Publication Date: Friday Feb 27, 1998
$1 million judgment against swamiJury decides not to penalize Ananda Church
The leader of the Ananda Church of Self-Realization--J. Donald Walters--was ordered Thursday to pay $1 million in punitive damages to former member Anne-Marie Bertolucci in a suit over allegations of fraud and sexual harassment, but the jury decided not to punish the church itself.
The damages against Walters--who is known to followers as Swami Kriyananda--are in addition to $625,000 in compensation that the jury ordered Ananda and two of its leaders to pay out two weeks ago, which was was considered compensation to Bertolucci for the emotional distress she had suffered at the hands of Walters and one of his ministers while she was a member of the church. Bertolucci filed the civil suit after she left the church in 1994.
Bertolucci's lawyer Ford Greene called the damages "disappointing," because the church itself was not held liable for Walter's actions.
"The church was let off the hook," said Greene. "Walters couldn't do what he does without the complicity of the church."
However, starting Tuesday, the judge will decide whether Ananda Church of Self-Realization represents Walters' alter ego. This will determine whether the church is liable for the $1,625,000 total damages.
Leaders from the Ananda church in Palo Alto said that $1 million damages was a "shockingly large" number and would make it impossible for the church to continue in its current form. The church has several thousand members in the Bay Area and Nevada City and operates a bookstore in Mountain View.
"The community's entire net worth is $1 million," said spokeswoman Karen Gamow. "Swami is worth zero." Gamow said that the extent of Walters' holdings are a few paintings, his clothing, and the copyright to the 70 books he has authored.
Bertolucci's lawyers contend that Ananda has a net worth between $5 and $20 million, some of which the church has hidden away, according to Greene. Ananda's financial records were examined in some detail during the lengthy three-month trial.
Ananda will likely appeal the jury's decision, which could draw out the process up to three more years, according to Bertolucci's lawyer.
"This is about religious freedom, not sexual harassment," said Asha Praver, who is a minister at the Palo Alto church at 2171 El Camino Real.
Praver said that the church is currently in dialogue with pro bono lawyers because it cannot afford to continue to pay its current lawyer.