Stuck in the Middle:
Research and Religion Clash as Scholar E. Burke Rochford Uncovers Uncomfortable Truths
by Kim Asch, freelance writer in Vermont
When he first became involved with the Hare Krishna movement, E. Burke Rochford, Jr., was a 25-year-old graduate student at UCLA. In the beginning, the young sociologist's interest was strictly academic. He firmly resisted the attempts of the robed devotees to convert him to their fringe religious sect with roots in ancient India, explaining over and over again that he wanted only to document the Hare Krishna culture. "Yes, Prabhu, say what you like," devotees would tell him. "But we know why you're really here. Krishna has sent you; you are a spirit soul."
When it dawned on Rochford that his refusal to participate was impeding his research, he began to join in the worship services and discovered -to his surprise- that he enjoyed the sense of spirituality and community there. Throughout his professional career, Rochford has continued observing and participating with the Hare Krishna, publishing papers and two books about this religious movement, officially founded in the U.S. in 1966 as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). He built a career as the foremost authority on ISKCON, documenting its strengths and flaws with a clarity that could only be achieved by a sociologist who had attained insider status. While Rochford became, over time, personally invested in the movement's continued success, he never lost sight of his professional role.
Today Rochford is a professor in the departments of sociology/anthropology and also in the department of religion. He continues to write and research the movement. But his dual role of movement sympathizer and professional sociologist has recently come to a critical juncture. In 1998 Rochford published an analytical report revealing a darker side of life within the movement. He revealed shocking facts about child abuse in the ISKCON boarding schools and, partly as a result of his writings, the very future of the Hare Krishna movement is now in doubt.
Today, resembling an erudite Jerry Garcia, with his graying bushy beard and nonconformist elan, Rochford confides, "I still haven't made peace with it." Over the past quarter century, Rochford has written frequently about controversial issues concerning the Hare Krishnas. He detailed fund - raising and recruitment strategies, as well as scandals involving newly appointed gurus after the 1977 death of revered ISKCON founder A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Each published report brought challenges from within the movement about whose side he was really on, but Rochford's accurate and thoughtful analyses survived the scrutiny.
When he began a study of ISKCON's second generation in an effort to learn why so many children were leaving the movement, he was shocked by their horror stories. Former students of the movement's boarding schools, called ashram gurukulas, described how they had been routinely beaten and caned, denied medical care, and sexually molested. At first, Rochford thought these were isolated occurrences, but subsequent interviews with parents, gurukula teachers, and others confirmed there had been widespread incidents of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse of children sent to live in ISKCON boarding schools during the 1970s and '80s.
This time, Rochford wasn't sure he wanted to wade into the controversy. How could he integrate child abuse into his emerging analysis of family life and ISKCON's second generation? Surely he had to mention it, but how extensively? Should he just say that child abuse represented one reason that led many among the second generation to withdraw from the movement? Saunaka Rishi Das, editor of the ISKCON Communications Journal, persuaded him to treat the issue as a stand-alone research topic, explaining that everyone within the movement knew about the child abuse, and it was the right time for the journal to discuss it. "Burke, you are the only one who can do this. There is no other person to deal with this but you," he told him.
Using a sociologically informed framework, Rochford attempted to understand how and why child abuse and neglect had occurred. His assessment was characteristically unflinching: part of the reason children were abused was "because they were not valued by leaders, and even, very often, by their own parents who accepted theological and other justifications offered by the leadership for remaining uninvolved in the lives of their children."
His paper, "Child Abuse in the Hare Krishna Movement: 1971-1986," was intended for an internal audience, but it unleashed a frenzy of media interest that escalated after The New York Times ran a front - page story, further damaging the public image of a movement already regarded with suspicion.
Worse for ISKCON, the paper provided the blueprint for a $400 million lawsuit brought by 79 former students against the entire movement. The suit, filed in June 2000, claims there was systemic abuse and that the leadership knew about it but conspired to keep it from parents and the public. If successful, the suit would financially devastate the movement's North American branch, possibly triggering its demise. Dallas attorney Windle Turley, who represents former students in the lawsuit, described how Rochford's paper supports their case. "His information and research were particularly helpful and insightful, given his relationship to ISKCON," he said.
All this has left Rochford with the uneasy feeling of having betrayed his family. He has spent half of his life studying ISKCON and has literally grown up with its devotees, many of whom he considers to be as close as brothers and sisters. As campus colleagues and public relations staffers offer him high-fives and congratulations for all the attention his work has received, Rochford still struggles three years later with the emotional side of the experience.
"On the one hand, I have the strong feeling of wanting to gain justice for people who were abused and who have a right to justice. Yet I also feel guilty about my role in bringing ISKCON to the edge of financial ruin and possible destruction. I especially feel this way because of the many sincere devotees whose lives will be negatively influenced should the lawsuit be successful," he said. "That's the bind - I'm stuck in the middle of those quite different feelings."
It doesn't make him feel any better that Das, the editor who commissioned Rochford to write the article, continues to defend its publication. "We made a decision, against legal counsel, that making this public was a moral issue, a religious issue, and a spiritual issue," Das said from his office in Oxford, England. "Even if we have to go through 10 years of court cases and we lose every building in North America, it's more important that we can give people spirituality. Any four walls and a roof will do."
Rochford was later told by one movement official that Das had political motives for publishing the piece. "Essentially I had been drawn into writing the article and exposing child abuse to promote a partisan political agenda," he wrote in an article about the experience. In the past, ethnographers often disregarded the personal dimensions of field research, viewing them as largely irrelevant or as challenges to their objectivity and the authority of their written texts. But a new book edited by David Bromley of Virginia Commonwealth University, Religion and Social Order Volume IX: Toward Reflexive Ethnography, dares to share behind-the-scenes details of how social researchers conduct their field studies and how far they actually immerse themselves in their work.
Bromley thinks the chapter Rochford wrote for the book, "Accounting for Child Abuse in the Hare Krishna: Ethnographic Dilemmas and Reflections," is especially good because the author is always aware of his biases. "To really understand something that has wisdom and depth, you're going to be transformed by it. You shouldn't shy away from that, but you have to be clear about where you are."
Margaret Nelson, Middlebury's Hepburn Professor of Sociology and Women's and Gender Studies, agreed: "The ethical and moral issues of writing about people you know well and ideas to which you are attracted and repelled are all issues common to participant observation." From his position on ISKCON's Board of Education, Rochford sees signs of hope that the tragedy of child abuse within the movement has resulted in a number of positive changes that have helped protect children and lend support to those who were victimized years ago. ISKCON now has an International Office for Child Protection, it screens candidates for teaching positions, and children movement- wide are taught about child abuse. The movement's leadership has also been a force behind the creation and funding of Children of Krishna Inc., an organization that helps young men and women who were formerly students in the boarding schools (most of which are now closed) with counseling and funds for vocational training and college.
On the other hand, Rochford is feeling disillusioned with the movement he had grown to believe in. In many ways, he's come full circle to the place where he started as a wary 25-year-old. "I have real questions about the organization, about what's been allowed to happen," he said. Rochford is also unclear about what role he might play if the case should come to trial. "I just try to speak as honestly as I can and in the end that will sustain me," he said. "In the end, I can say, 'Well, Burke, you were honest.'"
Kim Asch, a freelance writer in Vermont, is managing editor of The Hill, the magazine of Western Maryland College.
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