Would-Be Shriner Says He Was Subjected to Painful Initiation Rites
LEXINGTON, Ky. - Michael G. Vaughan says he went to the Shrine temple to learn the secrets of the universe. What he learned, he says, is that the Shrine's initiation rites involve electric shocks and the humiliation of having one's underwear filled with strawberries and whipped cream.
Now his lawsuit against the fraternity has become cloaked in nearly as much secrecy as the rites themselves.
A judge has ordered all participants in the lawsuit not to divulge details of the case. The case file has been sealed. And only those directly involved with the lawsuit know when and where to meet for the trial Dec. 9.
The lawsuit was filed last year by Vaughan, a 44-year-old brick mason who claims he was knocked unconscious and suffered other injuries during initiation rites in 1989 at the Oleika Shrine Temple in Lexington. He seeks an unspecified amount for medical bills, lost income and punitive damages.
Before Circuit Judge George Barker issued a gag order last summer, Vaughan said in interviews that he wanted to become a Shriner because the group promised spiritual and emotional fulfillment.
The Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine has about 725,000 members in the United States, Canada and Mexico. The group is renowned for its philanthropy: Its charitable foundation runs 19 orthopedic and three burn hospitals where needy children are treated free of charge.
But Shriners also are famous for their love of fun. Temples hold circuses and football games, and Shriners driving miniature cars and boats and wearing Arabian costumes, turbans and fezzes are familiar sights at parades across America.
"I assumed that the Shrine, as the word would imply, was like (God's) highest secret order, where a great secret would be learned once you got it," Vaughan said.
So, in 1989, he and about three dozen other initiates stood before an audience of Shriners and began a series of tests, which included walking on an electrified mat, sitting on an electrified bench and getting a jolt of electricity to their bare buttocks, the lawsuit says.
At one point, the lawsuit says, Vaughan's shorts were taped to his legs and he suspected a nearby sinkful of strawberries, whipped cream and ice cream was to be poured into them.
This last humiliation was not carried out, he says, because a table fell over and took him with it. The lawsuit says Vaughan hit his head on the floor and was knocked unconscious.
Vaughan did not pay his dues and never returned to the temple.
His lawsuit claims that the activities were painful and harmful and that he needed medical treatment because of them. He accuses the supervising Shriners of assault and fraud.
A court-ordered videotape of the temple's initiation devices confirmed much of Vaughan's story, including the existence of the electrified bench and mat.
Lawyers on both sides of the case and officials of the Oleika Shrine Temple refused to comment this week, citing the court order. Vaughan has an unlisted telephone number and could not be reached.
In court documents, the temple denied several of the allegations but acknowledged that shocks "of less than one second" are administered during initiation. The Shriners denied Vaughan was knocked unconscious.
Theodore Corsones, lawyer for the national Shriners' organization, said he could not comment on the case but that his own initiation as a Shriner was spiritually uplifting. He said he toured a Shriners hospital for crippled children.
"As for what went on in Lexington, I haven't the foggiest because I wasn't there," Corsones said.
Rules are issued each year on proper initiation techniques, he said.
Robert E. Manley, whose Cincinnati law firm specializes in fraternity law, said at least 35 states, including Kentucky, have laws that ban hazing. Manley is not involved in Vaughan's lawsuit.
Manely said he wasn't sure if Kentucky's hazing law would apply to the Shrine case. But if the allegations are true, Vaughan could file an assault and battery complaint, he said.