Further Reflections on Child Abuse within ISKCON
E. Burke Rochford, Jr.
As many readers of this journal know, there has been considerable media interest generated by my article, “Child Abuse in the Hare Krishna Movement: 1971-1986.” Although I anticipated some interest on the part of the media, I never imagined the extent of media coverage that was to occur. In this short essay I want to reflect further on the issue of child abuse in ISKCON and address the publicity generated by my article. I also want to comment briefly about what has happened within ISKCON in the wake of widespread understanding that children were previously abused in the movement’s schools.
I would like first to draw the readers attention to the title of the original article. The dates, “1971-1986” are significant. The paper I wrote is ultimately historical. It tells about child abuse within the context of an institution (the ashram-gurukula) that, for all practical purposes, no longer exists within ISKCON. Apart from two schools in India and a small secondary school for young women in Florida, there are no ashram-based schools remaining. Yet some in the media, and therefore the public, have implicitly and wrongly assumed that child abuse is a recent or present problem within ISKCON. I have no evidence to support such a view and I certainly never cited any in my article. While it may be true that some ISKCON children presently face abuse, there is no reason to assume that the incidence of abuse or the circumstances under which it takes place in any way differ from mainstream societies. My point here is that the story told in my paper is about the past, not about the present or some projected future. It is a report that represents an excursion in historical sociology.
I suspect many people believe that the story emerged on the front page of the New York Times simply because child abuse and religion is always “news.” Obviously child abuse within various religious groups and denominations, such as the Catholic Church, has created headline making stories in recent years. Yet, in the present case, this is only one aspect of the story, and not necessarily the most significant one. I find it interestingly ironic that a story about child abuse and the Hare Krishna movement would appear on the front page of the Times on the very day that the headline revealed an “open-ended impeachment inquiry” of President Clinton. Here we have a headline story about a President who apparently lied under oath about his own sexual conduct. At the bottom of the same front page we have another story about a “controversial” religious group that is telling the truth about past child abuse. In other words the President of the United States, whom we might assume would be forthright and honest, was lying to the American people while the Hare Krishna’s were telling the truth about a dark part of their past. I can only guess that the Times editors were aware of this irony and, precisely because of it, chose to put the child abuse story on the front page with the byline “Hare Krishna Movement Details Past Abuse at Its Boarding Schools” (see New York Times, Friday, October 9, 1998). Indeed the story here was largely about the surprising willingness of a “controversial” religious group to tell the truth, even when an American President apparently wouldn’t. Many members of the media, who called me for interviews about my paper, including the New York Times reporter, started by asking, “Why did the Hare Krishnas come forward with this story about child abuse in their own journal? Why would they tell the world about such a troubling part of their past?” To most journalists this was the story. Without this news angle, I think there is every reason to believe that the child abuse story would have been a page three article, or even buried in the religion section of the newspaper. Yet making the front page of the Times signalled to the worldwide media that this was a major story which obligated them to cover.
Let me reflect further on a few other matters neither included in my article, nor fully in the accompanying one by Bharata Shrestha Das. First let me say that I am, and have been, a member of ISKCON’s North American Board of Education. I was asked to take on this position in 1991. At the time I was researching for another book on the movement dealing with family life and ISKCON’s second generation. Because of this, some educators who were members of the Board thought I might be able to contribute usefully to their efforts to improve education within ISKCON. After some initial hesitation I decided to take their invitation.
Because of my participation on ISKCON’s Board of Education, and from my own research, I have come to appreciate the commitment of ISKCON’s educators toward the movement’s children. During a time when resources are scarce throughout the movement, it has often proven difficult for ISKCON’s educators, and others committed to improving ISKCON’s schools, to make needed changes. Despite challenging circumstances improvements have been made, with an eye toward protecting children and making them productive citizens. ISKCON now has an International Office for Child Protection, it screens candidates for teaching positions in ISKCON schools and children, movement-wide, are taught about child abuse and what they should do if someone mistreats them emotionally, physically, or sexually. Moreover, when an ISKCON school has been found lacking in its efforts to protect children, it faces probation or, in one instance, has been pressured by the leadership to close down, or face being decertified as an official ISKCON school. The movement’s leadership has also been a force behind the creation and funding of “Children of Krishna” an organization whose purpose is to help young people who were formerly students in ISKCON’s ashram-based gurukulas. Because of this initiative, young men and women abused as children have been helped with counselling, funds for vocational training, college study, and the like. The tragedy of child abuse within ISKCON has thus resulted in a number of positive changes that have helped protect ISKCON’s children, and lent support to those young men and women abused years earlier.
Yet child abuse has been directly instrumental in bringing about a fundamental change in ISKCON’s identity and purpose as a religious organization. As I said in my article, child abuse occurred within ISKCON in part because children and families weren’t sufficiently valued. This has changed considerably in recent years. Within ISKCON communities worldwide one hears a great deal about “social development.” Social development has become a mantra recited over and over by devotees in and outside of ISKCON. What social development means quite simply is the support of family life. How can ISKCON find ways to better integrate and meaningfully support families in its communities? This year, ISKCON’s Governing Body Commission (GBC) created a new ministry devoted specifically to social development. Also created in recent years; the Grhastha Ministry, the Youth Ministry, and the Women’s Ministry, all were established to respond to the needs of parents, women, and children. These and other efforts are directed toward bringing family life into the mainstream of ISKCON, culturally and religiously. And, in fact, as I have argued elsewhere, ISKCON’s fundamental unit of social organization today is the family; communalism having given way to the nuclear family in most locations. Without meaning to suggest that child abuse, by itself, brought about these changes, there still can be little doubt that it has forced leaders and rank and file members alike to rethink what ISKCON represents as a religious organization. Married people and their children have increasingly come to the front and center of ISKCON life. Indeed they represent the movement’s future.
I know many ISKCON members have been dismayed and distressed by the publicity generated by my article in ISKCON Communication Journal. I also have been taken-back by the reaction. I think it important to be reminded however that the publicity generated was as much a result of ISKCON’s candor about what happened as with the child abuse that occurred. Now, I believe, ISKCON must go forward full-steam in its efforts to protect children and build a system of education that nurtures the lives of ISKCON’s future hope. Like you, I pray that this will be the lasting legacy of child abuse within the Hare Krishna movement. All best wishes.
This article is reprinted with permission from ISKCON Communications Journal, Volume 6, Number 2, 1998, pages 64-67.