Washington, March 7 (IANS) The spiritual guru of a Hindu ashram in Texas has been found guilty of molesting two young girls who grew up at one of the largest temples in the US in the mid-1990s.
Prakashanand Saraswati, known to his devotees at Barsana Dham ashram south of Austin as Shree Swamiji, was convicted of all 20 counts of indecency with a child by sexual contact, by a Hays County jury Friday.
Over the course of the trial, prosecutors depicted Prakashanand, now 82, as a religious leader who used his stature and position of trust to prey on young devotees, Austin American-Statesman reported.
The charges were based on allegations of two women, Shyama Rose and Vesla Tonnessen Kazimer, now 30 and 27 years old, respectively, whose families lived at the 200-acre ashram in Driftwood.
They said the guru kissed and fondled them on numerous occasions over the course of several years, beginning when they were as young as 12.
A third woman, Kate Tonnessen, now 31, also claimed the holy man had kissed and groped her during the same period.
Although her account was heard during the two-week trial, the accusations were not part of the official charges because the statute of limitations had expired.
The jury of eight men and four women returned its guilty verdict after deliberating for less than two hours, the Statesman said.
The announcement by District Court Judge Charles Ramsay was met with muffled sobs by the women, who exchanged hugs. Beyond saying they were pleased with the verdict, they declined to comment.
Prakashanand, who’d sat through the trial in a special chair to ease pressure on his bad back, showed no emotion. His supporters had packed the small Hays County courthouse during the trial.
“We’re disappointed in the jury’s verdict and steadfast in Swamiji’s innocence,” Aman Agrawal, a Barsana Dham spokesman, was quoted as saying.
Jurors will reconvene Monday to decide on a sentence. Each of the 20 charges carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
In an indictment filed in April 2008, the women claimed they’d been abused while they grew up as friends on the ashram, their families longtime devotees of Prakashanand and Hinduism.
Defence attorneys stressed that Prakashanand was a holy man who had devoted his life to teaching devotees and performing works of charity.