The Bertolucci lawsuit: Cult Expert Says Bertolucci Verdict Won’t Stand

Ananda is “a benign little group” says religion expert J. Gordon Melton

Palo Alto Daily News

Friday, February 20, 1998

One of the nation’s top cult experts said yesterday the verdict against the Ananda Church and its swami is unjust and will likely be overturned on appeal.

“This wasn’t an award which should have been made. It doesn’t seem to me to be anything worth $1.6 million. I don’t see any abuse,” said J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara.

Melton said the woman who successfully sued the church had a consensual affair with a church minister, but that’s not something for which the church and its swami should be held liable.

‘A benign little group’

Melton, an adjunct professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara who has been studying New Age religions for more than 30 years, described the Ananda Church of Self Realization as “a benign little group.”

“I’ve never seen anything cult-ish about it,” Melton said. A San Mateo County Superior Court jury yesterday awarded $1 million in punitive damages to 34-year-old Anne Marie Bertolucci, a Palo Alto woman who left the church and sued it for sexual exploitation.

Earlier award

Yesterday’s award is on top of $625,000 in compensatory damages the jury awarded Bertolucci on Feb. 5 after it found the church’s leader guilty of unwelcome sexual conduct with members. The church was started in 1968 by J. Donald Walters, who goes by the name Swami Kriyananda. Today, the 72-year-old swami is the head of an organization with about 2,500 members worldwide, including churches in Palo Alto, Nevada City, Sacramento, Portland, Seattle and Italy.

“He’s just always been there as a secondary American guru. The swami hasn’t been a forceful type guru. He’s California laid back,” Melton said. Melton said foreign gurus drew the most controversy in the U.S.

Brainwashing argument

During a 10-week trial, Bertolucci’s attorneys, Michael Flynn and Ford Greene, portrayed Ananda as a cult and said the swami calls the shots. “Whatever the swami wants the swami gets,” Greene said. The lawyers argued the church slowly brainwashes its followers through chanting, monopolizing followers’ time and isolating them from their families. Brainwashing was a common theme in lawsuits against New Age churches in the 1980s and several multi-million jury verdicts were based on it, Melton said.

Cases overturned

The argument fell out of favor after a report in the late 1980s from the American Psychological Association which claimed there’s no scientific basis for brainwashing, Melton said.

The report was used to overturn several so-called cult cases, and brainwashing fell out of favor as an argument in lawsuits filed by disgruntled former New Age church members, he said.

That’s what makes the Ananda case unique — the primary argument was sexual exploitation, but it was coupled with brainwashing, Melton said.

“This is the first one of any importance this decade,” Melton said.

History, however, will look upon the Ananda case [as] an oddball rather than a precedent-setting moment in New Age religion, Melton said.

“It will be reversed on appeal,” he said.