Krishnas' Honesty In Scandal Could Prove Costly

Child abuse by servants of God can happen in any religion, and no one knows that better than Windle Turley, the Melvin Belli of Texas.

This Dallas lawyer is more interested than most folks in the 300 black- suited bishops who have flown into this hot Texas town for two days of talks on the escalating sex-abuse scandal in the American Catholic church.

That's because Turley is the man who made this mecca for Baptist megachurches equally famous for two of the nation's most notorious lawsuits over priestly molestation.

In 1997, Turley won what is still the largest jury verdict ever levied in the church's 20-year-old sex abuse scandal, a whopping $119,603,500.

Three years later, he followed up with a $400 million lawsuit against the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, a Hindu missionary sect popularly known as the Hare Krishnas.

Both the Krishnas and the Catholics warned that Turley's lawsuits would drive them into bankruptcy, hurting innocent Hindus and the faithful people in the pews.

But that's not what happened -- at least for the Catholics. And the moral of the story may turn out to be that honesty may not be the best policy.

Talk to Hare Krishna spokesman Anantanda Dasa and he'll tell you that his movement did exactly what many have said the Catholic bishops should have done 15 years ago.

Long before Turley's lawsuit was filed, the Krishnas admitted they had a history of molestation and other physical abuse in their religious boarding schools, called gurukalas.

They set up an office of child protection and hired an outside investigator to study the treatment of children in this hippie-era sect, which became famous in the 1960s and 1970s for its chanting Western converts wearing saffron robes.

That report was devastating, but the Hare Krishnas published it anyway. And it was like handing Windle Turley a lawsuit on a silver collection platter.

The Krishna case, which is still in the courts, alleges that dozens of children of Hare Krishna members were abused in the 1970s at church boarding schools in Texas, West Virginia and New York.

E. Burke Rochford, a professor of sociology and religion at Middlebury College in Vermont, was the sympathetic scholar hired by the Krishnas to investigate the allegations of abuse.

His damning report, however, provided lots of material for Turley's suit as well as for others who accuse the Hare Krishnas of being an abusive and exploitive cult.

"Turley and company made use of that report," Rochford said. "I feel like a dumb scholar."

Turley says it's not his fault the Hare Krishnas hanged themselves with Rochford's report.

"That whiplashed on them," he said. "They thought they could use it to defend themselves."

The high-powered lawyer stood in one of several lavish sitting rooms in the penthouse of his 10-story Turley Law Center. Ostrich-skin chairs stand alongside his private bar, which hosts blue cocktail napkins with "Windle Turley" printed on them and a large, nearly empty bottle of Chivas Regal.

His walls are adorned with oversized photographs of him climbing glaciers, driving race cars and standing next to a variety of important people.

Across town, the chief priest of the Dallas Hare Krishna temple sits in a booth at the Kalachandji Restaurant, a popular vegetarian cafe frequented by Dallas residents who shy away from this city's famously succulent steaks.

The priest's lips tighten when he hears the name "Windle Turley." "Dollars and cents are all that make sense to him," says Nityananda Dasa. "These lawyers have gone off the deep end. Their number one mission is, one, to make money; two, to be famous; then, three, maybe help the children and get justice. "

But Turley has no apologies for his multimillion-dollar fee.

"I got paid for what I did," he adds. "GM, drug companies and big corporations and big institutions, including the Catholic church, like to keep lawyers out of this business so they . . . further harm and mistreat victims."

He scoffed the claim that he is trying to put the Krishnas' global enterprise out of business.

"I would hate to think that Windle Turley had the power to destroy anybody's religion," he said.

According to the lawsuit in Texas -- having lost a bid to use federal racketeering laws, Turley has refiled here and in Virginia -- the abuse was sexual, physical and emotional.

"They would terrorize us with brainwashing," said one of the Texas plaintiffs, Brigite Rittenour, in an interview Wednesday. "They taught us that people outside the movement were evil, that they ate meat and would eat us."

Rittenour said she was molested at the Dallas gurukala as a young girl in the 1970s, then forced into an arranged marriage at 14. Her husband was 37. She's now a single mom with six children.

Nityananda, who moved to Dallas from Fiji in the early 1990s to help straighten out the troubled temple, says the child abuse in the 1970s here was unforgiveable.

The chief priest stood in the Dallas temple's ornate hall of worship. It was once the gym of a Southern Baptist church, but the Krishnas bought it in the 1970s and have adorned it with lions carved from rosewood and bright murals of little blue Krishnas cavorting with tempting young consorts.

"This is hurting people who had nothing to do with that period of time. Why should they lose their place of worship? We are not the Catholic Church in terms of our assets."

For now, the Krishnas can only hope that they survive as well as the Catholics.

The jury's $120 million verdict against the Diocese of Dallas eventually was reduced by the court to just under $31 million, which went to Turley, another lawyer and 11 former altar boys of the Rev. Rudolph Kos.

Most of that money, however, came from the church's insurance companies. The diocese says it actually paid out $10,459,103 to settle the Kos case.

"They pled poverty for a couple years and claimed they were hurting, but they have plenty of assets," said Turley. "They sold a subdivision they were developing out near one of our lakes."

In the separate criminal case, Kos was convicted of molesting altar boys at three parishes between 1981 and 1992, and is now in prison.

Out at All Saints Catholic Church, the Dallas parish where there were four young victims, the publicity and trial initially did lots of damage spiritually and financially.

According to the Rev. Tom Cloherty, who was brought in as pastor in January of 1998, Mass attendance and donations were down about 15 percent amid the heaviest coverage of the Dallas scandal. But today, he said, attendance and contributions are back up -- as they are throughout the diocese -- and a new school is being built for the growing parish.

"We've come quite a way in our healing," said Cloherty. "People want to move on with life."

That was not possible for all of those devastated by the crimes of Father Kos. One of his victims, altar boy Jay Lemberger, committed suicide in 1992. He was 21.

Turley, whose firm has also handled abuse cases involving the Assemblies of God, Lutherans and Mormons, was asked to compare the abuse and the response by the Krishnas and the Catholics.

"The Hare Krishnas are far more vicious in what happened to the children," he replied. "The Roman Catholics are far more sophisticated in handling litigation, and no one is as good at concealment as the Catholics."