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Sac Bee 81397

Sexual harassment suit rocks spiritual movement"

By Wayne Wilson, Bee Staff Writer

It was born in 1968, an alternative spiritual movement brought to life near Nevada City by a "swami" seeking God through meditation and simple living. Its idyllic message has been spread from the woods of Nevada County to some 70 meditation groups worldwide and satellite communities in Sacramento; Pale Alto; Port land, Ore; Seattle; Italy; and Australia. And, unlike
many such communities spawned in the 1960's, Ananda World Brotherhood Village has endured, rebuilding after a devastating wildfire in 1976 and outlasting neighbors' hostilities following the Jonestown mass suicides of 1978. But Ananda's most daunting challenge is at hand: A lawsuit coming to trial in September has raised serious questions about the integrity of Ananda's founder,
James Donald Walters .

In the suit, his accusers describe Walters as a hypocritical guru who used his standing as spiritual leader of Ananda "to gain frequent access to young, impressionable females, with whom he could have sexual contact."

While directing his followers to "hold one's physical sense-pleasures in rein," Walters has sexually exploited some of the more vulnerable women in his flock, the lawsuit alleges. "He developed, maintained and operated his organization in a manner that is hostile to women."

Ananda, in its response to the suit, called the allegations "absolutely and categorically untrue."

Walters was at a retreat in Italy and could not be reached for comment. In a 1995 letter to his followers, however, he said the accusations are "a determined effort to destroy me and Ananda" and "almost entirely false. Where there is truth in them, the facts are greatly distorted as to be almost unrecognizable."

"I have never in my life harassed anyone. Nor am I limiting this statement to sexual harassment," Walters declared in a 1994 letter that has been made part of the court file.

He went on to ridicule the allegations, including one that he watched an erotic movie during a sexual contact with the woman who filed the lawsuit against him. "the simple fact is ... I close my eyes and meditate" during the "bedroom scenes so common in movies nowadays," he wrote.

In the wake of the lawsuit, and what Walters called the "niggling criticisms" and "carping" both from within and from outside the community, the swami has moved to Assisi, Italy, where Ananda is building its first temple.

According to Jyotish Novak, deputy spiritual director at Ananda, Walters is at a retreat center that has no phone.

Walters, who calls himself Sri Kriyananda, is a 71 year-old disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda, the Indian guru who combined Christianity with Eastern thought and founded the Los Angeles based Self-Realization Fellowship.

According to the Encyclopedia of American Religions, Walters was born in Rumania in 1926; was educated in Rumania, Switzerland, England and the United States; and became a disciple of Yogananda at age 22, living with him until Yogananda's death in 1952.

He took lifetime monastic vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and loyalty in 1955, and became a swami, traveling and teaching in many countries until his ouster in July 1962, when he was asked to resign by the leadership for not remaining "loyal to his ... vows of obedience and loyalty," court records show.

Walters went on to found Ananda, and eventually built the village that serves as headquarters for the Ananda Church of Self-Realization on 750 acres of wooded and meadow lands in the Sierra foothills .

He said his goal was to follow Yogananda's oft-uttered public plea: "Cover the Earth with world brotherhood colonies, demonstrating that simplicity of living, plus high thinking,lead to the greatest happiness."

Hundreds of others with similar aims joined the commune, following Walters' lead to renounce "worldly interests that are centered in ego gratification and in the quest for personal gain."

Most of the 350 residents of the commune support themselves by working for a variety of Ananda owned businesses and live in single family residences, group homes and "cluster" housing units, all owned by the church.

There is an on-site school, market and auto shop, and Ananda runs a publishing company, Crystal Clarity, as well as a Nevada City health food store and cafe, Earth Song.

Ananda's presence is most strongly felt in Nevada City and Grass Valley, where merchants and patrons interact daily` with its members.

According to Nevada County Administrator David D. Brennan, Ananda has "been an active and integral part of the community for many years. They are good neighbors and good people."

The lawsuit filed by Anne-Marie Bertolucci in San Mateo County in November 1994, which claimed she was sexually exploited by an Ananda minister and Walters himself, has shaken Ananda to it's very core.

The action seeks unspecified damages on behalf of Bertolucci from Ananda, Walters and Bertolucci's Ananda-owned employer, Crystal Clarity Publishing. It alleges, among other things, wrongful termination, fraud, intentional infliction of emotional distress, breach of fiduciary duty and negligence .

Most of the causes of action relate to Ananda's handling of Bertolucci's claims that she was "unduly influenced to be compliant with Swami's program of sexual discrimination, harassment and exploitation."

Ananda declared the allegations "absolutely and categorically untrue. Those who know Kriyananda find (them) laughable." Walters, in a letter to his followers, wrote, "While we must treat this matter seriously, it is rather a souffle mostly air."

A relative latecomer to Kriyananda's flock, Bertolucci joined Ananda in Pale Alto in 1991. Bertolucci, now 34 and a mid level executive in a Silicon Valley software firm, is not standing alone in her attack on Ananda.

After Walters and Ananda filed a defamation cross-complaint against Bertolucci, calling her allegations lies, a half-dozen other women stepped into the fray by recounting, in sworn statements, their own personal, uninvited sexual encounters with Waters.

Today, Ananda leaders insist that the question of Walters' celibacy is a non-issue. "Kriyananda has never claimed that he was celibate," said Novak.

But in Walters' own writings, celibacy is described as an important aspect of renunciation. "A swami is a man or a woman vowed to renunciation, including the practice of celibacy," he wrote.

After the lawsuit was filed, Walters published three letters on "The Bertolucci Case: Its Meaning," an effort to calm the community and fortify his own support.

But in one of the letters, Walters recalls a meeting with his master, Yogananda, who asked him: "Are you troubled by any of the three main delusions: sex, wine and money?" Walters replied, "Sex has been troublesome."

Walters told his followers that while he "was not perfectly celibate," he did his best to resist his one weakness. "Had I devoted my entire energy at that time to this single struggle, I might never have accomplished anything else in my life," he declared.

Bertolucci claims she was looking for stress-management techniques, not a religious affiliation, when she first contacted Ananda.

As she became increasingly integrated into the church, Bertolucci moved to Nevada City and began working for Crystal Clarity, where, in 1993, first Danny Levin, a senior minister, and then Walters himself, made sexual advances toward her, she claimed.

Attorneys representing Walters, Levin and Ananda have offered an: entirely different account. It was Bertolucci who initiated the sexual relationship with Levin, "in hopes he would leave his wife and marry her," according to Ananda. Levin was initially responsive, but later told Bertolucci he was determined to stay with his wife and family, according to defense papers on file.

"Any touching ... was consensual and with permission," Ananda lawyers stated.

In a letter to his followers explaining his plan to leave for Italy, Walters wrote that the attacks on him and on Ananda "strike me as an unnecessary nuisance. I find I have no patience with them. And I thank God I don't have to convince the great majority of you that they aren't even worth addressing."

But Walters will be forced to address the issues at trial in September.

"We're going to call Mr. Walters as our first witness," said Bertolucci's trial attorney, Michael J. Flynn.