This week we have another guest post by Jo Green. The two key questions are ones that I’ve heard asked many times by people unwilling to accept that Sogyal did actually abuse his students. This post shows just how possible it is for evil to lurk below an apparently benefical exterior.
TWO KEY QUESTIONS
“He brought so much benefit to so many people – how could he be a bad person?”
“If the allegations are true, how come nothing been proved in court?”
I have seen these two questions and variations upon them asked almost daily since last year’s revelations exposed the extent of abuse by Sogyal Rinpoche. They are asked by those who seek to protect his reputation at all costs, but they are also asked by a large number of people who are sincerely trying to make sense of the dissonance between their personal experiences and the accounts they’ve heard.
That’s why I thought it would be useful to tell the story of another person who certainly brought benefit to many people and whose reputation was never challenged in court, yet – if justice had been done – should probably have spent most of his life in jail. I think it may shed a lot of light on those two questions.
THE GREAT PHILANTHROPIST
Although he’s not much known outside the UK, there probably isn’t an adult in Britain who doesn’t know who Jimmy Savile was. Whether you thought he was great or he drove you crazy, everybody was familiar with his tracksuits, bling, cigars, Tarzan impressions and catchphrases. He said that he played the clown in public so that he felt accessible to everybody, but he was highly intelligent.
At the time of his death in October 2011 at the age of 84, he had long been SIR Jimmy Savile and the newspaper obituaries spoke with one voice: “Disc jockey, television presenter and tireless fundraiser for charity”, “Flamboyant disc jockey with a flair for good works”, “Exuberant disc jockey and TV personality who harnessed his cigar-chomping public persona to raise millions of pounds for charity” and so on. It was estimated he had raised up to £40m for good causes, as well as giving away a considerable slice of his personal income.
From a humble background, he went on to present the very first edition of the legendary Top of the Pops on the BBC in 1964 and would be there to present the last in 2006, with endless appearances in between, plus regular slots on Radio 1. At Saturday tea times, his show Jim’ll Fix It was the nation’s family viewing. In this programme, viewers wrote in – usually children – and asked him to help their dreams come true: be it meeting their sporting hero or eating lunch on a rollercoaster. This he did, across hundreds of editions over 18 years.
But Savile chose to do something truly remarkable with his fame and fortune: he used it as leverage to generate money and attention for a variety of charitable causes, working ceaselessly to fundraise for them. During the war he was sent down the mines, where he sustained a spinal injury, requiring a long period of recuperation. In recognition of this, he dedicated special effort to supporting the spinal injuries unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, bringing many millions to them over the years, helping to turn it into a world-class institution. But he also did epic charity bike rides and ran marathons in aid of many charities.
He volunteered at Leeds General Hospital and at Broadmoor high-security psychiatric hospital. Such was the frequency of his visits to both institutions that he had his own room to stay in. He was eventually made a junior health minister under Margaret Thatcher, appointed to head a task force to oversee the management of Broadmoor hospital after its board was suspended.
He was a friend of Prince Charles. Margaret Thatcher got him knighted by the Queen in 1990 and that same year, as a lifelong Catholic, he was given a Papal Knighthood by Pope John Paul II. These last two events were widely regarded as closing the book on the rumours there had been about him, since people are thoroughly vetted before receiving such honours. But rumours there were.
RUMOURS BECOME FACT
When a well-respected journalist, Lynn Barber, dared to tell Savile that “What people say is that you like little girls,” even after his knighthood, she was widely criticised. Savile answered the claim expertly and it rested there. A decade later, Louis Theroux – an interviewer specialising in difficult subjects, who made My Scientology Movie – spent a long time filming with Savile and brought up the same questions, but found no evidence of wrongdoing. He continued to meet with Savile over the years and later acknowledged to Savile’s victims how completely he had been hoodwinked. Because victims there were. Many.
A year after Savile’s death, ITV broadcast “The Other Side of Jimmy Savile” which, for the first time, aired accounts from women who said they had been abused by him. A police investigation started the very next day. Ten weeks later they revealed the extent of the allegations they had received:
450 victims had contacted them. They had identified 199 crimes in 17 police force areas, including 31 allegations of rape. 82% of those to come forward were female, 80% had been children or young people at the time of the incidents. Staff at Broadmoor claimed he had engaged in necrophiliac acts with corpses in the mortuary.
Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary later concluded that 214 of these complaints would have been criminal offences, had they been reported at the time. Sixteen victims reported being raped by Savile when under the age of consent, another ten when over 16. Four of these victims had been under the age of ten at the time. It’s thought his oldest abuse victim was 75.
There had already been reports to the police over the years and there had been many issues raised by people who worked alongside him in hospitals or in the media. All the signs had been there, with alarm bells having been rung at various significant moments, right back to the 1960s. An independent report for the BBC listed five significant times they had missed opportunities to identify and stop the abuse. But none of these individually had seemed a strong enough basis on which to take any action. Then there was the high esteem Savile was held in publicly – what is referred to as the “halo” effect. And then there was the potential loss of income to charities if accusations came out – the “benefit” Savile brought.
THE VALUE OF “BENEFIT”
People talk a lot about “the benefit Sogyal Rinpoche has brought to sentient beings”. Some might point to the fact that he introduced people to meditation and the nature of mind, whereas Savile was just an entertainer. But imagine for a moment you had lost the use of your legs in an accident and were in Stoke Mandeville Hospital. Would you be happier to hear the doctor tell you:
“We’re able to give you a treatment to help you walk again.”
Or “Sogyal Rinpoche is coming to visit you to introduce you to the nature of mind.”?
The benefit Sogyal Rinpoche has brought to the Dharma is highly debatable. Whatever he may have done to get people interested in Buddhism is now being radically undone because of his behaviour. I have recently spoken to many people who have been completely put off Buddhism by hearing these things and concluding that in the end it seems as abusive as any other religion.
Neither Sogyal nor Rigpa have shown much interest in helping any cause outside of the world of Tibetan Buddhism. True, they make some donations for the lives of animals to be spared. Then Sogyal orders another steak. So, in the practical or financial sense, there’s not much benefit to the world at large.
By contrast, the benefit Jimmy Savile brought is quantifiable: thousands of people helped in many practical ways, down the years – people healed, lives saved. By contrast, Sogyal founded his fame on talking about dealing with illness and death but was far more reluctant to set foot in a hospital. Of course, had Jimmy Savile been arrested and imprisoned for his abusive behaviour back in the 1960s, those institutions might not have received that benefit. So, are we to conclude that it was a good thing he went to his grave without ever being caught?
I don’t believe there is a charity or hospital out there that would consider child abuse or rape an acceptable price to pay for some extra funds. Most of the recipients of Savile’s help could surely have found financial support through other means, just as most Rigpa students could have been introduced to Buddhist ideas by a teacher that did not abuse a significant minority of his students. One could argue that without Savile, Stoke Mandeville would not be what it is today, just as without Sogyal Rinpoche there would be no beautiful Buddhist temple at Lerab Ling. So, are these structures worth a lifetime of suffering for the victims of abuse? Does that somehow make it OK? I hope nobody reading this thinks so.
THE HALO EFFECT
Jimmy Savile was a popular public figure and had dealings with thousands of people. To most, he was a comical, eccentric celebrity. Those he abused were just a very small percentage. Far more people got some kind of benefit by being associated with him. Most people attending teachings from Sogyal in that temple or at Rigpa centres would come to no harm whatsoever and might well come away feeling they had learnt something important. But many of those who found themselves alone with the teacher or the celebrity were having an entirely different experience – experiences that would leave them traumatised.
If the Queen or the Pope or the Dalai Lama or Richard Gere appears to endorse you, then it can be very, very hard for victims to be believed when they speak up and recount experiences that don’t fit with the public image at all. And if nobody joins all the dots between a multitude of acts occurring at different times in different places, then a skilful perpetrator can appear completely untouchable.
THE CHALLENGE OF JUSTICE
Most people who have been abused have little or no motivation to be retraumatised by the process of police interrogation and being publicly exposed in a courtroom. It takes a very brave person to do that, and the minimum they need is a sense they will be believed and that others will rally around them. When each victim feels isolated and disbelieved they also feel powerless to go up against figures who stand as tall as a Sogyal Rinpoche or a Jimmy Savile. So, it is entirely possible for there to exist hundreds of victims and crimes, and yet there not be a single court challenge.
Of course, I am not for one moment suggesting that Sogyal Rinpoche did the same things as Jimmy Savile, but it must be stressed that we currently do not know the full extent of what Sogyal did. In the Savile case we see that rumours swirling for decades and occasional instances of people raising concerns or reporting incidents proved indicative of an almost unimaginably large catalogue of crimes. We do not know if this may prove to be the case with Sogyal Rinpoche as well.
Those people who worked closely with Savile for long periods of time seemed to simply refuse to believe what they heard or, sometimes, the evidence of their own eyes. There seem to be a number in the Rigpa leadership who are still doing the same. In a few days’ time, if the report of the investigation by Lewis Silkin paints an honest picture, then one of the things it is likely to conclude is that what we know so far is only scratching the surface and there is much more yet to be revealed.
Private discussion on this and other related topics can be had on our What Now Facebook Group. It is only for current and previous students of Rigpa, however, and we do moderate it closely. If you’re interested in joining, please contact us via the contact page and ask for an invite.
People from other sanghas can join the Beyond the Temple Facebook Group . It’s a support group for anyone who has left their Buddhist sangha after hearing revelations of abuse by their teacher or after experiencing such abuse. It’s for people who see ethical behaviour, love, compassion and introspection as the core of their spiritual path. The focus is not on the abuses, but on ourselves and our spiritual life as we recover from our experience of spiritual abuse and look to the future. Click here and request to join.
The What Now? Reference Material page has links to a wealth of articles in the topics related to abuse in Buddhist communities. For links to places to assist in healing from abuse see the sangha care resources page.
Those of you who are interested in ‘keeping Buddhism clean’ could ‘Like’ the Dharma Protectors Facebook page, which posts links to related articles as they come to hand.