Ashaway Ananda members defend group's founder
By:Kelly Sullivan January 23, 2003
The Ananda Church of Self-Realization, located at 312 Tomoquag
Road in Ashaway, is described in its brochure as a place to
share "the search for higher consciousness and service to
Ananda, which means "joy" in Sanskrit, is a religion based on
the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda, the first Indian Master
to live in the west. Yogananda predicted that the social
pattern of the future would be based on "plain thinking and
high living" brought about by small communities all over the
world which would be called World Brotherhood Colonies.
"Thousands of youths must go to the north, south, east and
west to cover the earth with little colonies," the writings of
In 1968, the first Ananda Church in America was founded by
James Donald Walters, a Rumanian who had become a disciple of
Yogananda 20 years earlier. Prior to beginning this
organization, Walters had been initiated into a monastic order
and taken the name Swami Kriyananda. At this time, he was vice
president of the Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) in India.
In 1962, he was expelled from the SRF monastic order on the
grounds of "unethical and immoral behavior," after he was
accused of improper advances toward several women.
In a court deposition, Walters called the accusations untrue
and said that those speaking out against him were "deadbeats"
who were "afraid of my energy".
He was deported from India and summoned back to America where
he began to organize Ananda Village in Nevada City,
For the next several decades, that organization faced charges
of fraud and exploitation.
In November of 1994, a lawsuit was brought against Walters and
the Ananda Church. Michael Flynn and self-described "cult
buster" Ford Greene represented the plaintiff, Anne-Marie
Bertolucci in the Superior Court of the State of California
for the County of San Mateo. Flynn and Greene set out to show
that Walters had used the "position of spiritual authority to
sexually exploit women."
Bertolucci and seven other former female members of Ananda
gave depositions, which described the abuse and violation of
trust they had allegedly endured at the hands of Walters and
other male Ananda members.
Former member Marilyn Stuart claimed that Walters exposed
himself to her and asked her to engage in a sexual act with
Sunny Plant's deposition claimed that Walters had asked her to
message him in an erotic way.
Denise Peterson stated that Walters encouraged her to perform
the same type of massages on him, a statement that Walters
admitted was true, adding, "I wouldn't blame her for our
relationship. I take that blame on myself".
Kamala Wiley was also encouraged to massage Walters, who
admitted to eight such liaisons with Wiley. "It was Kamala who
pushed it but the fact that I couldn't resist was certainly my
weakness," Walters testified.
Former member Thora McDonnel said in her deposition that she
had gone swimming in the nude with Walters.
Chandra Slavonic claimed that she had physical encounters with
Walters and that he told her not to tell anyone. "On two
occasions I recall having intercourse with her," Walters
Deborah Donie-Seligson was married when she was a follower of
the Ananda religion. Yet Walters claimed that he was
"spiritually married" to her and did desire intimacy.
Bertolucci herself testified that Walters and Danny Levin, a
married minister of the Ananda church, passed her back and
forth like a sex slave.
Concerning the women speaking out against him, Walters said in
his deposition that he believed they were being "ruled by a
Karen Rider, who runs the Ashaway-based Ananda church with her
husband, Larry, spoke out in Walters' defense during a recent
interview. "He was always respectful toward both men and
women," she said. "The testimony in court didn't describe the
person I had known. When I moved to Ananda in 1988, it was the
only place in my life I'd ever felt safe. I feel heartsick
over the accusations."
After the court heard testimony about the pattern of behavior
allegedly taking place within California's Ananda Church for a
period of over 30 years, the jury found Walters guilty of
"despicable conduct, of fraudulently representing himself as a
Swami, of intentional infliction of emotional distress and of
representing himself as a celibate monk in order to gain
women's trust so that he might use them sexually." The
plaintiffs were awarded $1.6 million in damages. Other members
of the church were found guilty of "allowing the behavior to
continue" as well as "orchestrating elaborate cover-ups".
"It's the legacy of his expulsion from the SRF that flows to
this very day," Karen said. "There was a conflict of
personalities between him and the other leaders of SRF. At
that time, he was really the only male teacher and only men
were allowed to do outreach work. Other members felt he was
getting all the attention and this ultimately lead to his
Following the court's ruling, the Ananda Church filed for
bankruptcy but finally agreed to pay the damages, as well as a
settlement of $200,000 in two related lawsuits against them.
The court ordered that the amount of $1.8 million be paid in
full, with interest, by the year 2003. Walters left for the
Ananda establishment in Italy in 1999.
Legal transcripts show that Walters staunchly defended his
actions, claiming that any sexual acts between him and the
women who testified against him were consensual.
"Because of the Swami's position, he's kind of barred from
human relationships," said one of Ananda Nevada's founding
members, John Helin. "It's a very isolated existence."
Walters, who claims to be a "channel" for Yogananda and a
spiritual force in God's plan for salvation of the world,
stated that he believed his initial expulsion from the
Self-Realization Fellowship was divinely ordained so that he
might go on to found the Ananda Church. While administering
the church, Walters allegedly claimed to be celibate and
maintained the title of Swami although he was no longer of the
order. Ananda minister Larry Rider said Walters was not
stripped of his title, but requested the release from it. "In
1986, he got married," Larry said. "Prior to his marriage, he
asked to be released from his monastic vows,"
The title of Swami, according to John, remained as merely a
term of respect used by members. "After he gave up his vows,
everyone still called him Swami. It was like his name. It
seemed strange to call him anything else. But he never used
the word Swami on anything he signed."
The Ananda Church, which includes hundreds of members
worldwide, maintains guidelines for members such as the "Rules
of Conduct" which include members going before a specially
appointed committee before making the decision to marry, have
children or change places of employment. Members are also
expected to take "Membership Vows" in which they promise
Larry, however, claims that the Ananda religion is one of
extreme flexibility. "We have really soft boundaries," he
said. "It's often hard to tell who's in and who's out."
Karen explained that members have a choice about going before
the committee prior to making life choices. "Marriages and
children are not arranged," she said. "But it's always smart
to ask for advice from someone wiser. Yogananda said we need
to form groups based on harmony with other people of like
During the trial, expert witness Janja Lalich, a cult
information specialist, testified on behalf of the plaintiff.
"I am of the opinion that the Ananda Church uses classic
thought reform techniques to recruit, control and retain
followers," she told the court.
"We are aghast at accusations that Ananda is a cult," said
Karen. "Members of the jury commented that because we
meditate, we must be brainwashed and because we were such nice
people in the face of such horrible accusations, we must be
John added, "Many members have jobs outside the community.
Others have their own houses. Members can leave the
organization any time they want."
While court proceedings were taking place, several members of
the Ananda Church were charged with scaling a six-foot wall
and trespassing onto the property of Bertolucci's lawyer to
retrieve confidential documents from a trashcan. In light of
this, the judge would not allow the defense's attorney to
question the women whom the documents concerned.
Just recently, Ananda faced more legal problems when they were
accused and found guilty of copyright infringement for copying
and making a profit off writings legally owned by the
Self-Realization Fellowship. The Ananda Church was ordered to
pay $29,000 in damages.
"The SRF brought that copyright charge against us because they
felt we were not authorized to represent Yogananda," John
said. "We use the term 'self-realization' and the SRF felt
that term belonged to them. They saw it as a word while we saw
it as a religion."
Ananda currently includes seven "Residential Communities"
throughout the world; Ananda Nevada, Europa, Palo Alto,
Portland, Sacramento, Seattle and Ananda Rhode Island. At each
retreat center, accommodations, workshops, meals and yoga
instruction are offered. "It's a remarkable experiment going
on here," Karen said. "It's an ideal living environment. We
are instruments for things like non-violence and ecological
living because it's not enough to just talk about or believe
in these things."
Larry, her husband, called the judgment in the 1994 trial "a
travesty of justice" and said that he believes all of the
legal accusations against Ananda root back to a disgruntled
"The SRF did everything they could to keep Swami Kriyananda
from spreading his teachings," he said "The allegations
against him have been malicious and improper and he was never
allowed to defend himself." Larry said that he believes SRF
had the intent to bankrupt Ananda through legal disputes. "But
they have failed," he said. "The settlement is paid off. My
wife and I and thousands of others have contributed heavily.
We maintain absolute innocence of the Swami and Ananda."
Larry said he believes that Bertolucci brought false claims
against the church because a minister turned down her romantic
advances. "She fell in love with a married minister and would
not let go of the relationship. The minister went to the Swami
for advice and the Swami told him to break it off. She would
not accept that. So she went to the SRF and they helped her go
forward with a trial and turn against the Swami."
John also believes this version of the story to be correct.
"Around 1992, Minister Danny Levin entered into a relationship
with Ann-Marie," he said. "She worked for Ananda's publishing
company and he was her supervisor. She wanted him to leave his
wife and daughter but he would never leave his daughter
because she was developmentally disabled. So he went to the
Swami for advice. Swami told him to break it off. He tried,
but he couldn't so Swami realized the only thing to do was to
physically separate them.
"He stepped in and asked Ann-Marie to move to one of the other
Ananda Centers. She went to the Palo Alto retreat and somehow
came into a friendship with members of the SRF. They convinced
her that it was unfair for the Swami to ask her to leave
Ananda Nevada and allow Levin to stay."
Larry said that very rarely are people asked to leave Ananda
but two or three have been, on the grounds of outrageous
behavior. "And those were the people who testified on
Bertolucci's behalf," he said, adding that the entire trial
was "a farce and a sham".
John stated that a few years ago, Walters retook his monastic
vows and the 76-year-old rededicated himself to a life of
"He never claimed to be perfect," Karen said. "But he is our
ideal. When you're in his presence, you can feel his energy."
"Many people like myself have been highly affected by Swami,"
Larry said, "by the examples he's set and his enormous
dedication. I have never known anyone more inspiring in my
life. We love Kriyananda and he is so completely innocent. We
have all been deeply wounded."
He added that "the trial bares no relation to what Ananda
Karen agreed. "We are just people trying to spread hope and
light in the world," she said.
Replies:Jaya Helin's rebuttal
By one 2/24/2003 at 09:58:53 PM
KELLY SULLIVAN'S response -
By one 2/24/2003 at 10:05:58 PM
Posted on 2/24/2003 at 09:58:53 PM
January 30, 2003
To the editor:
Journalists are notorious for distortion and bias but your
article on Jan. 23rd about Ananda Church and its founder J.
Donald Walters (Swami Kriyananda) is extreme. To repeat
scurrilous, out of context accusations gleaned from the
Internet in order to demean the character of someone who has
dedicated his life to helping others is shameful. The use of
inflammatory buzzwords such as ‘cult’ and ‘brain washing’
easily identify your piece as an effort of popular
When speaking with the writer Kelly Sullivan prior to her
article I had hoped she would at least have her facts correct.
Writing about complex legal proceedings such as copyright and
sexual harassment suits demands extra attention. This is
especially so when a person’s reputation is at stake.
Unfortunately my efforts failed. For the record please note
the following corrections.
J. Donald Walters, founder of Ananda, is not Rumanian. He is
an American, born of American parents in Rumania.
Walters was the past vice president of Self-Realization
Fellowship (SRF) in Los Angeles not in India.
Walters was not dismissed from SRF in 1962 because of immoral
behavior. SRF has remained silent about his dismissal despite
Walters repeated requests that they make public their reasons.
Walters’ contention is that he was discharged because of
philosophical differences about the future growth of SRF.
Walters voluntarily returned to America from India in 1962. He
was never deported. He has since made numerous return visits
to that country.
Ananda has not faced charges of fraud for ‘several decades.’
Prior to the copyright lawsuit filed by SRF against Ananda in
1990 Ananda never had occasion to be sued for anything. Its
record and reputation were spotless.
Ms. Sullivan fails to note that Ananda actually won 85 percent
of the copyright suit filed against it by SRF. The 15 percent
loss concerned four obscure voice recordings Ananda believed
to be in the public domain. Ananda’s victory established
important precedents for religious freedom that have had
implications for churches and spiritual works throughout
Ms. Sullivan fails to note the many hundreds of positive
declarations in behalf of the benevolent character of J.
Donald Walters nor does she mention his 50 years of positive
contributions in the world of music, writing and religion.
As Ms. Sullivan notes Walters was never given a chance to
cross-examine those who hurled accusations against him. Is
that fair? There was never any demonstration that past
relationships, decades old, were anything but consensual.
Ananda Church of Self-Realization of Rhode Island invites your
readers to inquire for themselves about the issues raised in
your article. We are always available to answer questions and
share our perspective. We hope our neighbors will judge by
their personal experience and not by rumors and distortion.
John Helin ,Ashaway , Ananda Church of Rhode Island
Replies: KELLY SULLIVAN'S
By one 2/24/2003 at 10:05:58 PM
Posted on 2/24/2003 at 10:05:58 PM
By KELLY SULLIVAN
I was shocked by John Helin’s letter to the editor, publicly
accusing me of spreading rumors and distortion with my article
on the Ananda Church. That a member of an organization with a
history of fraud has the audacity to call my honesty into
question is grossly ironic.
“Ananda has not faced charges of fraud ‘for several decades’.
Prior to the copyright lawsuit filed by SRF in 1990, it’s
record and reputation were spotless.”
I did not say that Ananda faced LEGAL charges of fraud for
several decades. But the women who claim they were sexually
abused by J. Donald Walters, have stated instances going back
to 1969. If what these women charge is true (and the court
believed it was) then Ananda has had anything but a “spotless
reputation” since at least 3 decades ago.
“Is that fair? (that the defense was not allowed to question
Let’s talk about what is “fair” in the context of a court
trail. Was it fair for Ananda to hire men to scale a wall on
the property of the plaintiff’s attorney and steal
confidential documents? When the judge issued a sanction
against Ananda for illegally possessing those documents, which
contained the names of witnesses and the plaintiff’s courtroom
strategy, to prohibit them from cross-examining those
witnesses, I think that was more than “fair” considering the
act was an extreme obstruction of justice.
“There was never any demonstration that past relationships,
decades old, were anything but consensual.”
Well, Mr. Helin, perhaps the relationship between Monica
Lewenski and Bill Clinton was “consensual”. Perhaps
relationships between doctors and their patents are
“consensual”, or between priests and alter boys. However
certain positions hold certain ethics and morals. A monk who
has taken a vow of celibacy is not supposed to be engaging in
sexual behavior, consensual or not. A religious leader is not
supposed to be having sex with his nuns, consensual or not.
And to say that there was never any “demonstration” to support
that the sexual acts were not consensual is preposterous as
that is what the entire trial was about and Walters LOST.
“Ananda has established important precedents for religious
I suppose that all depends on what you want to address as
“religious freedom”. In 1997, your church asked the court to
have all alleged misconduct against them protected under the
First Amendment as it relates to freedom of religion. That bid
“To repeat scurrilous, out of context accusations gleaned from
the Internet in order to demean the character of someone is
Mr. Helin, it was Karen Rider and your own wife who provided
me with website addresses they asked me to confer. My
information, however, was “gleaned” from the records of the
Superior Court of the State of California.
“The use of inflammatory buzzwords such as cult and
brainwashing easily identifies your piece as an effort at
Prior to our interview, I explained quite thoroughly that this
piece was about Ananda’s legal history. Although I let you
talk extensively about how much you admire Walters and how
wonderful the Ananda church is, I at no point gave the
impression that I was going to abandon my original story to do
a glowing article on Ananda’s reputation. THAT, Mr. Helin,
would have been bias.
As for calling the word cult a “buzzword”, I see no way of
writing a thorough story about the history of Ananda without
using the word cult. That would have been like trying to write
about the OJ trial without using the word murder. A CULT
specialist was brought in during the trial to testify as an
expert witness. The plaintiff’s lawyer specializes in CULT
activities. The deposition of the expert witness states that
Ananda meets all of the criteria for a CULT. This is not a
“buzzword”, Mr. Helin, it is merely a word used in the trial
that you obviously do not like. What is amusing to me that is
your swami used the word himself. In Court Exhibit #1, a
letter written by Walters concerning the plaintiff’s
attorneys, he stated, “It isn’t that I am worried about their
questions. What does concern me a little is the almost insane
hatred they’ve evinced for cults, among which they see Ananda
as a leading and vicious example of”.
As for my piece being an effort at sensationalism, I’d like to
think that, if that WERE my intention, I could have achieved
that to a higher degree. I could have included several things
in the article that I did NOT. Such as Larry Rider becoming
emotional when I first contacted him about my future article,
asking me not to bring all this out because “my wife and I
have put our lives on the line to come here and start this
church”, and informing me that another local newspaper who
knew about the legal history had promised not to write about
it. I could have mentioned accusations of sexual abuse by
former Ananda members which I found too lewd to describe in a
small town newspaper, such as what one woman was allegedly
told to do in the form of receiving a “holy communion”. Or
what another woman was allegedly told to do, in order to get
closer to God. I could have mentioned that, during our
interview, you denied that Walters had a sexual relationship
with a married woman until I informed you that Walters had
admitted to the relationship. You then defended him by saying
that although the woman was married, “she wasn’t living with
her husband at the time”.
You see, Mr. Helin, had I attempted sensationalism, I could
have done a much more thorough job.
“I had hoped she would at least have her facts correct”.
I was also hoping you would have your facts correct. When you
told me that Walters retook his vows of celibacy after his
sexual escapades, I asked you how one becomes celibate AGAIN.
You looked at me blankly and replied, “That’s a good
question”. I’m surprised that you do not have answers to
something you so boldly and willingly defend.
“Walters voluntarily returned to America from India in 1962.
He was never deported.”
Perhaps you should read Walter’s book “A Place Called Ananda”
where he says in his own words, “The police arrived one day
with a notice to the effect that if we didn’t leave India
within ten days, we would be deported.” He then goes on to
say, “For ten years, I was denied a visa to return to India.”
“Walters was not dismissed (from SRF) in 1962 because of
On September 6, 1995, Walters was asked by the plaintiff’s
attorney if he was removed from SRF because of a sexual
relationship. His attorney would not let him answer as the
question concerned “personal relationships” and “sexual
privacy”. If I understand monastic vows correctly, a celibate
monk should not be having personal sexual relationships. To do
so would in fact be IMMORAL.
On September 22, Walters admitted to the court that he did not
fulfill his celibacy vows prior to 1981 when he was released
from those vows. According to a court memorandum dated June
17, 1997, “Walters admits that on at least eight occasions,
when he asked ( ) to massage him, she masturbated him to
ejaculation. Walters admits under oath being naked and having
( ), who was in spiritual training at Ananda, massage him with
oil. Her routine included sexually servicing Walters. Walters
admits to having sexual intercourse with ( ) as a method of
trying to cure himself from his relationship with ( ). Walters
admits under oath that in 1969, while he was a swami, he had
sexual intercourse with ( ) who had come to him for spiritual
training. Walters admits under oath that in 1981 he had sexual
intercourse with ( ) while she was married. Walters admits
under oath that in 1981 or 1982 he had sex with ( ) and ( ) at
the same time.”
“We hope our neighbors will judge by their personal experience
and not by rumors and distortion”.
That is my hope too, Mr. Helin. Which is why I told both sides
of the story and not just yours.
Replies:There have been no replies.
Chariho Times original article