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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spiritual guru in Oregon faces sex abuse lawsuit by former follower; denies allegations

The former site of the Nityananda Institute at Northeast 33rd Avenue and Sandy Boulevard, that J. Michael Shoemaker, known as Swami Chetanananda, ran for decades.  (Tribune News Service)
By Maxine Bernstein

A former student and devotee of J. Michael Shoemaker, the founder and spiritual leader of the Movement Center, has filed a federal suit against him, alleging he sexually exploited and assaulted her.

The woman, identified by the initials G.M. in the suit filed Wednesday in Portland, alleges Shoemaker choked her until she lost consciousness in one encounter.

Shoemaker, now 74, taught his followers that having sex was a way of “facilitating energy exchange” and necessary for spiritual enlightenment, the suit says. He convinced his followers, including G.M., to believe they would be “cursed” or “thrown into hell” if they cut ties with him, the suit alleges.

Shoemaker, who goes by the Hindi name Swami Chetanananda, has been considered by his followers as a guru within the Bhagavan Nityananda lineage of Hinduism.

He is founder and president of the Movement Center, described on its website as a center for spiritual practice, with meditation, yoga and tantric traditions and practices. He ran it in Portland for more than two decades out of a 61-bedroom historic mansion in the Kerns neighborhood before selling it in May 2020 for $8.9 million and moving the center to an estate in Gold Beach in Oregon’s Curry County that summer.

The suit alleges the Movement Center was negligent by not reporting Shoemaker to police or failing to bar him from center activities after similar allegations had surfaced in the past.

The Oregonian published a four-part series called “In the Grip of the Guru” in 2001 about the Nityananda Institute, the former name of the Movement Center. At that time, 11 women told the Oregonian that Shoemaker had sex with them while they studied with him and provided detailed accounts corroborated in multiple cases by people they told at the time.

Shoemaker responded to the Oregonian’s questions that year with a typed statement, acknowledging he had “sexual relationships with mature, adult consenting women” during the prior 30 years.

Shoemaker has never faced criminal charges from the allegations.

Reached by phone Thursday, Shoemaker vigorously denied the accusations in the federal lawsuit.

“Every bit of this is complete and utter nonsense,” he said.

He said he and the woman suing him had a “misunderstanding” and that he “took responsibility” and apologized “for whatever she was upset about.” He declined to elaborate.

Shoemaker said he retired four years ago and the center hasn’t operated for several years. While at one time he may have had 100 followers, he said he now has about 30.

“Here’s what I’m guilty of – I’m guilty of having sex with women,” he said. “I have never choked anybody in my whole life. … I have never, ever in my life, had to coerce anybody in my life to have sex with me. Why would I be interested in sex if coercion was involved? That’s not connection. That’s not nourishing. I’m a human being trying to grow myself and help other people grow.”

One of the lawyers who filed the suit on behalf of G.M. is New York-based attorney Carol M. Merchasin, a former employment lawyer who is now semi-retired, specializing in cases that allege sexual abuse in spiritual communities.

This suit accuses Shoemaker and his center of benefiting financially from Shoemaker’s alleged acts of sexual exploitation. Similar to previous suits filed against Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein, this suit alleges Shoemaker engaged in sex trafficking. Under the federal sex-trafficking law, it’s a crime to entice and force a person to commit a “commercial sex act” in return for something of value.

Attorney Stephen English, who represents Shoemaker and the Movement Center, said, “We categorically deny any claims of sex trafficking or any of the other malicious allegations made against a man who had spent his adult life trying to better the lives of others.”

G.M., now living in Indiana, first traveled from her then-home in Dallas-Fort Worth to the Portland-based meditation center for a two-day retreat in 2016, intrigued by the center’s website. She attended yoga classes and meditation sessions and found a supportive environment, according to her lawyers.

She returned in January 2019 to study, meditate and work at the Movement Center in exchange for room and board, hoping to start a college master’s program that fall. She did secretarial and kitchen work and worked at the center’s front desk, often putting in more than 40 hours of work per week, the suit says.

Months later, when G.M. heard allegations of sexual misconduct involving Shoemaker, other women at the center told her the women making the allegations were lying, according to the suit.

G.M. became isolated from her friends and family and was convinced to remain at the center and not pursue her master’s degree, the suit says. She soon looked to Shoemaker to help her make most decisions, from what to buy, who to date and which career to pursue, the suit alleges.

G.M. lived at the center in Portland and then relocated with other members to Gold Beach.

Around February 2021, Shoemaker “demanded” that G.M. kiss him “deeply” while they were alone at the gym and then Shoemaker over the next month or two invited her to his room for “treatment” and groped her, the suit alleges.

Around that time, he had her sit beside him on a massage table, then began sexually assaulting her and suddenly put his hands around her throat and choked her, the suit alleges. When she regained consciousness, he claimed she had a “next level orgasm,” according to the suit.

He then continued to kiss and grope her and gave her $250 in cash, the suit alleges.

“Defendant Shoemaker sexually assaulted Plaintiff under the guise of spiritual teaching, and he commanded total obedience as part of the guru-student relationship,” Merchasin, along with attorneys Ashley L. Vaughn and Zachary McConnell, wrote in the suit.

He afforded G.M. special treatment, allowing her to sit next to him at dinner, have one-on-one time with him and later offered to have her serve as editor of his future book, according to the suit.

Shoemaker several times asked G.M. to send him nude photos of herself, but she didn’t, the suit says.

G.M. left the center sometime in March 2021, setting aside her worries about “spiritual and physical retribution,” the suit says.

On Thursday, Shoemaker said he had been alone in a room with the woman now suing him two or three times and said he gave her what he described as a “cranial sacral treatment.” He said the woman lived on the property in a trailer and had a boyfriend, but that she was “really not in a very good place” with him.

“I tried to create for her a small space in which she could take a breath,” he said. “I’m not an abuser.”

The suit seeks unspecified punitive, economic and noneconomic damages against Shoemaker and the center.