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San Jose Mercury 022898




Saturday, February 28, 1998

Section: SECTION: Local

Page: 1B

BY DEBORAH KONG, Mercury News Staff Writer


The spiritual leader of a Peninsula church who was assessed $1.2 million in damages in a sexual exploitation trial this month has resigned as head of Ananda Church of Self-Realization.

 J. Donald Walters, also known as Swami Kriyananda, 72, told members that he was resigning from all official positions in the church he founded 30 years ago.

Asha Praver, minister of Palo Alto's church, said the rigors of the trial have made Walters want to ''concentrate on the spiritual rather than the more external aspects of life.''

But Ford Greene, the lawyer for the woman who sued Walters, called Walters' resignation a ''ploy to avoid having the church stuck with his liability.''

Greene said Walters' resignation doesn't change the church's liability. ''They're still on the hook,'' he said.

 Walters was sued by Anne-Marie Bertolucci, a former Ananda church member who accused him and other church leaders of abusing their authority by sexually exploiting her. A Redwood City jury reached a verdict in her favor earlier this month.

Walters, who was in Italy on Friday, said in a statement that his personal relationships with the residents and members of Ananda will not change. He will continue to live at the church headquarters in Nevada City and at the Assisi, Italy, community, according to the statement.

David Praver, another Palo Alto Ananda minister, said Walters' decision to resign was not done to prevent liability for the church.

 Walters has said he owns little more than clothing, a computer and a 1989 Nissan Maxima and cannot pay the $1.2 million in damages to the plaintiff.

The church says it is worth only about $1 million and that trial-related costs have brought it to the brink of financial collapse.

 The next phase of the trial, expected to wrap up next month, will determine whether the money assessed against Walters could be paid by the church.

Greene, Bertolucci's attorney, said the church is worth between $5 million and $20 million. An expert witness put the value of future royalties from 70 books written by Walters at $600,000.

 News of Walters' resignation reached many members Friday, and a new spiritual leader probably will be appointed, said David Praver, one of the Ananda church ministers.

Walters founded the 900-acre Ananda Village in Nevada City in 1968. The community was based on yoga, philosophy and meditation. The church has grown to about 2,500 members worldwide.

 ''No one ever related to him because he was a director of, or a board member of, or officer of anything,'' Praver said. ''People gain respect through their relationships to him and from what they have learned from him.''