Children as young as three were repeatedly molested by the former leader of Australia's oldest ashram and threatened with death if they ever disclosed the crimes, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has heard.
The opening day of an inquiry into the Satyananda Yoga Ashram and its former leader in Australia, Swami Akhandananda Saraswati, heard 11 children were abused while living at the ashram in the 1970s and 1980s.
Nine of the former child residents will give evidence to the royal commission in its first hearing into a faith-based organisation outside the church.
Counsel assisting the commission Peggy Dwyer told the hearing that sexual activity was discouraged in the movement but, despite this, its founder Satyananda Saraswati and his disciple Akhandananda molested their followers.
The commission heard that Akhandananda began a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old girl named Shishy after he moved to Australia from his native India in 1974.
The pair established the Satyananda Yoga Ashram at Mangrove Mountain on the central coast with the commission hearing the swami started to abuse young girls from the mid-1970s, often while Shishy was present in the room.
Akhandananda told his victims that "engaging in sexual activity with him was for their own spiritual growth."
Youngsters were often separated from their parents, the commission heard, and ashram managers arranged to have child welfare payments directed to their favour. The commission heard that devotees routinely handed all their material possessions to the ashram and, in some cases, legal guardianship of their children.
The swami would beat children with a carved wooden staff known as a Kundalini stick, the commission was told.
Children were told that if they disclosed the abuse they would be killed, beaten or cast out.
Former resident Alecia Buchanan told the commission she moved to the ashram as a 13-year-old, believing it was a "wonderful place where children roamed free".
The commission heard evidence she was subjected to physical beatings, hard labour and sexual abuse perpetrated by Akhandananda who swore her to secrecy, indicating he owned a gun.
Ms Buchanan told the commission that when the swami lost interest in her, he asked her to procure other children for his sexual gratification, saying, "Just bring her in. Tell her there is nothing to worry about."
Another former resident, known as Jyoti told the commission she felt "like a slave, like a piece of meat" when Akhandananda raped her as a 16-year-old.
She was told her life would be in danger if she spoke about the abuse, with the leader warning: "Don't ever tell anyone, you'll be killed if you do."
Akhandananda was charged in 1987 after one of his victims went to the police. He was convicted in 1989 and served jail time but the conviction was overturned on a legal technicality in 1991. He died in Cairns in 1997.
The commission heard more victims came forward in the lead up to the ashram's 40th anniversary however the ashram threatened complainants with legal action for speaking out.
In a statement read before the royal commission, the ashram's lawyer Aaron Kernaghan apologised on behalf of the organisation.
More than 25 witnesses are expected to give evidence over the two week inquiry before Justice Jennifer Coate. The hearing continues.
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