American-Statesman - Texas March 4, 2011
Hindu guru found guilty on 20 counts of molesting young girls
By Eric Dexheimer | AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
A Hays County jury on Friday found the spiritual guru of Barsana Dham guilty of molesting two young girls who grew up at the Hindu ashram south of Austin in the mid-1990s.
Prakashanand Saraswati, known to his devotees as Shree Swamiji, was convicted of all 20 counts of indecency with a child by sexual contact.
The charges were based on allegations of two women, Shyama Rose and Vesla Tonnessen Kazimer, now 30 and 27 years old, respectively, whose families lived at the 200-acre ashram off RM 1826 in Driftwood. They said the guru kissed and fondled them on numerous occasions over the course of several years, beginning when they were as young as 12.
A third woman, Kate Tonnessen, now 31, also claimed the holy man had kissed and groped her during the same period. Although her account was heard during the two-week trial, the accusations were not part of the official charges because the statute of limitations had expired.
In accordance with Statesman policy on victims of sex crimes, their names have not previously appeared in the newspaper's accounts of the case. On Friday, they gave permission for their names to be used.
The jury of eight men and four women returned its guilty verdict after deliberating for less than two hours. The announcement by District Court Judge Charles Ramsay was met with muffled sobs by the women, who exchanged hugs. Beyond saying they were pleased with the verdict, they declined to comment.
Prakashanand, who'd sat through the trial in a special chair to ease pressure on his bad back, showed no emotion. His supporters had packed the small Hays County courthouse during the trial.
"We're disappointed in the jury's verdict and steadfast in Swamiji's innocence," said Aman Agrawal, a Barsana Dham spokesman.
Jurors will reconvene on Monday to decide on a sentence. Each of the 20 charges carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
In an indictment filed in April 2008, the women claimed they'd been abused while they grew up as friends on the ashram, their families longtime devotees of Prakashanand and Hinduism.
Several members of the Tonnessen family still live there, and the trial highlighted how, against the backdrop of religion and sex, the case centered on one broken family. Kate and Vesla's brother and sister are preachers at Barsana Dham; their parents reside on the property.
The two sides have not had any contact since Prakashanand was charged. "Besides my sister, I'm an orphan now," Kate Tonnessen testified, weeping. "I lost my history."
Over the course of the trial, prosecutors depicted Prakashanand, now 82, as a religious leader who used his stature and position of trust to prey on young devotees.
When he began fondling her when she was 12, Rose said: "It just felt so wrong. He was my first kiss by a man ever. The first time anyone touched my breasts, it was Prakashanand."
In the few instances in which they told an adult of the incidents, the women said, they were instructed that the touching had a higher purpose. "I was told it was a test and if I failed it I would go to hell," Rose said. The other women said they were told the guru was gracing them.
Defense attorneys stressed that Prakashanand was a holy man who had devoted his life to teaching devotees and performing works of charity. The women accusing him, his lawyers said, were manipulative and angry, colluding to deliberately damage a religious organization from which they'd been ostracized.
The lawyers elicited testimony from more than a half-dozen current or former Barsana Dham residents or regular visitors who insisted they had never seen the guru alone with a young girl.
Several also disputed the girls' recollections of furniture placement and other details, such as the existence of a diary, and described the women's reputations growing up as dishonest.
Prosecutors said the witnesses were protecting their guru. "You know the fox in the henhouse?" Assistant District Attorney Cathy Compton said. "You just got to hear from some of the hens."
During the trial, each side stressed that the case was not about the brand of religion practiced at the ashram. But as a result of that insistence, Barsana Dham's Hinduism, with its occasionally unfamiliar rituals, necessarily became part of the proceedings.
"From the very first witness, they started bringing up religion," said Jeff Kearney, Prakashanand's Fort Worth-based lead attorney. "They told you this is a cultlike place."
"Who did you ever hear use the word 'cult'?" responded Compton. "He's trying to make it seem as though we are attacking the religion. That's like saying we're attacking the car of somebody who ran someone over."
Tonnessen, Kazimer and Rose said they came forward after so many years because they were motivated by a fear that the guru was continuing to abuse young girls at the ashram.
"By not speaking out, it allowed possibly more children to be abused," Tonnessen testified.
The dramatically differing testimony left jurors with the task of establishing whether the women were lying to hurt the guru or whether his devotees were lying to protect him. Each side struggled with proving or disproving a case based on incidents alleged to have occurred 15 years earlier.
But in the end, Compton said: "This case is real simple. Either you believe these girls or you don't."
This article was found at:
Guru's accuser details alleged abuse
Woman said groping at Driftwood ashram started when she was 12, continued until she left for college at 18
By Eric Dexheimer | AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
SAN MARCOS — Instructed almost from birth to view Prakashanand Saraswati as a god, she was stunned and confused when the Hindu spiritual leader first fondled her breasts when she was 12 years old, a woman testified Thursday in a Hays County courtroom.
"Even though I was 100 percent devoted at the time, it just felt so wrong," she said. Then, using a hand-drawn poster-size diagram of the Driftwood ashram's buildings, she pointed out the locations where the alleged abuse continued, ending only when she turned 18 and left for college.
The woman, now 30 years old, is one of two women who have accused the guru, known to his followers as Shree Swamiji, of groping them numerous times in the mid-1990s when they were children living on the Barsana Dham ashram.
Prakashanand is charged with 20 separate counts of indecency with a child by sexual contact; each charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
Defense attorneys have not yet had an opportunity to question the woman on her story.
"Today's testimony was simply a snapshot in this process," said Jeff Kearney, Prakashanand's lead attorney. "We're confident once the jury hears all of the evidence, they will know the accusers are not credible and their testimony is not to be believed."
Petite and pale with dark hair, the woman took the witness stand Thursday afternoon. It marked the first time she has publicly told her story of growing up as a devotee to Prakashanand.
While her testimony described the spiritual leader fondling and kissing her, it also provided an uncommon glimpse into the inner workings of the 200-acre spiritual center visible from RM 1826 south and west of Austin.
"I was born into this society," the woman said, noting that she was an infant when her mother joined Prakashanand's organization. "As far back as I can recall, he was a part of my life." She added that Prakashanand even named her, changing her birth name when she was still very young.
She described growing up on the ashram as a happy but isolated experience, with little contact with nondevotees outside of attending classes in Dripping Springs public schools.
"I was not allowed to mix with other students," several of whom would refer to ashram children as "devil worshippers," the woman recalled. "No one slept over; I never slept over at anyone's house, either."
Life at Barsana Dham revolved completely around its spiritual leader, she said: "Daily life was serving Prakashanand, doing whatever he bidded. He's the driving force, the controller of everyone."
It was for that reason that her mother permitted the abuse to continue even after she learned about it, the woman said: "She did nothing. I fell back on the principles of the religion — to serve and to do what I could to make him happy. So that's what I did."
Answering questions quickly and matter-of-factly, the woman glanced occasionally in the direction of the 82-year-old guru, who showed no emotion as he sat in a reclining chair designed to cushion his bad back. She detailed nearly a dozen instances in different locations on the ashram when she said Prakashanand arranged to be alone with her and kissed her and fondled her breasts.
"It happened more than this," she said. "Way more."
She said she waited a decade to report the alleged crimes because she'd been told that to do so would call into question her devotion to her religion.
"I was told it was a test, and if I failed it, I would go to hell," she said. "It meant that I had to submit myself to that and not object and not even think anything to the contrary."
This article was found at:
Deceit, Child Abuse and Murder in the Sai Baba cult
Former "greatest" disciple of Sri Chinmoy calls his ministry a cult
Federal racketeering complaint latest law suit against Dahn Yoga cult
Dahn Yoga cult leader enriched by deceptive, manipulative and abusive practices faces lawsuits by survivors
Lawsuit by former employees alleges Dahn Yoga business is a deceptive, abusive cult
Dahn Yoga uses common cult recruitment tactic of targeting children for surreptitious indoctrination
Dahn Yoga cult infiltrates 300 U.S. schools with unproven brain education exercises
Religion By Any Other Name Is Still Religion
'Spirituality for Kids' class draws fire
Cults on campus: how to spot recruiting techniques of predator conmen
Italian leader of new-age sect arrested for sexually abusing young girls and their mothers