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Sex and the Singular Swami 

Since the '60s, the Ananda Church of Self-Realization has grown from a Northern California commune into a worldwide New Age empire. Its leader has grown fond of sex with young believers.

Wednesday, Mar 10 1999
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Ananda became more and more famous as Walters tirelessly promoted it around the country. People learned about his spiritual vision through the endless stream of books, articles, and audiocassettes he churned out. "One can say through the years, the Ananda community has been steady in its pressure trying to expand," Snyder says.

Tension between Ananda and its neighbors reached an all time high when Ananda attempted to incorporate as a town in the early '80s. Snyder and his neighbors shot down the plan, but the failure did not faze the church, which turned its energy to building a self-sufficient village on the 900 acres of land it came to acquire.

Now, the Ananda community near Nevada City is home to about 300 people, and has its own elementary and middle schools, dairy farm, bakery, market, publishing house (two of them, in fact), medical clinic, construction guild, and even a telephone system called Ananda Bell. In Nevada City, Ananda also runs a highly successful health food store/vegetarian restaurant.

Ananda has stretched its wings in the outside world as well, becoming a conglomerate of businesses, meditation centers, and world brotherhood colonies that stretch from the Bay Area to Portland to Assisi, Italy. Recognizing the group's global reach, Warner Books struck a deal with Ananda in 1994 to publish a line of Walters' books.

Today in the Bay Area, Ananda owns the highly profitable and well-known metaphysical bookstore East West in downtown Mountain View and another used bookstore directly across the street. And just blocks from its Palo Alto church, Ananda has a thriving spiritual community of more than a hundred, living in a cluster of apartment buildings partially owned by church members.

From outward appearances, Ananda might seem justified in referring to itself as "one of the country's most successful intentional communities."

Ford Greene is a man with a mission: hunting gurus and busting cults. He doesn't look his 46 years; he doesn't look much like a lawyer either. Trim, tall, and athletic, his dress tends toward jeans, sandals, and flannel shirts.

For the past 16 years, Greene has run a one-man cult-prosecuting operation from his San Anselmo office. He has butted heads with the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, the Church of Scientology, and the San Rafael-based Johanine Daist Communion, led by Bubba Free John (aka Franklin Jones), who was exposed in the '80s as having sexually enslaved some of his female devotees.

In 1994, Greene filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against the Ananda Church of Self-Realization on behalf of 31-year-old Anne-Marie Bertolucci of Palo Alto, a former Ananda member. The lawsuit alleged Bertolucci had been sexually exploited by church founder and spiritual director Swami Kriyananda, and a married senior church minister, Danny Levin. It also accused the church of fraud.

Bertolucci's association with Ananda began innocuously. At Ananda's East West bookstore in 1991 she saw a flier for a meditation class, and decided to attend. The flier promised that the class would help her "be stronger, healthier, more youthful and energetic." A computer programmer making good money, Bertolucci was looking for stress management techniques. The flier seemed opportune.

After taking that first meditation class, Bertolucci went to many more, eventually becoming hooked on learning ever more advanced meditation techniques and yoga postures.

Six months later, Bertolucci joined the church, where she stopped eating meat and using makeup. Within a year, she had separated from her husband, who opposed her increasing involvement with Ananda, and gone to the Ananda community in the Sierras, telling friends she was leaving to find "spiritual redemption."

At Ananda, Bertolucci held various low-paying jobs at church-related businesses. Danny Levin, vice president of the church-owned publishing house where she worked and a married senior minister, befriended Bertolucci immediately. The befriending soon crossed into sexual contact that included touching her breasts during church ceremonies held in the office, rubbing himself against her until he ejaculated, and having her perform oral sex on him.

"Levin stated that he had recognized [Bertolucci] as a lover and wife from past lives," the lawsuit alleged. "[He] treated [her] like a whore, yet told [her] that he was very much in love with her."

At the same time, Swami Kriyananda was also taking advantage of her sexually, Bertolucci claimed.

A year after joining, Bertolucci left the Ananda Church, a broken woman who, her lawsuit claimed, was severely depressed, suicidal, and without a job.

After Bertolucci filed suit, a dozen ex-Ananda members stepped up to support her case. Six women gave sworn testimony detailing various forms of what they considered sexual exploitation by the swami.

In the past five years, Greene and Michael Flynn, a Rancho Santa Fe lawyer who also has a cult-busting history, have put up hundreds of thousands of their own money to finance the case against Ananda.

Several months ago, their effort paid off. A Redwood City jury handed down a verdict in favor of Bertolucci.

In the verdict, Ananda was found to have misrepresented itself as a "safe" religious organization and to have failed to stop Walters' and Levin's sexual transgres-sions. The church was ordered to pay more than $300,000.

Walters was judged to have misrepresented himself as a monk, and to have caused Bertolucci emotional trauma, and was ordered to pay $285,000 in compensatory damages, and another $1 million in punitive damages. (On appeal, the punitive damages were reduced to $400,000.) A sexual harassment claim was dismissed before the case went to the jury.

Levin was ordered to pay $30,000 for causing Bertolucci emotional anguish.

Ford Greene is convinced that the Ananda Church is a cult. Jon Parsons has been a lawyer for Ananda for almost a decade now and couldn't disagree more. A good head shorter than Greene, pasty-faced, slightly paunchy, and sparse-haired, Parsons is an eloquent man blessed with a dramatic flair and an enchanting, resonant voice.

About The Author

Helen Gao

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