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Response to Child Abuse Articles

Cults and Society, Vol. 1, No. 1, 2001

A Response to the Two Child Abuse Articles

Dhira-Govinda das

Rochford and Bharata Shrestha das’s articles [Rochford's article is reprinted elsewhere in this special Cults & Society collection] were excellent first steps in understanding the complicated issues in describing the history and determinants of child abuse in ISKCON and the movement’s efforts at child protection. While such analyses and accounts can be refined and considered more deeply, this piece focuses on developments in the area during the past several months.  

Bharata Shrestha das’s article brings us to the point of the Mayapur meetings of the Governing Body Commission (GBC) in early 1998, when resolutions were enacted that created and funded the ISKCON Child Protection Office (CPO). Functions of this office are outlined in the Child Protection Task Force Report. The ISKCON Child Protection Task Force, consisting of ISKCON leaders, members of the second generation, as well as devotee professionals including a lawyer and a social worker, was established by the GBC in 1997. This Task Force suggested many proposals for protecting children in ISKCON and dealing with past events, and all of its proposals were accepted as ISKCON policy by the GBC at the 1998 Mayapur meetings.  

Central to implementing the proposals of the Task Force is the CPO, which began operations on 1, April 1998. The Task Force asked me to serve as Director of the CPO, and I agreed. My experience in the area consists of eight years working in Pennsylvania and Florida in mental health and social service fields such as crisis-intervention, foster care, and medical social work. I hold a B.Sc. in Psychology from Pennsylvania State University, an MSW from Florida State University, and I am currently working toward obtaining a Ph.D. in Social Work at Florida State University. Also, for approximately the past five years I have provided counselling and social services, including child abuse investigations, for the Vaisnava community in Alachua County, Florida, USA.

There are three primary functions of the CPO, two of which involve ongoing investigations of past events, and the third deals with arranging systems to prevent recurrence of the same mistakes. The first function is to care for those who suffered mistreatment while they were children in the movement. Second, the CPO is mandated to resolve past and present cases of child abuse. The third function entails helping ISKCON schools, temples and projects to screen volunteers and employees, as well as to implement educational programs on child protection for children, parents, teachers, managers and other members of ISKCON.  

Care for Abuse Victims  

The CPO, in recognition of ISKCON’s moral responsibility to its second generation members provides support for survivors of child abuse in the movement. Support is offered by discussing with an individual how they would like to participate in the society, and arranging a service that they might find fulfilling, such as becoming a teacher or  participating in other ISKCON projects. A major form of support is funding for educational and vocational endeavours, as well as for therapy. All those who suffered maltreatment in ISKCON while they were children are eligible for grants from the CPO. From talking to those who suffered abuse and their parents, it is clear that this grant program is successful in helping young adults who grew up in ISKCON advance economically and psychologically. The programme is also successful in fostering an appreciation among gurukula veterans,  their friends and their parents for the sincerity of ISKCON in acknowledging errors of the past and taking moral responsibility for it. For example, one young member of our society who was helped by the CPO, and is now training to become a doctor, has expressed his appreciation by pledging that he would like to generously support ISKCON monetarily when he becomes a doctor.  

After six months of working with the CPO, it is evident that while the programme to care for victims of child abuse has made some progress (with some very inspiring results), much more still needs to be done. Although we are continually making efforts to reach them through active programmes many victims have not yet been reached. It is hoped that ISKCON will continue to realise its moral obligation to these persons, and that this realisation will continue to manifest in the form of monetary support.  

Responding to and Resolving Cases of Abuse  

ISKCON has developed a policy of zero tolerance to child abuse in the community, and each allegation is thoroughly investigated by trained members of ISKCON in co-operation with the State authorities. In its concern for the children who experienced abuse, ISKCON has created a system for responding to and resolving child abuse cases. Through this system, the victim’s experiences are acknowledged and this acknowledgement plays a large part in the healing process for victims.  When the CPO receives allegations of child abuse, the process of  investigation begins. Results of the investigation are given to an adjudicative panel. On this panel are child protection judges who are veteran members of ISKCON and have received training in the basic principles of recognising child abuse.  

This training consists of an intensive four-day seminar that includes material on types of abuse, typologies of abusers, investigative procedures, confidentiality, and dealing with personal biases. In July 1998, a child protection judges training was held in North America, with ten devotees participating in the training. This seminar was conducted by two professional social workers, and included lecture and discussion sessions by an expert in forensic psychology, a paediatrician who specialises in child abuse issues, and a nationally renowned psychologist in the field of counselling for victims of child abuse.  We are building upon these efforts by holding training seminars in Europe and India in the near future.    

After receiving an investigative case packet, the panel of three judges determines whether there is validity to any of the allegations (in accord with the Task Force Report, the CPO recognises physical abuse, sexual abuse and neglect as forms of child maltreatment). If it is decided that at least one of the allegations is true, then the panel meets with the Director of the CPO and the Case Manager for the investigation to ascertain a rectification plan and sentence for the perpetrator The first and foremost consideration of this plan is the safety of the children. This plan also considers the following factors such as personal and institutional moral obligations, the message we want to send out about child protection, punishment and, considering the degree of the offence the possible reform of the perpetrator. Restrictions are in proportion to the offence, and can go as far as complete excommunication from the Society.

It should be noted that the investigative and adjudicative procedures of the CPO are not a replacement for the functions of State authorities. The CPO merely determines the relationship of an alleged perpetrator with ISKCON. All temples, schools and projects are directed and assisted by the CPO to learn the laws of their locality regarding child abuse and mandated reporting of child abuse, and to scrupulously follow those laws. In addition to the action of the local government agency, the CPO will determine the future degree of association and role a confirmed child abuser can have in ISKCON, if any. ISKCON law requires that temples and schools immediately contact the appropriate police and government social services agencies when there is a suspicion of child abuse.  

Das (1998), in footnote fourteen, mentions several aspects of the case resolution process, as described in the Task Force Report, that some devotees feel are inadequately addressed. These issues, as well as other elements of the Task Force Report, are being addressed, and some adjustments to the Report have already been made. The Report, similar to the body of working policy for a State Department, is constantly under review based on practical considerations that arise as the office confronts new situations. Analysis of policies under consideration is beyond the scope of this paper, whose primary purpose is to provide a general overview of the functions and activities of the office.

Systems for Prevention

The CPO works with ISKCON educational authorities and regional and local management bodies to organise child protection screening and education programs throughout ISKCON. Letters have been sent to schools and temples throughout the world that explain basic principles for screening volunteers and employees, and plans for worldwide implementation of these principles are being developed. The education ministry is working on a team and criteria for on-site inspections and certification, or possibly de-certifications of ISKCON schools. Included in the items for inspection and certification will be standards for on-going abuse prevention training for students and a functioning and trained Child Protection Team.

An additional function of the CPO is to assist temples and schools to organise Child Protection Teams. These teams provide information on child protection issues, and hear concerns, in accord with principles of confidentiality, from community members, including children, about child abuse matters. Further, Child Protection Teams serve as a liaison between the devotee community and governmental law enforcement and social service authorities. Early in 1998, in an ISKCON community in North America, a child abuse case surfaced. After notifying State departments of law and social services, the local ISKCON Child Protection Team assisted State workers with the investigation.

Law officers and Child Protective Investigators commended the devotees for helping with elements of the investigation that otherwise could not have been thoroughly explored. Specifically, State workers acknowledged that intimate knowledge of the devotee community and the religious culture of the alleged perpetrator and victims enabled devotees on the Child Protection Team to access information that would not otherwise be possible to obtain.

Even if systems for child protection, education and screening are developed, it is likely that monitoring and evaluation of these programs will be problematic. ISKCON temples, schools and projects exist in all corners of the globe. The CPO is based in Alachua, Florida, and is staffed by a director and one secretary. Ultimately, as outlined in the Task Force Report, regional offices will need to be set up for implementation, monitoring and evaluation of local programs. Already many devotees around the world are helping with the various functions of the CPO.

A list of ISKCON members and friends with experience in mental health and social service fields has been compiled by the CPO as a reference for temples and schools; this will be useful for reference when dealing with victims of abuse and also in assisting investigations. More generally, the CPO serves as a resource, guidance and information centre on child protection issues for devotees around the world. ISKCON members, from both temples as well as those living outside temples, call for advice on handling a particular situation, or request literature for their information. Another function of the CPO is to compile and distribute, as appropriate concerning legal and ethical considerations, a list of abusers and alleged abusers to all ISKCON communities to ensure that repeat abuse does not occur.  

Conclusion

As an institution, we now have a much better understanding of the depth of the problem and must make every effort to protect our children. I have spoken with many people in diverse life situations including therapists of child abusers, child psychologists, second generation members of ISKCON, parents of victims, sannyasis (the renounced order) and priests from other religious traditions, and all are impressed that ISKCON has set up an office specifically dealing with child protection. Child abuse is an ongoing issue in every modern institution and we, as a Society must never think we are immune from it. We must constantly review our efforts to ensure that our social institutions continue to adapt in ways that will increase our children’s safety. For a substantial resolution of the problem, this direction needs to become a fixture in ISKCON’s institutional policy.