Be Scofield is the author of the new book Hunting Lucifer: One Reporter's Search for Cults and Demons. Her reporting is mentioned in the NYtimes, Rolling Stone, People and more.
BY BE SCOFIELD
June 25th, 2023
Spiritual guru Swami Chetanananda is facing a lawsuit by a former devotee who alleges a pattern of sexual and physical abuse. “Defendant J. Michael Shoemaker groomed, repeatedly sexually exploited, trafficked, and sexually assaulted Plaintiff,” the lawsuit begins.
Michael Shoemaker, who goes by Swami Chetanananda, was exposed by the Oregonian newspaper in a five-part series in 2001. The series, called "In the Grip of the Guru," interviewed former devotees who alleged sexual, financial and spiritual abuses. A year prior, 11 students wrote an open letter that exposed the "horrors, fraud, and coercion that occurred at the Movement Center," according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges that Swami Chetanananda and his followers created an environment, "where vulnerable individuals – especially vulnerable young women like Plaintiff – were physically, spiritually, and sexually exploited." It goes on to say that Chetanananda, "groomed, physically harmed, coercively controlled, and sexually assaulted Plaintiff and other students under his spiritual tutelage at the Movement Center." It claims Chetanananda and his followers propped him up as an "enlightened figure" who should be "unquestionably obeyed."
The lawsuit alleges that Chetanananda sexually assaulted the student on several different occasions during healing treatments.
"When Plaintiff arrived in Shoemaker’s room and began the treatment, Shoemaker suddenly assaulted her by touching her inappropriately and kissing her," the lawsuit alleges. "Shoemaker fondled Plaintiff’s breasts underneath her shirt. He slid his hands down her pants and penetrated Plaintiff’s vagina with his fingers. Shoemaker also put his mouth on Plaintiff’s nipples."
And during a later session, she alleges that he sexually assaulted her and choked her unconscious.
When Plaintiff entered Shoemaker’s room, he was sitting on the massage table. He gestured for her to sit with him, and he began to sexually assault Plaintiff by kissing her and digitally penetrating her vagina without her consent.
Suddenly, Shoemaker put his hands around her throat. He forcibly choked her with enough pressure for Plaintiff to lose consciousness. She did not consent to this assault.
When she regained consciousness, Plaintiff asked Shoemaker what had just happened. Shoemaker told her that it was a “next level orgasm.” Plaintiff noticed that Shoemaker had grabbed her hand and put it on his penis.
Shoemaker then laid Plaintiff back down on the table and non-consensually kissed her and fondled her breasts some more.
Shoemaker then walked to his bedside table, pulled out approximately $250, and gave the money to Plaintiff.
The lawsuit also describes other instances of sexual assault by Chetanananda against G.M. When she brought these sexual abuses to the attention of the group she was told speaking about them would "impede her spiritual growth."
"Shoemaker manipulated the guru-student relationship by fraudulently advising Plaintiff that sexual intercourse was a way of facilitating energy exchange that was necessary for her spiritual enlightenment," the lawsuit states. "He coerced Plaintiff into believing that such sex acts were purely spiritual exercises."
G.M. claims Chetanananda and his devotees said anyone who cut ties with the group, "would be incarcerated, driven to suicide, cursed, and/or thrown into hell." He also said those outside the ashram were "untrustworthy because they could not understand the true nature of reality."
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Portland, lays out the history of Chetanananda's abuses. It alleges that around 2008 he forced a devotee to ingest cocaine before initiating rituals. "The rituals involved raping women individually or coercing the women into group sex with members of the Movement Center’s leadership ring or 'inner circle,'" the lawsuit alleges. It states that a follower posted on Facebook in 2019 that she had been "sexually assaulted and subjected to drug-fueled gang rapes and other sexual atrocities."
The lawsuit cites an example of a woman who left who was found dead of asphyxiation and another found dead of an apparent drug overdose at the center.
Later in 2019, Swami Chetanananda moved his center from Portland to Gold Beach, Oregon.
The lawsuit was filed by Carol Merchasin of McAllister Olivarius. She previously uncovered sexual abuse in Shambhala International lineage of Buddhism, and the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centers. She's currently representing the young woman who filed a lawsuit alleging sexual battery and sex trafficking against Choying Rabjam.
The suit against Swami Chetanananda is the latest attempt to use labor and human trafficking violations to hold spiritually abusive cult leaders accountable. In 2020, NXVIM founder Keith Rainere was sentenced to life in prison on similar charges. And in June 2023, the founder of One Taste Nicole Daedone, and her assistant were charged with labor trafficking.