This article follows on from the article that we wrote about the Buddhist group “Rigpa”, which promotes Tibetan Buddhist beliefs across a number of centres in various countries. The organisation was facing allegations of physical, emotional and sexual abuse by its founder and former spiritual leader, Sogyal Lakar or Sogyal Rinpoche as he was known in the Buddhist community.
There have been similar reports about another Buddhist group, Triratna (formerly known as the FWBO – Friends of the Western Buddhist Order) which is a worldwide organisation but whose centre is in the United Kingdom. Allegations were first made publically in an article in the Guardian in 1997, but date back to the 1960s.
There have been more recent reports both in the Guardian and the BBC about the founder of the organisation, Dennis Lingwood, known as Sangharakshita, who died recently on 30 October 2018, aged 93.
The FWBO and its core of Order Members, the Western Buddhist Order (“The Order”) was founded in the UK in 1967 by Dennis Lingwood. Lingwood was posted to India during WW2, but in 1947 he deserted the army, to go on to be ordained as a Buddhist monk and given the name of Sangharakshita. He then spent 20 years in India before returning to the UK to found the FWBO. Triratna has grown into a worldwide organisation, owning a number of properties in various different countries, including a valley in Spain for the men’s ordination retreat centre, further land in Spain for the women’s ordination retreat centre and its effective headquarters at a large country estate in Herefordshire.
In relation to sexual abuse, it was alleged that Lingwood used his role to gain access to young men and to coerce, intimidate and manipulate them into giving him sexual favours. It appears that Lingwood was able to distort Buddhist teachings in order to gain access to these young men and justify his behaviour.
Can adults be victims of religious organisations?
In a word – yes, of course. Modern legislation, namely the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 is aimed at protecting children and vulnerable persons, who are sometimes taken to be adults who are disabled in mind or body. However, experience shows that victims in this context, can include people without any kind of disability, who are well educated and perfectly cognisant of their legal rights.
Much has been written about the power of certain religious groups and what are popularly known as “cults” as well as their alleged “brainwashing” activities and “spiritual abuse”. Somehow or other, they and their charismatic elders are able to suspend a person’s rational thought processes as well as their ability to question what is happening. One way is to institute a campaign of emotional violence (although it can be physical and sexual as well), which takes away a person’s sense of their own self and their ability to protect themselves. There is a promised reward, which might be supernatural power or sometimes, simply power over others. The belief system is used as a cover or “reason” and in time the victim is wide open to abuse, often in plain sight of others, which then in turn reinforces the impression that this is “normal”. Everyone in the organisation is expected to turn a blind eye to the abuse, facilitate it and anyone who refuses or who speaks up, is effectively ostracised.
Such groups can be very highly organised. They draw in a steady stream of income, use the free labour of their students and they can provide those at the top with a luxurious lifestyle, as well as an acute sense of power. Many are perfectly respectable in all their outward appearances. They have lawyers, accountants, insurers and above all, charitable status, which means taxation exemptions and thus more income.
Buddhist teachings specifically forbid sexual misconduct. In Triratna, Lingwood did not deny that he was having sexual relations with young men, but he also justified what he was doing by saying that it was a temporary “experimentation” with different forms of communication. However, the abuse went on for many years and during this time, Lingwood would wear the traditional orange robes of a celibate monk. He would also wear a gold “kesa” which is a band of material going around the neck, again signifying celibacy. Knowledge of this behaviour, although widely known within the Triratna organisation was not discussed publicly.
The other weakness often found in religious organisations is their chronic inability to listen to and act on allegations. Effective safeguarding at its core means reporting justifiable concerns to the authorities. All too often, religious organisations will go to extreme lengths to conceal information from the authorities or they find a reason for silence conveniently based on their own belief system. One avoidance strategy is the “investigation” on the spot. This conveniently finds there is nothing to be done and nothing to report to the authorities. Another stratagem is simple “forgiveness”. This is why the calls for mandatory reporting of abuse are growing every greater, particularly in light of the findings in the Institutional Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse and the writers believe that the argument for introducing the necessary legislation is now effectively won.
What will the authorities do?
In relation to criminal prosecution, there may well be a case to be prosecuted, depending on the jurisdiction where the abuse took place. This, of course, cannot be against someone who has now died.
Section 72 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 allows the Crown Prosecution Service in to prosecute a UK national for committing abuse outside the UK, where that abuse would constitute an offence in the UK. In certain circumstances, this can be extended to someone who becomes resident in or a citizen of the UK after committing the offence.
However, criminal prosecutions in cases of abuse require a great deal of resources, something that the police and the CPS do not have these days. They also require co-operative witnesses, who are prepared to stand up in court and face their abuser, a chilling prospect for anyone who has been had to go through the court process as a victim of crime. Finally, there is a defence available to a Defendant, in sexual abuse cases. That defence is consent, and in the context of a religious setting designed and intended for adults, it is likely to be raised.
The 2003 Act does give some additional protection to older children where there is an abuse of trust, as well as people with learning difficulties or a mental disorder. There are also other offences, which can be committed against adults such as voyeurism and exposure, which may more difficult to defend.
In relation to other regulatory authorities, the Charity Commission can remove an organisation’s charitable status, which would be a highly effective way of dramatically reducing its finances and in effect putting it out of business. The Commission has made it very clear in recent years that they will expect organisations with safeguarding problems to launch an investigation, co-operate with the authorities and put right what they can before they are allowed to move on.
The Disclosure and Barring Service protects both children and “vulnerable adults” under the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006. However “vulnerable adults” are not defined by that Act, and it only deals only with “regulated activities” in relation to those adults, which are quite closely defined, for instance adult health care.
There’s also a question as to whether the Mental Capacity Act 2005 applies. At first sight, this Act does not appear to have been specifically written with the kind of “brainwashing” and “spiritual abuse” of vulnerable people in mind. Nonetheless it was written to protect people with mental health problems, particularly in situations where decisions of a financial nature need to be made on their behalf or with their co-operation.
Section 2(1) of this Act states :-
“For the purposes of this Act, a person lacks capacity in relation to a matter if at the material time he is unable to make a decision for himself in relation to the matter because of an impairment of, or a disturbance in the functioning of, the mind or brain.”
Section 44 of the Act provides for an offence of ill treatment of neglect of a person without capacity. It’s not unknown for people with serious mental health problems to join religious groups and suffer a deterioration in that mental health. Such people can be very vulnerable to financial exploitation, quite apart from the kind of treatment mentioned in Section 44. Moreover, Schedule 3 of the Act provides that the protection of those without mental capacity is international in nature.
Can victims sue the organisation in the civil courts?
The law relating to the responsibility of a religious organisation for abuse committed by its senior members is remarkably developed. Very briefly, it is highly likely that a court would hold such an organisation directly liable for abuse committed by a senior member, for instance, an “elder”.
There are potential problems in relation to jurisdiction. Much may depend on the jurisdiction in which the organisation is based. In addition, the organisation could raise the defence of consent, although in truth, it is never one of the most attractive arguments to go before a court and the existence of a publicly available report on what went wrong, can be a powerful aid to any civil claim. There may also be limitation problems. Very briefly, for an adult, the time limit for bringing a direct claim for abuse causing personal injury is three years from the date of the abuse, and for a child, three years from the child’s 18th birthday. Courts in England and Wales have extended this time limit, mainly in cases of children who sue many years after reaching adulthood. In cases involving the abuse of adult in religious settings, it’s not clear how generous a court would be.
In addition, it might be possible to recover monies paid over to the organisation. Some require adherents to make over large sums of money, and undertake large amounts of work for free. This could conceivably be done on contractual grounds, either on the grounds of what is known as “undue influence”, “misrepresentation” or possibly even lack of capacity.
It’s clear from the dreadful tales told by survivors of abuse in religious settings that the damage done to them is serious and often irreversible. There is a huge breach of trust here – because the student or disciple will expose the very fibre of their being to the abuser. They are – without doubt – vulnerable to abuse.
Triratna’s response to the allegations of abuse, have raised questions. There are apparently now safeguarding procedures in place, but former members of the Order and are not convinced that it recognises the full damage that has been done in the past.
Malcolm Johnson and Sue Jackson have both been involved in cases involving abuse in religious settings. Malcolm Johnson is one of the authors of “Child Abuse Compensation Claims” published by Jordans.