The religious school Rigpa – which promotes Tibetan Buddhist beliefs across schools in many countries including the UK – is currently facing allegations of physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
A report commissioned by Rigpa itself has outlined multiple allegations of abuse against founder and former spiritual leader, Sogyal Lakar (known as Sogyal Rinpoche in the Buddhist community).
They include allegations of physically abusing people by slapping them, punching them, kicking them and pulling their ears. One student was allegedly knocked unconscious, whilst monks and nuns were said to have been left bloodied and scarred.
In terms of sexual abuse, it is alleged he used his role to gain access to young women and to coerce, intimidate and manipulate them into giving him sexual favours.
The report concludes that it was clear a number of senior individuals within the management had been aware of serious concerns about his behaviour since at least since the mid-1990 and recommends its leadership should now consider which matters should be officially reported to the police or other relevant regulators.
Sadly, in our work supporting survivors of abuse in religious settings, myself and my Hudgell Solicitors colleague Sue Jackson have become all too aware of common weaknesses in religious organisations to listen to and act on allegations and concerns over behaviour.
Effective safeguarding at its core means reporting justifiable concerns to the authorities, but all too often such organisations go to extreme lengths to conceal information from the authorities or find a reason for silence, conveniently based on their own belief system.
‘On the spot investigations’ often conveniently find there is nothing to be done and nothing to report to the authorities – or people who do make complaints are encouraged to follow the route of ‘forgiveness’.
It is for this very reason that calls for mandatory reporting of abuse are growing ever greater, particularly in light of the findings in the Institutional Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, from which writers believe the argument for introducing the necessary legislation is now effectively won.
Adults can lose rational thought and not question the ‘crazy wisdom’ or abuse they suffer
The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 is aimed at protecting children and vulnerable persons – victims in this context which can include people without any kind of disability, who are also well educated and perfectly cognisant of their legal rights.
Much has been written about the power of certain religious organisations and what are popularly known as “cults”. Somehow, 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 to them.
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 often a promised reward, which might be a supposed supernatural power or sometimes, simply power over others and the belief system is used as a cover or “reason” for whatever is happening which shouldn’t be.
Over time this makes the victim wide open to abuse, often in plain sight of others, which then in turn reinforces the impression that everything is ‘normal’. As a result, everyone within an organisation is expected to turn a blind eye to such abuse, even facilitate it, and anyone who refuses or who speaks up is instantly ejected.
Enlightenment can also come at a very heavy price, as typically, absolute devotion to the ‘way’ is required.
The Rigpa report mentions a recording of a ‘teaching’ delivered by Sogyal Lakar to a witness, in which Sogyal can be clearly heard to state:
“It’s like each time I hit you, I want you also to remember that you’re closer to me, closer to me. And the harder I hit you, the deeper the connection. And if this breaks it means that all the barriers of communication are gone. But, however, frankly speaking I don’t want to resort to that”.
This kind of teaching is described in the report as ‘crazy wisdom’ but to many survivors of abuse in a religious setting, it will be horribly familiar.
Sadly, this is not the only story about abuse in the Buddhist community to appear in the media, as recent allegations emanated from former students of the Agama Yoga organisation, another international organisation with schools in several countries.
Sixteen former pupils and staff reported that one of its centres facilitated sexual assault, rape and misogynistic teachings, leading to the school launching an independent inquiry as it co-operates fully with the police.
The Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church and other Christian denominations are also all able to offer up their own appalling examples of the way in which a belief system can be used to abuse and damage their own adherents.
What will the authorities do and can victims of abuse sue?
In terms of criminal proceedings, co-operative witnesses must be willing to stand up in court and face their abuser to bring a case to trial, whilst difficulties can also be faced with regard to sexual abuse cases within a religious setting designed and intended for adults, as a defence of consent is often likely to be raised.
The 2003 Sexual Offences 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, whilst other offences committed against adults, such as voyeurism and exposure, may prove 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 put 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.
In terms of civil action and suing those responsible, the law relating to the responsibility of a religious organisation for abuse committed by its senior members is remarkably developed.
It is therefore 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 the jurisdiction in which the organisation is based, and to avoid limitation problems the time limit for bringing a direct claim for abuse is three years from the date of the abuse.
For a child, the claim should be brought within three years from their 18th birthday, but many courts in England and Wales have extended this time limit, mainly in cases of children who sue many years after reaching adulthood.
What is clear from the dreadful tales told by survivors of abuse in religious settings that the damage done to them is serious and often irreversible.
It should never be imagined that in any way, physical and emotional abuse is less serious than sexual abuse, and never should any form of abuse be considered something which is accepted.
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.