Satyananda Yoga Ashram apologises to victims at the royal commission eight months after threatening legal action over their online posts
An ashram where children were sexually abused has apologised to the victims, eight months after threatening them with legal action for damaging its brand.
Aaron Kereghan, solicitor for the Satyananda Yoga Ashram, on Tuesday apologised to the victims at a royal commission in Sydney, and said his clients realised an apology sent electronically to victims earlier this year would be seen as trivial.
In March this year, a number of victims sent letters or posted comments on the ashram’s website about the abuse inflicted on them. They were threatened with legal action for defamation.
But on 2 March, one of the victims, Alecia Buchanan, received her first communication from the ashram – an email apology sent to all victims.
“We recognise and acknowledge that there has been child abuse in our history and that it has inflicted profound grief and suffering upon vulnerable children,” Kereghan told the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse on Tuesday.
Buchanan, who went to live at the ashram when she was 13, told the commission she was groomed and sexually assaulted by Swami Akhandananda Saraswati, founding director and former spiritual leader of the yoga retreat in the foothills of Mangrove Mountain on the New South Wales central coast.
Buchanan is one of 11 people whose evidence was due to be heard at a public hearing of the commission.
The hearing was told children at the ashram were beaten, made to do hard labour and sexually exploited by the swami who was looked on as a “god-like” figure by the adults who flocked to his retreat from 1975.
Akhandananda was convicted in 1989 of three counts of molesting girls between the ages of 14 and 16, but this was overturned by the high court in 1991. He had served 14 months in prison.
He died in Cairns in 1997.
Buchanan said in 1979 her parents agreed to let her live at the ashram, which she had visited on many occasions.
When she moved in, Akhandananda’s partner, Shishy, became a mother to her but she fluctuated between being loving and being cruel.
She saw her slap children so hard their heads banged against a wall, she said.
“I believed in her divinity – I never for a second doubted her. She was my new mother and my guide,” Buchanan said.
When she was 15, Buchanan said she was often called to the couple’s hut where she was made to have sex with the swami while Shishy was in the room.
Shishy will give evidence at this hearing. She left the ashram in 1986 and gave evidence against Akhandananda at his trial.
Buchanan said she was threatened with a beating if she told what was going on. She also said the swami used her to procure other girls when he tired of her.
Akhandananda would beat children and adults with a “kundalini” stick, which had a carved snake on it, and Buchanan said she saw him throw a disabled man down a well.
People who were sexually and physically abused as children at another institution under scrutiny by the royal commission are to be offered compensation.
The director of the religious organisation that ran Darwin’s Retta Dixon home made the offer after reportedly finding financial assets it had previously said were unavailable.
Rev Trevor Leggott, director of the Australian Indigenous Ministries (AIM), reportedly told the royal commission the organisation would sell a property in Winmalee in the NSW Blue Mountains, valued at about $350,000, despite it having a “very significant negative impact upon AIM’s activities” in the state.
Leggott had earlier told the commission AIM was not “wealthy” compared with other religious bodies, and the assets it owned were heavily restricted and not easily sold.