. Unfortunately ISKCON also attracted some child predators because it was a young movement lacking in organisational strength at grass roots levels, with few of the controls that a more established, experienced organisation might have in place in order to protect its children. Professor Rochford analyses some of the darkest aspects of the history of our institution, taking us up to the situation as it was in 1986. This paper looks at some of the more recent events and trends which have taken place since ISKCON as a society became aware of the tragic consequences of assuming that young, untrained, devotee leaders would be capable of creating an ideal environment for raising balanced and healthy, spiritually directed children.”

This is a link to an article written by Bharata Shrestha prabhu that was published in ICJ Vol 6, No 1 June 1998. This article is a response and update by ISKCON to the article “Child Abuse in the Hare Krishna Movement: 1971-1986” written by Professor Burke Rochford.

ISKCON’s Response to Child Abuse: 1990-1998 

In his article in this issue, Professor Burke Rochford has outlined the sociological factors that led ISKCON away from any concern for healthy family life and into an era in which children, especially, were marginalised. He explores some of the agonising consequences of this marginalisation. The sad reality was that schools and other child-centred environments were often managed by untrained people, often lacking even rudimentary parenting skills. Unfortunately ISKCON also attracted some child predators because it was a young movement lacking in organisational strength at grass roots levels, with few of the controls that a more established, experienced organisation might have in place in order to protect its children. Professor Rochrford analyses some of the darkest aspects of the history of our institution, taking us up to the situation as it was in 1986. This paper looks at some of the more recent events and trends which have taken place since ISKCON as a society became aware of the tragic consequences of assuming that young, untrained, devotee leaders would be capable of creating an ideal environment for raising balanced and healthy, spiritually directed children.

Recent developments


As the 1980s drew to a close, the problem of child abuse developed into an unavoidable issue that the ISKCON Governing Body Commission (GBC) would have to address. ISKCON’s momentum had stalled. An ageing membership, bereft of its adored leader Shrila Prabhupada, drifted away from the authority of the ‘renunciate elite’. Many married and settled down, returning to school or entering into business ventures or regular employment. Although many continued to follow the instructions of the Founder-Acarya, Shrila Prabhupada, at the same time some no longer considered themselves part of ISKCON. Confidence in ISKCON leadership was at an all-time low. The ISKCON leadership, plagued by scandals and political in-fighting, with power seriously eroded by the Guru Reform movement, lacked a unifying vision. Material ignorance, inexperience, widespread deviation from the teachings of Shrila Prabhupada (half the original GBC members withdrew or were expelled from their leadership posts), and lack of confidence in their own ability to carry forward Shrila Prabhupada’s movement, rendered the GBC ineffective. Powerless to respond to the accusations of corruption, philosophical deviation, politically motivated cover-ups, and charges of child abuse reaching to top levels, the GBC was faced with either addressing the child abuse problem head-on or watching what little authority they retained vanish. If ISKCON was to survive as a coherent organisation, the GBC had to respond intelligently and decisively to the accusations of child abuse. 

In 1990 at the annual GBC meetings held in Mayapur, India, Resolution 119 was passed. This Resolution reads as follows:

That the following is adopted as the official ISKCON policy on child abuse incidents:

  1. The local governing authority of each ISKCON school or community is responsible to appoint 2 or 3 devotees to investigate and follow-up on all suspected or confirmed cases of child abuse.
  2. Suspected or confirmed cases of child abuse must be reported to local government authorities for investigation and/or prosecution. In India, the ISKCON International Office of Education may authorise a waiver of this requirement if the perpetrator is willing to sign a statement authorising the International Office of Education to publicise the incident to all ISKCON-related educational projects and other concerned parties.
  3. All suspected or confirmed incidents of child abuse must be reported immediately to the local GBC secretary, and, within thirty days, to the ISKCON International Office of Education. The ISKCON International Office of Education shall review the investigation and give a finding as to the status of the alleged perpetrator as confirmed, suspect, or innocent/not-suspected.
  4. The perpetrator or alleged perpetrator must be immediately segregated so that he has no possible contact with the victim or other children. This segregation may take the form of relocating the perpetrator to another part of the project, away from children; banishment from the project (and possibly from other ISKCON projects with children); or in severe cases, banishment from all ISKCON projects. The degree of segregation will be determined by the nature and severity of the offence; the attitude of the perpetrator; the feasibility of protecting the children from further abuse or intimidation; and the sentiments of the local devotees, especially the parents.
    In no case should a confirmed or suspected perpetrator remain in the local community unless the local ISKCON authorities obtain the written authorisation of no less than 3/4 of the parents of children at the project or in the community. The local government authorities and/or the ISKCON Board of Education will make the final determination of the appropriate degree of segregation.
  5. Any confirmed child abuser may never again serve in association with children in any ISKCON project. The Board will also make available to all ISKCON educational projects and temples the names of all accused, admitted, confirmed or convicted child abusers.
  6. Abused children must get appropriate professional counselling so that the serious ill effects of the abuse can be minimised.
  7. All ISKCON educational projects must have preventative programs which train children how to avoid and report child abuse incidents.
  8. The local GBC man (or men) are directly responsible to implement the measures outlined above. Should the GBC Body find a GBC man or other ISKCON manager responsible for suppressing or covering-up complaints of child abuse, or supporting intimidation of those who might complain, the GBC man shall be open to censure or probation, and the ISKCON manager shall be open to appropriate disciplinary action.

This Resolution, with its carefully considered and worded provisions, is clearly aimed at rectifying future allegations of abuse. But, as Maria Ekstrand, a Psychology professor at San Francisco University and an initiated devotee (Madhusudani-Radha devi dasi) points out, there are no means of enforcement built into the resolution, and in addition, there are no provisions for addressing past abuses (1997). Nevertheless, it was a start. Resolutions 90-119 establish that:

  1. The GBC recognises that there are inevitable cases of abuse within the ISKCON community.
  2. The GBC has a moral obligation to address allegations of such abuse.
  3. Responsibility for prevention, investigation and prosecution rests with the local ISKCON authorities, not with the GBC or any other central authority.

Given the eroded authority of the GBC, there was no way in practical terms for the GBC to enforce its guidelines. Although worded as Law, Resolutions 90-119 carries the force of recommendation to local authorities, who in many cases had never even read the Resolution, much less followed its suggestions. It is not so difficult to understand how local authorities, managers of once opulent temples and preaching centres but now managers of decrepit relics, under-funded and under-staffed, with little cooperation, but a great deal of criticism from the disorganised and disenchanted householder community, might find a new rule, well intended as it might have been, simply too much to deal with at that time. Even if a temple authority desired to comply, they encountered enormous obstacles as hardly any devotees now lived under the roof of an ISKCON building. Nevertheless, the problem had been faced -at least; there were now some guidelines.

However as time passed it became clear that more needed to be done. Six years would pass before there was sufficient groundswell of support for additional measures. In the meantime, it would appear that the GBC felt that they had dealt with the problem of abuse. There was reason for them to believe so. For instance, in the early 1990s there were two cases of abuse in the Chicago area. The temple president followed the guidelines in Resolutions 90-119 very carefully, thus protecting the Chicago centre from liability, encouraging a prompt and thorough investigation by local authorities, and protecting the children from possible further abuse. The suspects were removed from their ISKCON positions and eventually prosecuted and convicted by local authorities. With increasing regularity, ISKCON authorities found that when such a serious matter as child abuse came up in their sphere of responsibilities, the Resolutions 90-119 guidelines gave them the tools they needed to handle the situation surely and swiftly, with regard to the rights of both the victims and the accused. ISKCON schools formed Child Protection Teams (CPTs) when their communities were hit with allegations of abuse, and a few of those committees remained as standing committees, as required under Resolutions 90-119. Most (but not all) ISKCON schools formed CPTs. It seemed that the problem was solved, or could be if everyone followed the recommendations of Resolutions 90-119. Or was it? In reality, all Resolutions 90-119 does is guide a community through the process for removing and investigating a case of alleged abuse. However the provisions of Resolutions 90-119 do not address the issue of prevention (other than saying that it should exist), and the guidelines it does present carry no force of law. They were effectively unenforceable. In addition, Resolutions 90-119 does precious little to address the problem of what to do with the victims. Some progress had been made to be sure. The guidelines were working to some extent, and as time went on compliance increased as local communities heard how useful it had been to the communities which had had to face a case of child abuse in their midst. But the issues of prevention and victim rehabilitation were crying out to be addressed, and nothing more was happening.

An increased impetus for change came in May 1996, at the North American GBC meeting in Alachua, Florida. Here a group of former gurukula pupils, invited to speak by the leadership, detailed case after case of heart wrenching suffering at the hands of school authorities which reduced the entire audience of educators to tears. Virtually every former student (these included those who had attended schools over the last twenty years) at the conference was either a witness or a victim. Children suffered denial of medical care for life-threatening illnesses, serious bruises and contusions, lost teeth, broken noses, scarring from caning, repeated sexual abuse and even homosexual rape at knifepoint. The perpetrators of these very serious crimes were none other than the teachers, the ashram leaders, the administrators, and in some cases even sannyasis and ISKCON gurus. The leadership of ISKCON, particularly the GBC, simply had to address the issue of past abuses or face a crippling credibility crisis. In fact, the whole of ISKCON had to do something. An entire generation of children had been subjected to horrendous treatment at the hands of those entrusted with their welfare by parents who thought that they were doing what was best for their children. The children, now adults, had complained before and no one had listened. But, their voice had now been heard collectively, and their parents’ generation began to initiate measures on its own instead of demanding that the GBC take action. In addition, the children, now young adults, some of whom had been victims, organised themselves.

The first ‘grass roots’ organisation formed was the Children of Krishna. This group was formed during the May 1996 meetings of the North American GBC and was a spontaneous response by participants of the meeting. Children of Krishna are composed of both first and second generation devotees. The mission of the Children of Krishna is: ‘To support, further, and protect the education, economic, emotional, and spiritual advancement of the children of the Hare Krishna Movement.’ They are principally a grant-dispensing organisation that has helped young devotees finance college and other post-secondary training, and they have helped fund therapy for victims of abuse.

A small group of second generation adults formed a World Wide Web news site, called VOICE. While VOICE clearly colours its postings understandably with cynical bitterness, they were probably the single most important vehicle for translating the 1996 North American GBC meeting experience into a global revelation and a global problem for ISKCON. Case after case of reliable testimony transformed child abuse from a ‘local’ or ‘isolated’ problem into an issue which had to be dealt with by each and every member of the devotee community, regardless of which generation they belonged to or whether they had, or had not been a victim of abuse. Although one still could hear the GBC and the gurus being blamed for all the ills of the Society, one also heard a lot of mature devotees expressing personal responsibility. In other words, the mood changed from ‘They [meaning ISKCON authorities] ought to do something’ to ‘We [meaning local communities and parents] ought to do something.’

Less than a year after the May 1996 testimonies, the GBC had enacted a proposal put forward by the ISKCON Communications team in Europe which proposed that a Task Force be created to deal not only with future cases of abuse, as Resolutions 90-119 outlined, but also to address past cases. This became the GBC Task Force. That Task Force presented its findings at the annual Mayapur GBC meetings in early 1998. GBC Resolutions 98-305 enacted the recommendations of that report as ISKCON policy. The new Child Protection Policy outlines acceptable standards of behaviour for those in contact with children, sets up a review panel to investigate and, if necessary, reopen past cases, sets up a tribunal court system to hear cases, creates a permanent Child Protection Office, and, perhaps most importantly, funds the office, the judges, and at least partial costs of victim rehabilitative therapy.

Where does ISKCON stand?
Dharmaraj dasa a second generation devotee based in Sweden, who is also a member of the GBC Task Force, is now coordinating the Child Protection programme in Europe. In his opinion, abuse seems to be very nearly under control in the schools. In the last year, two high profile cases have come to light and which have been handled decisively. The first case concerns a man who was Head of a school in India for 15 years; he was a sannyasi and initiating ISKCON guru. The result of an internal investigation meant that he was stripped of his authority, censured and banned from ISKCON communities. Another case concerned the Head of a school in the USA who had, ironically, become a Director of Child Protection and was also authorised to accept disciples (although he had never done so). This case resulted in having him removed from all offices and barred from ISKCON communities while the investigation continues. Although it would be impossible to state with certainty that child abuse has been rooted out of all of ISKCON’s schools, the general impression is that the schools are far safer than they once were, and that when cases do surface, they are handled sensibly, compassionately, and legally. 

On the other hand, few communities have a CPT. Few have even an awareness of practical prevention measures. Compliance with the provisions of Resolutions 90-119 (7) has been very poor. Part of this poor performance may indeed, as ISKCON’s internal critics like to point out, be due to a residual ‘renunciate elite’ attitude which relegates child abuse to the minor category of ‘householder problem’.

Another, more probable, cause is the ineffective but pervasive management strategy of addressing all problems when, and only when, they become emergencies. High level authorities are more like firemen than managers: all they do is ‘put out fires’. Thus any sort of prevention programme remains unstudied and unimplemented while the authorities rush about controlling crises which might have been preventable had prevention programmes been enacted. It is not until a community is hit with a high profile abuse case that they invest energy into prevention programs, such as a sitting CPT. Fortunately, modern communications, such as the Internet, are having a positive effect in this area. Since bad news travels swiftly (almost instantaneously on the Internet), members of communities can grasp the magnitude of the abuse problem and ring the ‘alarm bells’ before the ‘fire’ hits their communities.

A third possible reason for poor compliance is, regrettably and paradoxically, poor communication. Despite the Internet, mass mailings and word of mouth, for some reason rank-and-file devotees, especially in areas outside North America and Western Europe, simply remain unaware of the scope of the problem of abuse, or obtain their information from questionable sources, which puts them in the position of either acting on unreliable information or disbelieving information which is accurate. These are all management issues, and they affect not only the Child Abuse programmes, but also all aspects of ISKCON’s operations. The GBC and other authorities are well aware of the magnitude of the problem. Considerable resources have been dedicated to solving this problem, from management seminars to web sites to the international Bhaktivedanta Book Trust bulletin board known as COM.

As channels of communication improve, one would suppose that compliance with GBC Resolutions 119 and 305 would also improve. At least local people will be more readily aware of resources, should they resolve to address the problem locally. Additionally, materials on Child Abuse have been developed and are distributed widely. Among these are:

  • Help save our future (small pamphlet of facts on child abuse prevention)
  • A guide on interviewing children (compiled by Yasoda devi dasi, a professional in the field)
  • Normal Sexual Development of Children
  • Preventing Child Abuse in ISKCON (An in-depth manual on Child Abuse Prevention published by the ISKCON Board of Education).
  • A guide to screening (a short, easy-to-use manual on screening prospective school staff).

What does the future hold?
Although any prognostications are speculative, there are two areas in which I think that we can make reasonably accurate predictions. One area is the scope of the problem and the other is a prognosis for ISKCON’s ability to address the problem satisfactorily. The latter is more easily dealt with, as GBC Resolutions 90-119 and 98-305 set policy, outline procedures, set up an international office to disseminate information, conduct screening, keep records, collect statistics, conduct investigations (especially in areas of the world where civil authorities lack competence), and provide at least some measure of policing. One would hope that such endeavour, complete with provisions for funding and follow up (98-305 mandates this), would bode well for ISKCON’s ability to redress past abuses and develop effective prevention programmes. Over the next few years the Child Protection Office will collect enough data so that we can have the statistical evidence needed to evaluate and adjust the effectiveness of the new policies.

The other area, the scope of the problem, is far more speculative. I have looked at other organisations, especially the Boy Scouts of America, to see if ISKCON is unusual in the breadth and scope of the abuse problem. The short answer is that it is not. However, in what could be seen as a case of hubris brought on by humility, ISKCON devotees seem to have firm faith that their leaders are more incompetent, more prone to ‘fall-down’ than other religious groups, and that ISKCON’s miscreants are worse than those in the larger society, believing that simply because they have spiritual knowledge they should be better able to carry out any role of management or leadership. My research into this premise highlights that this is quite a naive outlook.

While accepting that child abuse is wrong and should be eliminated from our society, we must place our problems in a broader context by comparing ourselves to other institutions and seeing things in a historical context. Abuse has been around a long time. In historical times, Dante relegates the unjustly condemned Count Ugolino to the ice of the lowest level of Hell in his thirteenth Century masterpiece, Comedia, because he abused his child. In later times, the children in Dickens’s tales are almost universally abused: Oliver Twist is literally starved by the Church-run orphanage and Pip is brutally beaten by his father, who as a blacksmith must have had very powerful arms. Even in our scriptures we find abuse was going on-King Kamsa physically abused children, as did Hiranyakashipu. Whether in ancient India, medieval Italy or modern England, the perpetrators of abuse are condemned and their actions vilified. However, the Information Age brings every heinous act into our collective living rooms all at once, giving the impression that the problem is much larger than it used to be.

What has changed is consciousness-how we perceive and react to the issue. What used to be considered a regrettable and pitiable part of some children’s lives, now is considered a crime against every child and the whole of society. The role of childhood in the life of an adult has changed dramatically since Freud. So many social aberrations can be traced back to a childhood trauma, and the role of childhood experience has become vastly more important in the last half-century. There is no doubt that child abuse has resulted in lasting psychological trauma in many adults. What has changed, however, is the awareness that abuse is pervasive in most societies on the planet today, and the results of that abuse not only have permanent effects on the victims, but also transcend generations as the abused become the next generation of abusers.

As the public became more aware of the all-pervasiveness of child abuse, they demanded accountability. Although statistically most abuse occurs within a child’s family circle, organisations that engage children, particularly those making a claim to providing moral and religious guidance, have increasingly come under attack for harbouring child abusers. There are two principle reasons for this: one is that these kinds of organisations use volunteers (who are therefore more ‘noble’ than mere employees); the other is that these organisations claim to foster moral and religious character superior to the child’s family or the society as a whole. Thus, child abuse in such a context is regarded as far worse precisely because the perpetrators were trusted to be the moral guides of the children. These groups include no less than the Roman Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts of America.

At the same time that ISKCON was discovering that it had an abuse problem, the Boy Scouts were finding out the same thing. In late 1988 a lawsuit in Reston, Virginia brought by a man claiming to be an abused former Scout revealed that Boy Scout records indicated that over 200 scout leaders had been dismissed over the past twenty years for abuse. The Washington Times commissioned an investigation team that looked into the matter more deeply. When the story broke in 1991, it established that 1871 leaders had been dismissed throughout the country over twenty years. Everyone was shocked, not least the Boy Scouts, who had not kept a database of this information. The press naturally reported the Boy Scout files as ‘secret’, which implies a conspiracy to cover up, when actually they are ‘not public’ and therefore no statistics had been tabulated. In other words, no one had noticed how many Scout leaders were abusers until someone pointed it out, even though the records were all there in the files. Each embarrassing case had been quietly ‘resolved’ without a collective awareness of the breadth and magnitude of the problem.

A reporter for the Washington Times, Patrick Boyle, wrote a book about it that went on sale about the same time as the wire services picked up the story. Curiously, the Times story had not been hot news. The Associated Press and major newspapers did not run the story until October 1993, 18 months after the Times story. In 1991, the major press did not sense that the public would be particularly interested in a story about abusive Boy Scout leaders, but in 1993, it was News! The Boy Scouts were faced with a huge public relations nightmare, not to mention a moral crisis. Fortunately, in 1990 the top leaders of the Boy Scouts had sensed as they prepared for the Reston case and others that abuse was a major problem in its ranks, and had begun developing a Youth Protection Programme. This Youth Protection Programme had five parts:

  • Educate Scouting volunteers, parents and Scouts themselves to aid in the detection and prevention of child abuse.
  • Establish leader-selection procedures to prevent offenders from entering the BSA leadership ranks.
  • Establish policies that create barriers to child abuse within the programme.
    Encourage Scouts to report improper behaviour in order to identify offenders quickly.
  • Remove and report alleged offenders swiftly.

This programme soon revealed another 400 cases, but since then the number of incidents has slowed to a trickle and the Boy Scouts are heralded for their Youth Protection Programme. In fact, elements of the ISKCON programme appear to be similar to theirs. If the Boy Scouts story turns out to be similar to the ISKCON story yet to unfold, devotees can take heart in the facts that while ISKCON reels from high profile cases, bitter criticism from the victims and their advocates, and a perception that ISKCON is thoroughly infiltrated with perverts and bullies, the reality is that steps already taken have encouraged victims to face their abusers and enabled communities to respond intelligently, compassionately and justly to local situations. While much more work needs to be done, both at global and local levels, ISKCON has taken significant measures that closely resemble those which are beginning to produce measurable results in at least one other similar organisation.

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September 1, 2006 - Posted by | Gurukula, Gurukuli, Hare Krishna, ISKCON

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