A NSW ashram blocked abuse victims from its Facebook page, threatened them with defamation action and until this year never apologised for the sexual exploitation of girls by its founding spiritual leader.
A royal commission is examining how a retreat, now known as the Mangrove Yoga Ashram, handled sex abuse complaints against Swami Akhandananda Saraswati who ran the NSW Central Coast compound from 1974 to 1986.
Children were physically and sexually abused at the ashram where some parents handed guardianship of their children as well as property and income over to Akhandananda and his partner Shishy.
The ashram, nestled in the foothills of Mangrove mountain, is the largest in Australia and a registered charity. About 200 people lived there at its peak.
In the 1970s and ’80s people flocked to it, taking up residence under the spiritual guidance of Akhandananda, who at 22 had been sent to Australia from India to lead the centre.
On Tuesday two women told how they were groomed and sexually abused at the ashram where Akhandananda would tell them “engaging in sexual activity with him was for their own spiritual growth”.
The swami was charged, convicted and jailed in 1989 for molesting four girls and spent 14 months in jail until his conviction was overturned.
His partner Shishy fled the ashram in 1985 and gave evidence at his trial.
Shishy, who became involved with Akhandananda when she was 16, will give evidence at the commission hearing.
Alicia Buchanan’s parents allowed her to move into the ashram when she was 13.
Akhandananda would beat adults and children with a “kundalini” stick which had a snake carved on it.
Ms Buchanan also said she was summoned by Shishy who on occasion was in the hut when he abused her.
Another witness, Jyoti, was 15 when Akhandananda began abusing her. She said he told her “Don’t ever tell anyone, you’ll be killed if you do”.
She said the abuse had left her with ongoing depression and constant self-doubt.
This year, when the ashram celebrated its 40th anniversary, former residents posted messages about abuse on its Facebook page.
The ashram at first posted an apology but later removed the comments and threatened the abuse victims with legal action.
Jyoti said she asked the ashram why her posts were removed.
In reply she was invited to a healing ceremony.
“I had nothing to do with the ashram’s 40th anniversary and healing day. It was just a sham as far as I was concerned,” Jyoti said.
“If the swamis at the ashram think that lighting fires and chanting is going to make what happened to me and the other girls OK, it is not going to happen.”
Aaron Kernaghan, a solicitor representing the ashram, apologised on behalf of his clients for the profound pain suffered by the victims.
“My clients in this year have committed themselves to their first real steps towards any form of accountability or reconciliation,” he said.