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Stories Surface of Hare Krishna Abuse; Could Sheehan Catalyze Greater Protest Movement?

Aired August 19, 2005 - 14:29   ET


KYRA PHILLIPS: Hare Krishna. It's a name that evokes that images of hippie-like devotees who sold books at airports years ago, chanted mantras, and danced in the streets. But there was a much different side to the Krishnas at that time, a side that was kept out of the public eye. It was a world of brutal psychological and physical abuse that targeted the most helpless members of that organization.
Here's CNN investigative reporter Drew Griffin.


DREW GRIFFIN, CNN INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Anya Pourchot says she escaped the Hare Krishnas at 17. It's been 20 years, but she says she still gets physically sick the moment she hears the chanting.

ANYA POURCHOT, VICTIM: I usually have to just run so that I can keep myself together.

GRIFFIN: Joe Fournier, who was brought into the Krishnas at the age of 7, says it's taken years for him to be able to talk about what happened.

JOE FOURNIER, VICTIM: Very painful. Yeah. Gone through years of therapy to come out of it, yeah, to survive.

GRIFFIN: What they and hundreds of other survived were childhoods inside a movement that in the 1960 and '70s attracted thousands of youthful seekers. Followers were expected to devote their lives to pure living, pleasing God and chanting praise. But behind the saffron robes, shaved heads and happy songs, many hare Krishnas were hiding a dark secret -- a secret kept inside the Krishna boarding schools, where the children of devotees were sent for training.

This lawsuit, filed in Texas in 2001, pulled back the veil from Krishna society, and according to the attorney who filed it, exposed a movement plagued by violence, abuse and sexual exploitation of children.

WINDLE TURLEY, ATTORNEY: This is the worst case of abuse of children I have ever seen.

GRIFFIN: Dallas attorney Windle Turley sued the International Society of Krishnas on behalf of 92 people, who complained of years of emotional and physical abuse.

TURLEY: When you took a little 6-year-old girl who has not behaved, and for her punishment she is locked in a dark closet, told that it's filled with rats, and that the rats will eat her if she whimpers. And she's told to stand on this wooden crate and not cry, and stay there for hours, that kind of terrorizing as a way of enforcing discipline is just beyond the thought of anything civil.

POURCHOT: I just remember walking down a hallway, and having this horrible experience of hearing the blood-curling scream of a child. And all the other children shuffling around like it was just -- you know, something that happened every day.

GRIFFIN (on camera): Did it happen every day?

POURCHOT: Oh, yeah.

GRIFFIN: And it happened to you?

POURCHOT: Oh, yeah.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): Anya Pourchot was 4 when her parents joined the movement, whose teachings discouraged family life and parental affection. Anya was sent to a Krishna boarding school. By 16, she found herself promised to a 32-year-old man she didn't know.

(on camera): He raped you?

POURCHOT: Yeah. He convinced -- well, he convinced me to masturbate him. And it was not a very nice experience.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): The lawsuit details the claims made by the Krishna children. Beatings, children forced to live and sleep in filth, to eat garbage. Children denied medical care, and some tied up and placed in trash barrels. And according to Fournier, constant sexual abuse.

FOURNIER: Fondled, raped, you know, stuff like that, yeah. Pretty bad.

GRIFFIN: Fournier was just 9 years old when he was sent to a Krishna boarding school in Dallas. Within a month of his arrival, he says, the nightly visits began.

FOURNIER: You had to pretend you weren't awake or conscious or something, to survive it, you know.

GRIFFIN: The International Society of Krishna Consciousness admits no one was looking out for the children. During the 1970s and '80s, when most of the abuse is alleged, children were sent away to boarding schools so parents could focus on begging and recruiting other converts.

TURLEY: And they were literally asked to give up all parental control over their children. And that -- great efforts were made to sever the parental relationship. GRIFFIN (on camera): With their parents out of the way or off raising money, the children were sent to boarding schools, like the one run here in Dallas. The victims say this is where some of the worst abuse took place.

(voice-over): In what the organization now admits was a horrible lapse in judgment, the Krishna converts unfit for other duty were the ones assigned to watch the children.

ANUTTAMA DASA, INTERNATIONAL SOCIETY FOR KRISHNA CONSCIOUSNESS: Too many of them were former hippies and people that were trying to get away from social restraints, and things like that. And were looking for an opportunity to kind of find maybe some easy solutions to some of the problems that they faced.

GRIFFIN: What sets this story apart from so many other lawsuits involving religious organizations and abuse is what the Krishnas decided to do this past spring.

Krishna communications director Anuttama Dasa says the society admits it was wrong, admits the abuse took place in many of its school, and has agreed to pay compensation for the horrible abuse. The society is also begging for forgiveness.

DASA: This is really part of an ongoing healing process. We're organizing meetings around the country, and later in Europe and probably in India, with people in leadership positions within the organization, to meet with the young people, to hear more about what else we need to do to try to help them, to offer our own personal, genuine apologies to them for the suffering that they'd undergone.

GRIFFIN: Fearing the impact of a multi-million-dollar lawsuit, six temples of the Krishnas declared bankruptcy. In the reorganization, nearly $10 million will be set aside for victims. More is being sought from insurance companies, and across the globe, Krishna temples are collecting even more money.

The Krishnas have opened the door to anyone with claims of abuse. Since the original lawsuit, more than 500 former Krishna children have come forward, and, says Windle Turley, the Krishnas have done what no other religious organization charged with sexual abuse has done, at least not to this extent: They Krishnas, he says, have truly apologized.

TURLEY: We were wrong. You were entrusted to our care. We didn't take care of you. We are to blame and we're profoundly sorry. That was a real apology. And to many of these children, that was just as important as the amount of money they're going to recover in this settlement.

GRIFFIN: Joe Fournier says the apology has helped, but insists the true abusers and predators of his childhood have gotten away. Anya Pourchot says no apology will ever be enough. Her childhood is lost forever. She struggles to retrieve what she can for a book she is writing. It's titled, "Traded for Cattle." It's a reference to how the Krishnas handed her into an abuser's arms, for the promise of a cow.

POURCHOT: I hope that this never happens to anyone else again.

GRIFFIN: The Hare Krishnas say they have that same hope, and a new vow to make sure it doesn't.


GRIFFIN: The Krishnas plan to be paying out damages from their own pockets for years to come, not just to compensate the victims for their pain, but also, they say, so current members of society will feel some pain, too, as a way of preventing abuse in the future.

PHILLIPS: Now this is such a closed society, as we know. How do we know that the abuse is not going on right now?

GRIFFIN: They have set up -- the Krishna society has set up an office, much like the Catholic Church has, reporting any troubles, any inconsistencies. Also teaching their own members about abuse, what it is, how to look out for it and then urging parents to pay particular attention to their children when their children are saying something. And also they've closed all the boarding schools in the United States.

PHILLIPS: They're all closed.

GRIFFIN: All of them.

PHILLIPS: So I'm still curious, Anya, does she still talk with her parents? Are her parents still in the....

GRIFFIN: Interesting enough, her mother and a sister, an adult sister, are still members of the Hare Krishna Society. Limited contact there. Anya has nothing to do with the Krishnas. She says she really gets physically sick any time she sees or hears them, but she does intermittently talk with her relatives.

PHILLIPS: Wow. I don't blame her, after she says what she went through. Drew Griffin, thank you so much. We're going to take a quick break. More LIVE FROM right after this.


PHILLIPS: Once again, pictures. Taped turnaround here. We'll go to a live picture in a minute. This is coming via our affiliate KOCO and this, of course, is the shuttle Discovery on piggyback, arriving at Altus Air Force Base. Discovery took off, actually, from California atop this jumbo jet bound for the Air Force Base here, the first leg of its cross-country trip to Florida. Going back to Cape Canaveral, of course.

Now, this modified Boeing-747, carrying the shuttle piggyback, took off this morning. And it will, of course, eventually make its way to Cape Canaveral, but it's going to make several stops to refuel during this --it's about 232 miles, actually, the trip it's got to make. It's also expected to cost NASA at least $1 million. Very expensive trip home for the shuttle Discovery. But, we will follow every movement that it makes, of course, first stopping here after leaving Altus Air Force Base. It's going to head to leave for Louisiana for another refueling and overnight stop and then we'll follow it all the way to Cape Canaveral.

As you know, the shuttle Discovery, this was the first flight -- spaceflight since the Columbia tragedy two-and-a-half years ago.

We're going to take a quick break. More LIVE FROM right after this.


PHILLIPS: Well, as we reported, anti-war protest leader Cindy Sheehan has departed Crawford, Texas, but she vows to return. Sheehan left yesterday, saying that her mother in California had suffered a stroke and needs her attention. Scores of supporters stayed on to continue that protest, started by Sheehan near President Bush's ranch. Agree with Sheehan or not, this one determined mother of a soldier killed in Iraq has given new voice to opponents of the war. Still, her defiance rubs some people the wrong way.

Joining me now, former Republican congressman Bob Barr, now a CNN contributor. And from the protest site in Crawford, Texas, former democratic congressman Tom Andrews, national director of the Win Without War Coalition. Great to have you both with us.

Tom, let's start with you since you're there on the scene.


PHILLIPS: Why are you...

ANDREWS: Hey, didn't think planet Earth got this hot, Kyra. This is unbelievable. To go from the hot air of Washington to here is beyond me.

PHILLIPS: Well, it's Texas. Come on, Tom. You've got to know that.

ANDREWS: It's Texas. OK. I'm a Maine guy, what do I know?

PHILLIPS: All right, well, let's talk about the protest that's going to there. Why are you in support of Cindy Sheehan?

ANDREWS: Well, Cindy Sheehan has provided this country and certainly those families who have lost loved ones in Iraq and those families who have loved ones serving in Iraq an eloquent, powerful voice. And that compelling voice has really, as you know, has just galvanized this nation. It's captured their attention and their imagination. And

I think the message that she's delivering is resonating with Americans because people have some very serious and grave doubts about this war, about how it's being conducted, about the fact that it's not just keeping us safe, just the opposite, and how we need a fundamental change of course.

So the combination of her eloquence, her sincerity and this disastrous war and growing doubts about those behind the war, I think have all combined in kind of a perfect storm to build all the support behind this woman.

PHILLIPS: Bob, what do you think?

BOB BARR, CNN CONTRIBUTER: Well, I'm not sure that she's that eloquent. Some of the language that I've seen her use, some of the off-the-wall statements she's made, would lead me to believe that there are much, better, more eloquent spokespeople out there for those who have serious misgivings about the war.

But I do agree with Tom that this can, if it is not handled properly by the Bush administration and its many supporters, it could be a very defining moment. This could be a galvanizing moment. I think that the president, for example, let an opportunity slip by to sort of diffuse this in a way by not meeting with Miss Sheehan early on. I don't think it would be appropriate or serve any particular purpose for the president to do so now. I think it might have helped earlier on if he had been a little bit more sensitive to her situation.

PHILLIPS: Well, here's the talk. Let me ask you both...

ANDREWS: Well, Bob, why? ?

PHILLIPS: Well, let me ask you guys this.


PHILLIPS: We got talking about this protest, Tom and Bob, because someone in our meeting said, you know, this could be like the Vietnam protests. It started with a small group. It builds and builds and builds and the more that -- you know, we found out about the war and what was going on, more people dying, more frustration with being over there. And we saw those protests during the Vietnam War.

Now, do you think that a Cindy Sheehan has the ability -- you got -- both of you talk about galvanizing, you know, more support. Tom, is this something that we could see grow to something as large as what we saw during Vietnam, with regard to protests?

ANDREWS: You know, I think so, Kyra. Because, you know, up to this point, this war has been antiseptic. I mean, there has not been a true recognition, I don't think, from this administration of this, the extraordinary price that so many people are paying. And certainly the public have not been focusing the attention that I think needs -- we all need to -- on the extreme consequences and price that those -- these families and these individuals on the front lines are paying.

And I think as people do that, and as they realize that we're there because of fabrications and distortions, how we're making that region less stable, not more stable with our troops there, that we're increasing international terrorism and the threat to us, then they're going to understand and feel even more strongly that this course of action needs to change. And you're going to see more and more and more activity, I believe.

And here's the difference, I think, with Vietnam. With Vietnam, these activities were really focused around first campuses and then vets returning. In this case, it's focused around families, about mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, the vets coming back and now people rallying around them. And that's what's happening here in Crawford.

PHILLIPS: All right, Bob, let me ask you about just the financial support that Cindy Sheehan is getting, and Ben Cohen, one of the owners and founders of Ben & Jerry's ice cream. Do you think in any way Cindy Sheehan is being exploited?

BARR: Oh, I think clearly those who are opposed to the war, who are opposed to the Bush administration, see in Miss Sheehan and the media attention that she receives a golden opportunity to get their agenda out there. Michael Moore apparently is kind of sniffing around and looking into this, as well. And I'm not saying that's all bad. I think that's very smart from the anti-war group standpoint.

But clearly, this is much larger than just Miss Sheehan. And as I say, if I were advising these folks, which they've not asked me, I think there are much better spokespeople out there. Tom has just laid out very eloquently the case for serious concerns with the Iraqi policy. And I think if those who are opposed to the administration take the argument such as Tom has set forward, not those that Miss Sheehan puts forward in sort of a haphazard way, bringing in all sorts of things and using foul language, I think their agenda would have a much higher chance for success.

PHILLIPS: Bob? Or, I'm sorry, Tom?

ANDREWS: I've been called worse, Kyra.


ANDREWS: Listen, what we're hearing and seeing from a wide range of people are growing voices about this war. You're seeing it in Congress., you're seeing it in the House with H.A. Resolution 55, that's calling for an exit strategy and a timeframe to start bringing our troops home. You're seeing it with Senator Hagel. There are many voices, moderate voices, conservative voices, that coming forward, articulating their views against this war. What we're hearing from these voices are the pain and sincere plea to this president to change course from people who have suffered the most. These mothers, these family members. And that...


ANDREWS: Those voices are -- go ahead.

PHILLIPS: Well, you bring up a good point. You mentioned Senator Chuck Hagel. And, Bob, I want to get you to respond to this. Tom brings up a good point. You've got a Republican senator challenging Vice President Dick Cheney, saying, how can you say that things are getting better, that troops will be able to come home. Look at the -- let's have a reality check and look at what's taking place over there, with regard to deaths and destruction. So it's interesting when you see Republicans challenging Republicans. I mean, two high-ranking Republicans -- Bob.

BARR: Well, this is a very serious -- or ought to be a very serious concern for the Bush administration. It's one thing to slough off Cindy Sheehan, which I don't think they ought to do, at any rate. But if they were predisposed to do that, it's very difficult, though, to slough off a senior Republican senator, somebody with combat experience, somebody who served in Vietnam, somebody who is a respected, eloquent voice on the Hill.

If the administration thinks that it can just sort of slough all this off and make it go away when you have voices like Senator Hagel's being raised publicly, they have another thought coming. And I really think that they'd be making a serious mistake if they just sort of think this will blow away with the next session of Congress.

PHILLIPS: Bob Barr, Tom Andrews, thank -- go ahead, real quickly, Tom, real quicky.

ANDREWS: No, I think -- I just want to say I agree with Bob completely, and I think the administration has a real credibility problem. When they say -- when Vice President Cheney says this insurgency is in its last throes and then we see all the hell that's breaking loose in Iraq, they don't help themselves and their cause by losing the credibility that they're losing. They have to be straight with us.

PHILLIPS: Tom Andrews, keep us posted from what happens there in Crawford, Texas. Bob Barr. We'll have you both back.

BARR: OK, Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Thanks, gentlemen. I had them wrap -- my pleasure.

Real quickly here, we're getting word now there's a verdict in the Vioxx civil trial. Allan Chernoff now in New York City with the latest from there. Alan, what do you know?

ALLAN CHERNOFF, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kyra, we're just getting word now that apparently the jury has ruled against Merck in this first Vioxx case, ruling that Merck was negligent in the death of Bob Ernst, a 59-year-old man who died a few years ago.

And this is the first case, the first verdict and the first case against Merck. A real big victory for Carol Ernst, the widow who had sued Merck, sued in fact, Merck several years before the company withdrew Vioxx.

Remember, Vioxx, the antiinflammatory drug that Merck pulled last year because the company said it did face the possibility -- did possibly create heart attacks or strokes and that's yet company pulled it. But the company said that effect took only after a person would actually be taking the drug for 18 months and Bob Ernst had taken it for only eight months.

So, that was one reason that it appeared this case might not be all that strong. But here, we have a verdict after two days of deliberation from the jury, 12 people saying that Merck in fact is negligent in the death of Bob Ernst and we have a report that they are awarding a $229 million damage against Merck.

Merck saying that it will appeal in this case. But this clearly a very important case. This could open up the flood floodgates to lawsuits against Merck, the pharmaceutical company. There are already about 4,000 lawsuits against Merck, charging that the company was irresponsible in putting Vioxx on the market. People claiming that Vioxx led to death, led to heart attacks.

But also a very important note here, in this case, Bob Ernst, the person who passed away, the coroner's report said he had an arrhythmia, an irregular heartbeat. And Merck says the studies, medical studies done on Vioxx shown it could possibly cause heart attack or stroke, but not arrhythmia.

And that was the main charge, the main defense that Merck made here saying that it simply didn't have any scientific evidence that Vioxx could cause an arrhythmia. But nonetheless, the jury appears to have gone with the Carol Ernst, the widow who sued Merck.

So this would appear to be a huge loss for Merck. And as I said, it would open up the floodgates for more lawsuit against the pharmaceutical company.

PHILLIPS: Yeah. And from what I understand, thousands.

Allan Chernoff live from New York there. Thank you so much. We'll continue to follow this verdict. Jurors in the nation's first Vioxx-related civil trial making a decision. Jurors awarding $229 million in punitive damages. We're working more information on this. We'll bring it to you as soon as we can. We're going to take a quick break. We'll be right back.


PHILLIPS: News around the world now. A German court has cleared a Moroccan man who was charged with being an accessory to the September 11 attacks. After a year-long retrial, Mounir al Mutassadeq was acquitted of more than 3,000 accessories to murder charges. Al Mutassadeq was convicted of belonging to the same al Qaeda cell that included three of the 9/11 hijackers. He was sentenced to seven years in prison.

U.S. military officials say a marine and an Afghan soldier have died fighting Islamic militants in Eastern Afghanistan. In Southern Afghanistan, two U.S. soldiers were killed, two others wounded when a roadside bomb hit their vehicle yesterday. Roadside attacks against U.S. forces in northwestern Iraq are down, that's according to a U.S. army commander based in Mosul. Major General David Rodriguez says the bombings have dropped by 20 percent over the past three months. He credits better street intelligence and a disruption of senior insurgent operations.

That wraps up this Friday's edition of LIVE FROM. I'm Kyra Phillips at the CNN center in Atlanta. Have a great weekend. But stay tuned, Wolf Blitzer is up next with the "SITUATION ROOM."