By Laksmi Nrsimha Das
I, like many devotees around the world, have been following the chain of events and subsequent opinions surrounding the Dhanurdhara Swami case. I have patiently listened to all points presented to date by the concerned Vaisnava community and would like to make a humble attempt to put forth my observations regarding this pivotal decision facing the GBC at present. My approach to this case comes from a slightly different perspective, so I humbly beg the reader to bear with me to its conclusion.
My first recommendation is plain and simple. I implore all GBC members to read and become thoroughly familiar with the entire 200-plus page case file, not just the summaries as proposed. Summaries give us an abbreviated version of the inquiry, while the actual case file, with recorded exchanges between the investigator and witnesses, reveal a tone which gives insight to the points about to be made. I have provided specific quotes from the case file to give some perspective into the angle in which this investigation was approached, and the attitude in which it was pursued. If the GBC can not honestly commit to this then they should appoint a panel of trained professionals, devotees or otherwise, to scrutinize the manner in which this case was handled.
After perusing the entire case file, a comprehensive analysis of the investigative procedure employed by the previous CPO administration, in my opinion, would be in order. I emphasize this point because the strategy of the investigation and the subsequent conclusions are the foundation by which the current intensified negative perception of DDS is built. My contention is this: the DDS case was handled in a prejudicial manner, both by the lead investigator and the CPO office. This may seem like a speculative or insensitive determination, but follow my line of logic and then draw your own conclusion.
Consider this; in the early history of child abuse investigation in the U.S. during the 1970’s and 80’s, when child abuse first popped on the radar screen of media awareness, a decisive and aggressive posture was assumed by both Social Services and law enforcement agencies. Prior to this time period, Social Services primary concern revolved around children who were homeless. Mainstream America was outraged by the horrific and heart wrenching revelation that children were being maltreated, sexually and physically.
In the initial stage of child abuse investigation, it was assumed that anyone accused of such a crime was automatically at fault and it became the mission of Social Services to prove that guilt. Little attention was paid to the concept of objectivity and the investigation and interview process lacked the sophistication needed to apply proper discrimination. The concept of a child lying or embellishing on their story was not considered and there was very little research to address this notion. The investigator, by virtue of the strong emotional pull child abuse has on the heartstrings, felt compelled to protect the child at any cost, and fell prone to motivated lines of inquiry to draw out the preconceived “truth.” At that point in time, there was a general lack of awareness of how a witness could be directed into giving answers that placated the adult they were dealing with. An alliance, a bond so to speak, was formed between the investigator and the victim that emphasized the assumption that the accused was undeniably guilty.
The end result of those costly mistakes, which primarily involved biased investigative and interview procedures, ended up, in all too many cases, with slanted convictions. By the early 1990’s, as a consequence of successful appeals and a heightened awareness of proper interview procedures, Social Service agencies were forced to acknowledge the fact that serious mistakes had been made in investigative strategies. Many of the guilty verdicts were overturned and the whole process was seriously revamped. The problem of child abuse had been compounded by overzealousness and over-reaction that often resulted in irrevocable damage to all parties concerned, the accused, the victim and families of both.
Perception Ain’t Everything
Although in reference to the DDS case guilt has been admitted, and there is evidence that substantiates this, the concern should be on accurately establishing the degree of his guilt in a mature environment free of persuasion. Bhaktivinode Thakur, in his Caitanya Siksamrta, has indicated that it is incumbent upon Vaisnavas to display righteous conduct, one of the many facets being the execution of proper judgment. Proper judgment requires fine discrimination. Fine discrimination comes from purified intelligence firmly fixed in Krsna Conscious connectiveness. I won’t wax philosophical in this regard, as I believe that Satyaraj Prabhu (in his articles posted on Dandavats.com) has dealt with the philosophical perspective quite effectively. Rather I’ll continue my line of reasoning with some further food for thought.
We should be crystal clear that on one side this case involves child abuse and its consequences, and on the other, the imposition of sanctions on a senior disciple of Srila Prabhupada which has no clear-cut precedent. The rights of all parties involved in any unbiased investigation must be carefully and objectively analyzed and systematized in service to future generations.
No one can fault a family member of an abused child for having an aggressive stance against the accused. This is a natural response to such an alleged violation. Our Iskcon society, in many ways, is a large family. How fair would it be if we allowed a family member to investigate the accusations against the accused, especially at that point in time when the revelation that there was child abuse in Prabhupada’s house reverberated around the world. Our family was shocked, angered, emotionally devastated. Paradise had been invaded by pedophiles. Even if that family member assigned to investigate this and other cases, had some social work training, it would be nearly impossible to exercise objectivity, especially with no proven oversight system in place. If a social worker or therapist becomes too emotionally entangled in their case, and transference is detected by their mentor, they are normally removed from the investigation.
During and immediately after the investigation I familiarized myself with this case and many of its details. In addition, several respected, mature devotees who are not members of the GBC, some with experience in the psychological and legal field, read the entire case file (all 200+ pages) and independently came to the same disturbing conclusion: there was an element of prejudice against Dhanurdhara Swami both on the part of the investigator and others involved with overseeing the process. In addition to what I had read in the case files, I had conversations with the lead investigator on several occasions, being a part of the same Iskcon community where she resided, and came away with the uncomfortable feeling that I was speaking to the prosecutor rather than the investigator. A definite red flag went up at that point. The following are quotes taken from the lead investigator’s email message to one of the youth who testified against DDS:
“I just finished formatting your evidence against DDS. It is so very sickening and powerful! Your detail is amazing.”
She then states her purpose:
“I want to make it (the case against DDS) as awesome as possible, not that it isn’t already.”
In the following statement, I summarize, (to avoid mentioning names) a documented interview (from the case file) between the lead investigator and a potential witness.
In an interview with the younger brother of a witness, the lead investigator tries her best to influence him. She tells him what his older brother has said. She twice makes the argument that the older brother, being four years older, would have the story straighter than this witness who really can’t remember it himself (by his own admission). She tries another tactic. “Well, here’s what several of your peers are saying.” She offers her own value judgment: “It was just atrocious.” But still, no luck: the witness replies, “I don’t even remember the incident.”
The above quotes I refer to are all in the case file and these are just a few glimpses to give us some insight into the investigator’s mood. Words like “so sickening,” “awesome,” and “atrocious” are far from objective inquiry. The investigator is making a statement of judgment, rather than searching for the truth. If this is in the case file, then what subtleties are not in the case file? A witness will respond to the signals sent by the interviewer, especially if they seem empathetic and encouraging. There is ample research evidencing this point. If she was the prosecutor or therapist, that attitude would be understandable and acceptable, but an investigator’s prime duty, particularly in child abuse, is to find out what events had actually occurred as impartially as possible, and not transfer or impose directive feelings to those being interviewed. Unfortunately, the lead investigator was allowed and encouraged by the CPO and N.A. GBC to wear four hats during the inquiry: prosecutor, lead investigator, judge trainer and child protection advocate, even though they were warned against this by a devotee clinical psychologist that this was inappropriate. It is standard practice in the field of psychology and social work that each case worker has a trained mentor to monitor the case worker and victim so that they are not adversely influenced by the strength of emotion of the case. There was no such standard observed here, in fact, quite the contrary. Is there any possibility of conflict of interest here?
Besides being a new devotee with limited experience and maturity in KC, the lead investigator also experienced circumstances in her own family history that would likely prejudice her towards a male accused of child abuse. In assigning someone to a case this fact would also be taken into consideration. In addition to the above-mentioned items, a psychological assessment of DDS was ordered by the CPO (to test for anti-social behavior). The lead investigator hired a NYC social worker to do the assessment. Two things were wrong with this scenario. First, the social worker hired to do the assessment was a former colleague of the lead investigator, and secondly, the man did not have the qualifications to administer or assess the MMPI Test. The MMPI is a testing tool developed by psychologists to detect any emotional or characterological disorders. At present, it is the most accurate tool a psychologist has a his disposal. DDS was accused of being a psychopathic deviate by the investigator and the CPO and this test would have picked up on that fact.
Just for the record, the test did not confirm that DDS had any problems psychological or otherwise. However, the hired “expert” disregarded the test findings and stated that DDS did have problems based on his (the social worker’s) conferring with the lead investigator and an interview with DDS. All this was pointed out by a devotee psychologist who specializes in psychological assessment and who reviewed the findings, only to be disregarded—without reason or explanation—by the then head of CPO and the lead investigator. It is also important to note in this regard that DDS was advised to get representation in his case, specifically regarding this testing, but he refused because he wanted to fully cooperate with the investigation.
In addition, assessment tools such as the Luscher Color test (which were taught by the lead investigator to temple presidents in ISKCON-sponsored seminars) were used in the DDS case and other cases. In my research, I found out that this test is deemed quackery by the American Psychological Association.
Why, Why, Why
One may ask why this issue is being raised at this point. Is this an attempt to exonerate DDS from his guilt? At this juncture I must say that guilt has been established and accepted by DDS. But this determination as to whether or not there was bias in the investigation is a necessary consideration that may aid in determining the degree of guilt, and balance the current perception of DDS’s involvement.
In this regard, there is punishment and there is perception. The support for a hard-line stance towards DDS is, in reality, based on the buy-in of a perception gleaned from what I contend came from the source; biased investigation. I am not saying that every single interview has been influenced in this way, nor am I saying that every single witness has had their story altered by bias or is lying. Be clear on this. What I am saying, however, if there was a prejudicial attitude (that should have been checked by the CPO and the GBC during the investigation), and a stated mission by the investigator to “hang ’em high,” then the case has been compromised. One may argue that besides the investigation in question, there is new testimony as a result of the Turley case that further implicates DDS. My answer to that would be they are allegations which have yet to be substantiated by the kind of professional, trained scrutiny I have been talking about.
Everything that has been said by proponents of the zero-tolerance policy and the proposed sanctions against DDS is based on the assumption that the investigation of this case was undeniably fair, comprehensive, and within the realm of acceptable investigative and adjudication procedures. (refer to Malati’s article on Dandavats.com).
In any legal system, and particularly with child abuse, degree of guilt, and the process which establishes guilt are very important components in determining how to mete out the proper punishment. That’s why Social services and law enforcement agencies are now so careful in this process. The investigators are trained specialists in the science of the interview so as not to fall prey to this pitfall, and there is expert supervision to make certain fairness is maintained. They’ve made their mistakes. We should consider the fact that we are not above making those same naïve yet well-intentioned mistakes.
For example, if someone takes the life of another person, there are many considerations, like motive, mental stability, etc. The act is the same; one life is taken by another. But so many details are there to determine whether it is manslaughter, insanity, first or second degree murder. When the degree of guilt is firmly established through proper procedure, then the perpetrator is charged accordingly and thus receives a suitable sentence. Closer to home is the fact that the legal system is very careful to make such distinctions between the various types of child abuse, sexual being the worse, and thus strict in its sanctions, and secondarily physical. Even within those types of abuse there are varying degrees, which result in a specific punishment that matches the specific crime.
A lesson from history
Consider this point again from actual historical cases: a forensic interviewer who is prejudiced against the accused can lead a witness or victim into an embellished or even false conclusion which serves the cause of establishing guilt rather than to discern what is the truth. Refer to the McMartin case in Los Angeles and the Kelly Michaels case in New Jersey, which upon review found the investigators to be motivated against the accused. Thus their line of questioning led victims into either embellished or false testimony.
However, the CPO denies the relevancy of this point. Their claim is that only small children can be influenced by a prejudiced line of query (as demonstrated in the aforementioned cases which involved young children). After all, the devotees who stepped forward to levy allegations against DDS were young adults and not young, malleable children. Preliminary examination of this opinion by a licensed clinical psychologist with years of experience in child assessment indicates the contrary; there is ample research proving that even adults can be affected by prejudiced interviewing procedures. Even from a logical perspective, what about advertising, subliminal seduction or disinformation and its effect on adults?
There are a host of reasons as to why an adult can be influenced in this way; financial reward, recognition (fame, adoration and distinction) and peer pressure to name a few. As an example, one may refer to the national news media coverage of two young adult devotees who publicly claimed they were abused. It is known for certain that at least one of the two who made that claim was never abused, and spun a convincing tale, complete with tears, to millions of unsuspecting viewers.
In the present climate of child abuse in ISKCON, at least from the general devotee perspective, and in the age of the internet, the perception that has been promoted is that child abuse is all one homogenous, heinous crime, no matter what degree of guilt or involvement. Although from one angle any substantiated act of abuse to an innocent child is detestable, from the perspective of properly applied punishment, fine tuned discrimination must be utilized, regardless of how emotionally strenuous a task it is.
It must be taken into consideration that the resultant stigma attached to such a determination is life altering, unfairly so, if tainted by bias. DDS has voluntarily done what no fallen leader has ever done before; approaching those he has offended and begging their forgiveness as per the prescription given in sastra. He is not only doing this through words but through practical action such as financial support and assistance with therapy if needed and has committed to this ongoing effort. So this voluntary display on his part at the very least warrants a comprehensive, objective review of the procedure used to convict him, because from this conviction all claims and perceptions have subsequently sprouted.
If we allow unreasoning fervor (a synonym for fanaticism), amplified by the internet, to sway our thinking, then we will never be certain that the final decision was the truly just one and we will never be able to undo the damage inflicted. Instead of helping our children, in their name we will have created another crime that will seriously impede the healing process now and in the future.
Please consider what has been observed herein, and I think there is ample reason to at least revisit this investigation with an open mind and adequate, impartial information. At this point, however, my fear is certain members of the North American GBC body are incapable of being impartial because circumstantially they have borne the brunt of pressure from some members of our young adult community and their supporters, and have thus been influenced to take an irreversible, hard line stance against DDS. ISKCON is an international society and this ruling will be applied universally throughout our movement. If we perpetuate a system that is flawed then all of the good and sincere endeavors of the CPO will be severely marred as a result.
The Spanking Culture
The GBC should have a dialogue regarding the historical context in which these actions took place. Out of context, an act can be perceived and judged more severely than it actually was. In saying this I am not condoning excessive corporal punishment. But it is a relevant and sensitive point to consider when we examine the degree of culpability that DDS has for his actions.
To my knowledge, most of the child abuse cases against the Catholic Church that occurred in the distant past involve sexual abuse, which is considered the worst form of abuse that can be afflicted on a child. In many states, charges of sexual abuse have somewhat flexible and liberal statute of limitations because of the degree of severity both mentally and physically. However, in Pennsylvania and other US states, physical abuse does have a definite statute of limitations because often times it can not be clearly ascertained after a period of time what was excessive and what was not.
Many cultures in the world either passively or explicitly condone corporeal punishment. In a survey conducted by Psychology Today magazine, the average US mother (white middle class) admitted to spanking her child an average of 150 times a year. In saying this, I ask that you please keep in mind that I am not advocating carte blanche, brute physical force, but in doing everything within our power to make certain our perspective does not fall prey to the same mistakes that were made by the social services system. Why was it included in the Official Decision on DDS the “he was not a danger to children?” It seems to me that mindful, cruel, excessive uncontrolled punishment would not have illicited such an official response. And why was he asked by the GBC to return to the gurukula in 1989 and allowed to remain there until 6 years later? Apparently, during his later stint, there were no substantiated instances of physical or sexual abuse.
Our Vrndavana gurukula disciplinary methods in the 70’s and early 80’s were influenced by local standards of that country and culture (Indian School system) and that was allowed by the GBC minister of education and the GBC body. Parents, for the most part, were aware of this fact or at the very least, should have been, so the responsibility should be shared by the GBC, the parents, and DDS.
What GBC member has been implicated in any of these cases and particularly in the DDS case? And if it is determined that there was bias in this investigation, what GBC member will be held accountable for not only allowing it to happen, but for vigorously supporting and contributing to the current feeding frenzy!
Children suffered and are working through their suffering. They have bravely stepped forward and we should legitimately validate that and help them work through their pain with empathy and effective healing strategies both spiritual and psychological. However, simultaneously we should also keep a clear vision on what needs to be accomplished now and what will be accomplished in the long run by decisions based on unreasoning fervor. We currently have devotees who are trained in the field of psychology and social work, particularly in the US, and who work with children and these types of issues on a daily basis, and for some reason their views have not been solicited by the NA GBC or CPO to help us wade through this highly-charged emotional quagmire. Why?
The last point I would like to make is an obvious one: there must be a serious commitment by the GBC to the process of discerning what actually has taken place in the past, impartially investigating and adjudicating what is happening in the present, and providing protective and educational measures for the future. This can only be accomplished if there is a commitment to properly fund the CPO. If the CPO budget was reviewed both now and during the days of the DDS case, we would find it sorely lacking. The CPO’s job is multi-fold, and in order to accomplish what it needs to do in the way of investigation, adjudication, and education, a high level priority must be set by the GBC. At this time, our focus must be on the human element of our ISKCON society, not bricks and mortar, both in healing and in preventative measures through education.
I thank the GBC for all of their sacrifices and with straw between my teeth beg them to seriously consider what I have shared in this observation. I know your task is a great burden of love and a very difficult, often unappreciated one.
Please forgive me if I have offended anyone during the course of this written plea.
Your servant, Laksmi Nrsimha Das
New Raman Reti, Alachua, Fl.