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SJ Merc 121497


Sunday, December 14, 1997

Section: Local

Page: 1B
BY SAM DIAZ, Mercury News Staff Writer

Memo: Mercury News Staff Writer Deborah Kong also contributed to this article

Inside the East-West Bookstore on Mountain View's Castro Street, clerks are quick to offer friendly assistance about the books on the shelves, the art gallery or the meditation classes.

But those same clerks, still with smiles on their faces, also are quick to shun questions about their church and the trial that has their leader --considered godlike to some church members -- defending himself against allegations of sexually exploiting female followers.

The civil trial, being heard in a Redwood City courtroom, has pitted former member Anne Marie Bertolucci against the Ananda Church of Self-Realization, its founder, J. Donald Walters -- known as Swami Kriyananda to his flock -- senior minister Danny Levin and Crystal Clarity Publishing, the church-owned former employer of Bertolucci.
Lawyers and witnesses have referred in court to the church as cultlike, with private communities, rules of conduct and philosophies that worldly possessions -- from homes to children -- belong to the church.

But Sara Cryer, publicist for Ananda, said she believes there are two sides to the story.''So far what's been in the papers is (Bertolucci attorney) Mike Flynn's version of the case, and it's a very sensationalized version of what's going on,'' she said. ''The jury and the media have yet to hear from Ananda. We are not interested in trying this case in the newspapers.''

Ford Greene, one of Bertolucci's lawyers, said the ''brainwashing'' of members when they first join led his client to believe that any attention by Walters and church leaders was a blessing because it came from those closer to God than she. It wasn't until the end of her relationship with the church that she realized the alleged abuse -- and became more vocal about it. That led to her removal from the Ananda community, into therapy and eventually into the courtroom.

Cryer said Ananda's side of the story will be told in court testimony. ''I worked closely with Mr. Walters for many years in the books division. The picture Flynn is painting in my mind is totally erroneous,'' she said.

Twists and turns
Since Bertolucci's complaint was filed in 1995, the case has been filled with myriad twists and turns:

(box) Ananda's denial of the allegations was undermined when at least eight other women came forward to support Bertolucci's claim of sexual abuse by Walters and other ministers of the church. They testified in explicit detail about the sexual acts they said they were forced into.

(box) A cross-complaint against Bertolucci, 34, accusing her of making false allegations, was dropped before the case reached trial. It called her complaint ''a sham lawsuit.''

(box) Legal documents identifying the strategies of Bertolucci's legal team were stolen in 1995 from an outside garbage bin at the San Diego County offices of Flynn, one of her lawyers.

A trespassing lawsuit Flynn filed against the thief revealed that he was hired, indirectly, by the Ananda Church to obtain the documents.

The theft -- called ''a major corruption of the judicial system,'' by Greene -- prompted a ruling by Judge Lawrence Stevens prohibiting the defense from cross-examining the female witnesses about their allegations of sexual contact with Walters.

(box) On the witness stand, Walters, 71 -- a swami who preached meditation as a method of channeling sexual urges into spiritual energy -- testified that he was ''weak'' for breaking his vow of celibacy and engaging in sexual acts with female members of the church. But the swami, a title of respect for a Hindu religious teacher, said his accusers ''thrust their company'' on him and interrupted his meditations by taking advantage of his  ''weaknesses.''

The trial, which began in October and could extend into 1998, has created curiosity about the Ananda Church, which has come into the spotlight on the Peninsula over the years with its extensive real estate acquisitions.

Wide-ranging holdings
In 1989, it paid $5.4 million for five acres that included a 72-unit apartment complex on Monroe Avenue, which is now called the ''Ananda Community.'' It owns two bookstores in downtown Mountain View -- the East-West Bookshop and Bookbuyers. And in 1994, it purchased the former St. Aloysius Catholic Church on El Camino Real in Palo Alto, which is now home to the Ananda Church and school.

The community is an offshoot of the 800-acre Ananda World Brotherhood Village commune in the Sierra foothills near Nevada City.
Many church members at the businesses and community declined to be  interviewed about their church's teachings and beliefs, citing advice from lawyer Gordon Rockhill, who is representing the church in the civil trial.
In the midst of daily trial sessions, Rockhill has been unavailable for an interview.

Cryer said the trial has not hurt the church, but given it strength. ''I would say our retreat and our business are doing fine, if not better,'' she said. ''I think if anything it's made people stronger in that they really have to look inside as to how this is affecting them.''

Church members did say, however, that meditation and music -- as spiritual soothing devices -- are major components of Ananda. Books written by Walters, and available on the shelves of the East-West Bookstore, emphasize yoga and meditation as the basis of the religion.

The religion is based on the beliefs of Paramhansa Yogananda, a Hindu spiritual leader who brought his Self-Realization Fellowship to the United States from India in 1920. Its emphasis, Kriya Yoga, is a system of awakening and energizing the psychic centers along the spinal cord through meditation to rejuvenate the brain.

Walters became a disciple of Yogananda in 1948. In 1962, four years after the death of Yogananda, he was separated from the fellowship because ''the Master now wanted me to do the task for which he prepared me,'' he wrote in his autobiography, ''The Path.''

Second tale of sex abuse

But Denise Petersen -- a for mer Ananda member who came forward with her story of sexual abuse by Walters -- said in her testimony that he was kicked out of the organization for sexual misconduct, a statement that was allowed to remain in court transcripts over the objections of Ananda's lawyers.

In 1967, Walters started a following in the Nevada City area with teachings similar to those of Yogananda. Yoga and meditation are parts of Ananda's teachings, offered as alternatives to the fast-paced American culture and a way to inner happiness and calm.

Membership also comes with a list of ''Rules of Conduct for Members,'' as well as prescribed vows of loyalty to the church.

Listed in Walters' book, ''Cities of Light,'' and also submitted as a court exhibit in the trial, the rules state that every Ananda member ''should meditate daily and . . . should try to take one or more weeks of seclusion every year, during which time he devotes himself intensely to meditation, silence and practicing the presence of God.''

In the booklet of rules, members are also guided through other aspects of their lives -- from work and marriage to the raising of children.
Work should be considered ''service'' and should not be sought with financial motives, but rather for ''the opportunities it affords for serving others in a divine way.'' Marriages need the approval of a committee.

Children should be considered children of the community and all members should treat them as their own.
As part of the membership vows, Anandites must recite, in part:

 ''I relinquish all my sense of 'I' and 'mine' in my life . . . pledge my cooperative obedience and loyalty to Ananda . . . and above all, to the living representative of the Ananda line of gurus.''
The living representative, witnesses in the civil trial have testified, is Walters.
And reciting those vows is not the result of the teachings but rather brainwashing, Greene said.

He called Walters ''a phony'' who lures people into the religion by offering to teach Yogananda's beliefs. Instead, as alleged in the civil court complaint, Walters uses the church as a ''mechanism for the sexual exploitation of women'' while claiming to be a celibate and ''direct channel'' of God.

Other allegations

The complaint also makes allegations of sexual abuse against senior minister Levin, who was Bertolucci's boss at Crystal Clarity Publishing.

In testimony and depositions, both sides agree that there was an adulterous relationship between Bertolucci and Levin, who was married. But, according to the cross-complaint that was dropped, Bertolucci initiated the  relationship and persisted in keeping it alive after Levin tried to end it.

Walters testified that he offered her a transfer to a new Ananda community in Seattle or Italy where a job and home would await her, but she chose the Palo Alto community instead.

But Bertolucci said in her complaint that Walters ordered her from the Ananda Village in Nevada City and replaced her as an employee with Crystal Clarity, the publisher of Walters' books.
In the Palo Alto community, according to testimony, she was shunned by church leaders who knew of the affair with Levin and eventually was ostracized into leaving.
Her complaint alleges fraud, intentional infliction of emotional distress and wrongful termination. It originally alleged sexual harassment, though that charge was dismissed because churches are exempt from harassment charges, Greene said.

Bertolucci is asking for a settlement of ''several million dollars,'' Greene said. An exact amount must be decided by a jury, he said.