Buddhist charity censured after failing to investigate abuse claims

Trustees at a Buddhist charity failed to properly investigate allegations of sexual and physical abuse against its spiritual leader, the Charity Commission has concluded. 

An inquiry report by the regulator, published today, criticised the London-based charity Rigpa Fellowship, which was set up to advance the Buddhist religion, for leaving students at risk of harm.

The regulator opened a case into the charity after serious allegations of abuse against its students by the charity’s spiritual director, Sogyal Lakar, surfaced in a letter published online in June 2017.

The letter, which was signed by eight students, outlined “long-simmering issues” with Lakar’s behaviour “that can no longer be ignored or denied”.

Addressed to Lakar, the letter described a number of allegations against him including physical, emotional and psychological abuse of students, including sexual abuse, and accusing him of leading  a “lavish, gluttonous and sybaritic lifestyle”.

As a result of a letter, the commission opened a compliance case in August 2017.

After this, the charity commissioned the law firm Lewis Silkin LLP to undertake an investigation into the allegations made in the letter.

In a 50-page report completed in August 2018, the law firm did not uphold all the allegations against Lakar, but said: “On the balance of probabilities: some students[...] have been subjected to serious physical, sexual and emotional abuse by him and “there were senior individuals within the charity who were aware of at least some of these issues and failed to address them, leaving others at risk”.

The commission’s engagement escalated to a statutory inquiry after it found that the charity was not making sufficient progress in addressing safeguarding concerns.

The regulator disqualified one former trustee and removed another trustee during the course of its inquiry.

Patrick Gaffney and Susan Burrows both failed to take appropriate action despite having knowledge of instances and allegations of improper acts and sexual and physical abuse against students, the commission concluded.

During a meeting with the inquiry, Gaffney appeared unable or unwilling to recognise the serious nature of the allegations that had been made and the lack of appropriate action taken, the commission said. 

Evidence seen by the inquiry did not support claims from Burrows that she had no prior knowledge of instances of abuse involving Lakar, while both former trustees “failed to recognise or sought to downplay” the seriousness of the allegations.

Investigators also found that the charity failed to report incidents relating to physical or sexual abuse to the commission.

The inquiry concluded that former trustees and senior management figures at the charity were responsible for mismanagement and misconduct, particularly around how former trustees responded to safeguarding concerns. 

The report said that their inability to create a safe culture within the charity exposed some beneficiaries to harm.

Helen Stephenson, chief executive of the Charity Commission, said: “The fact that students were subjected to abuse by somebody in a position of power is shameful, and I am appalled that this was able to happen in a charity where people should have felt safe.”

The regulator said that current trustees had implemented new safeguarding policies and procedures tailored specifically to the operations of the UK charity, and had taken steps to sever the governance link between the UK charity and its international counterparts. 

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