NEW YORK, June 12--In 1998, the Hare Krishna movement, one of the most controversial religious movements to emerge from the 1960s, voluntarily detailed one of its darkest episodes--the widespread abuse, sexual and otherwise, of children who attended the group's boarding schools during the 1970s and 1980s.
Until then, only limited knowledge of the abuse by some teachers, older students, supposedly celibate monks and other Hare Krishna leaders had dribbled out in court cases, media interviews with victims and academic writings.
But in an the June 1998 issue of the biannual Hare Krishna publication ISKCON Communications Journal, two articles--one written by an outside academic with long experience studying the movement; the second by a member of the group --extensively detailed the extent of the abuse.
They also noted the movement's long delay in fully addressing the problem, despite the acknowledged trauma suffered by hundreds of individuals and the group as a whole through the wholesale abandonment of the faith by angry, disillusioned parents and their offspring.
``Children suffered denial of medical care for life-threatening illnesses, serious bruises, lost teeth, broken noses, scarring from caning, repeated sexual abuse and even homosexual rape at knife point,'' wrote Bharata Strestha Das, a Hare Krishna since 1983 who has taught English literature at the University of Massachusetts.
``The perpetrators of these very serious crimes were none other than the teachers, the ashram leaders, the administrators, and in some cases even sannyasis (monks) and ISKCON gurus (spiritual leaders).
``...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.''
Middlebury College sociology professor E. Burke Rochford Jr. said in his accompanying article that the schools--known as ``gurukulas''--``were staffed by devotees untrained and generally ill-prepared to take on the demands of working with children.'' The lack of institutional support for the schools ``contributed directly to acts of child abuse by teachers,'' he said.
As word of abuses spread through the movement, said Rochford, ``some efforts were made to intervene. Yet this very intervention sometimes resulted in new strategies of coercive abuse. Most significant was enlisting older boys in (one school in India) to physically abuse younger students who were deemed troublesome and unruly by teachers.''
At the time, a Washington-based spokesman for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), as the movement is officially called, said the group's decision to publicly confront the abuse issue was made ``to reestablish a level of integrity that the organization has to function on (and) to educate people inside the movement so that this can never happen again.
``We didn't react as quickly as we should have, in large part because we didn't know how to react...We're trying now to be pro-active,'' said Anuttama Dasa, who said his stepson was among the physically abused.
ISKCON is by no means the first religious movement born of the `60s to face the issue of sexual and other forms of child abuse. David Bromley, a Virginia Commonwealth University sociologist, noted the case of the Children of God, a group based on quasi-Christian teachings also known as The Family. The group has released internal documents detailing the movement's own widespread child sexual abuse.
Nor are established churches immune from the problem.
The Roman Catholic Church has long struggled with cases of priests molesting young boys. In Dallas recently, the Catholic diocese there agreed to pay about $30 million to settle the largest judgment ever ordered in a clergy sex abuse case in U.S. history (the plaintiffs' attorney is also handling the current Hare Krisha abuse case).
But elements in the church have repeatedly been accused of protecting pedophile priests and seeking to keep information about such cases from becoming public.
By way of contrast, Bromley said ISKCON's decision, no matter how belated, ``reflects a decision within the organization that this has to be cleared up. They realized that the alternative is something like the Clinton thing; continual scandal that continues to ebb out and eats you up forever,'' said Bromley, who co-edited a 1989 book about the Hare Krishnas.
At the time, Thomas L. Bryson, associate executive director of the American Academy of Religion, called ISKCON's decision to allow Rochford to detail the abuse in the movement's premier scholarly journal ``highly unusual.''
``It's rare for a group to invite an outsider in and give him carte blanche to say what he wants in one of their forums,'' said Bryson, whose Atlanta-based academy is a professional group for academics whose specialty is religion.