Woman wins $1.8M for lecherous swami

THE PHILADELPHIA DAILY NEWS National, September 5, 1997
By Richard Phelps

SCRANTON, Pa. -- Jurors decided the Himalayan Institute in Honesdale should pay $1.875 million in damages yesterday to a woman who was sexually assaulted 30 times by the center's aging spiritual leader.

The jury, which began deliberating late Wednesday afternoon, returned their verdict yesterday, assessing $275,000 in compensatory damages and $1.6 million in punitive damages.

The lawyer for the Himalayan Institute conceded that it was morally wrong for the Swami Rama to have sex with a 19-year-old student from North Carolina. But Irwin Schneider told the jury that the woman's relationship with the swami, who is now dead, was consensual.

For that, Schneider said, the institute cannot be held responsible.

Witnesses testified about the swami's sexual encounters with the plaintiff and other women who had gone to the institute near Honesdale in search of fuller, healthier lives and spiritual enrichment.

In her lawsuit, the plaintiff said the swami sexually assaulted her 30 times while she was attending the institute in the spring and summer of 1993. At the time, according to testimony, she was a 19-year-old virgin recently out of high school.

Although she told an institute official about the assaults and the institute was aware of similar complaints by other women, the center did nothing to stop it, the complaint said.

Attorney John Humphrey said the institute presented itself publicly as a center for holistic living, but beneath this veneer lurked ``a very dark, dark secret, a cloud, a festering sore that was and is sexual abuse,'' he told jurors.

Using his position as their spiritual guru to gain their trust, the swami convinced young women to submit to sexual demands, Humphrey said.

The attorney described the sexual exploitation of his client as ``spiritual incest,'' and worse than rape because she and other devotees viewed the swami as ``a person approaching divinity.''

``It is just an absolutely gross, gross abuse of that trust,'' he said.

More than 10 women have accused the swami of sexual abuse since 1979, he said, all of whom were ignored by the institute.

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