Ananda Rhode Island article 2003

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 others".

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 Yogananda state.

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, California.

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 him.

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 admitted.

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 satanic force."
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 dismissal."

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 "cooperative obedience".
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 mind."

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 brainwashed."

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 Self-Realization Fellowship.

"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 celibacy.
"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 really is."
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

 Jaya Helin's rebuttal

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 sensationalism.
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 America.
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 response -
By one 2/24/2003 at 10:05:58 PM


Posted on 2/24/2003 at 10:05:58 PM


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 the plaintiff).”
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 freedom”

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 was denied.

“To repeat scurrilous, out of context accusations gleaned from the Internet in order to demean the character of someone is shameful.”

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 popular sensationalism”.

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 immoral behavior.”
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.

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