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Kashi Ashram: Claims of Rape, Child Abuse, and Kidnapping

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But Conti wasn't the only one to bring significant allegations against Ma Jaya and the church, and soon it wasn't clear anymore whether this encampment, which had begun as a quest to find God through service and tolerance, hadn't fallen under the yoke of a megalomaniac and morphed into something much darker. During the 1990s and early 2000s, two dozen former Kashi residents alleged profound abuses ranging from psychological control to extortion to physical violence against both adults and children. Interviews, court filings, and a Rosenkranz-commissioned study of 21 former residents by now-deceased cult psychologist Paul Martin reveal the following claims:

• Ma Jaya either personally struck residents or ordered them beaten, according to nine respondents in Martin's study and eight former members interviewed by New Times.

• Police were twice called to extract children living with Ma Jaya.

• Ma Jaya demanded money from followers, 13 former residents alleged. "Ma conspired to defraud me of my inheritance," Richard Rosenkranz said in a March 2002 affidavit.

• Ma Jaya severely burned a man with a votive candle in 1981 to punish him for sexually molesting a child, said three witnesses interviewed by New Times and two additional respondents in Martin's study.

• The molested boy was "beaten at length by Ma" and "made to walk naked around the central pond with about 50 people watching," recalled one respondent in Martin's study. "His penis [was] painted black with a magic marker."

• Ma Jaya personally beat at least two children, Sal Conti claimed. "Ma slapped [a boy] across the face," he said in his deposition. "I had never seen someone hit that hard." A respondent in Martin's survey said she saw Ma "slug" a 2-year-old in the arm.

Kashi spokesperson Cirillo denies accusations of abuse and calls these former members "a few disgruntled people. Those allegations were very troubling for us," she said. "And all I can say is it's really difficult when you're in a spiritual teaching. And when it's not a place for you anymore, people have blamed us when they wanted to move on.

"When I hear people saying we're a cult, I say, 'What is this crap?'" Cirillo added. "I don't get it. The allegations are a bunch of baloney."

They wouldn't disappear, however. In the early 1990s, reporters deluged the Kashi ranch like locusts. The Palm Beach Post published an article headlined "Guru Ma: Saintly or Sinister?"and People magazine described how Rosanne Henry had retrieved her 7-year-old daughter with an Indian River County court order and a five-member SWAT team in 1989.

After the child was returned to Henry's home, the girl believed Ma Jaya was God and prayed to her at the dinner table, according to a state health and rehabilitative services' psychological evaluation. (Retired detective Mary Shelly, who'd ordered the raid to remove the girl, declined to comment about Kashi beyond saying "These are some very vindictive individuals" when New Times visited her Vero Beach home.)

After Henry took back her daughter, Ma Jaya descended into apoplexy, Conti said. "She was completely outraged that the kid was taken from her," Conti testified in 2001. "She was trying to scheme all ways to try and steal her back."

In the following months, Henry said Kashi delivered stuffed animals and bicycles to her front stoop in Littleton, Colorado. Agents of Kashi Ashram stalked her child. "At one point," Rosanne Henry said in her 2001 deposition, "I had to decide if I was going to hire a bodyguard for my child."

But Cirillo instead claims that Rosanne Henry had planned on an abortion and that the guru had saved the child's life. "Henry didn't want to take responsibility; she gave up her child. When she wanted her back, all she had to do was make a phone call. But instead, what did she do? It couldn't have been so simple. How do they justify their lying?"

The constant discrepancies between stories illustrate a broader issue that's bedeviled reporters, police, and psychologists who have investigated the Sebastian ranch. Ma Jaya has never been accused or convicted of a crime, except for battery in 1982 for attacking an Albertson's clerk in Stuart. (She was put on probation for one year.) And as Cirillo points out, only disaffected followers have entered any complaints.

Indeed, Ma Jaya was also a person of indefatigable service. At the height of the AIDS scare, she championed gay rights. She pushed graphic pictures of AIDS victims at Pope John Paul II in 1993. Three years later, she delivered an impassioned plea for equality at the Washington Memorial. She cared for the sick and dying at local hospitals, and hundreds looked to her for support. "Ma really walked the walk," said Los Angeles documentarian Janice Engel, whom Ma Jaya taught for decades. "No matter if you were gay, straight, it didn't matter. She would love you no matter who you were."

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Terrence McCoy