Thanks to Jo Green for the following post about the Charity Commission enquiry into Rigpa UK. I hope you’ll take the action he suggests at the end to hold Rigpa UK to account. Australian residents could do the same with the Australian Charity Commission as well.
The Charity Commission enquiry into Rigpa UK
The report of the Inquiry by the Charity Commission for England and Wales into Rigpa UK has been published, and it makes for uncomfortable reading. This is the highest-level investigation into the management of Rigpa and the actions of Sogyal Rinpoche/Lakar so far completed. The Charity Commission sits within the UK’s Department of Justice and although their remit and powers relate only to the proper management of charities, their reports can be used by the police as part of criminal investigations. This is the summary of their findings:
‘The inquiry found that some students had been subjected to mental, physical and sexual abuse by Sogyal Lakar. The inquiry also found that there were senior individuals within the charity at that time who were aware of at least some of these issues and failed to address them, which exposed the charity’s beneficiaries to risk of harm.’
LIES, DAMNED LIES AND AMNESIA
The Charity Commission enquiry into Rigpa UK then goes on to detail their encounters with long-term trustees, Patrick Gaffney and Susan Burrows, in language both formal and disturbing. This is how they describe their encounter with Patrick Gaffney:
‘Mr Gaffney discussed physical acts by Sogyal Lakar towards others, saying that he wouldn’t characterise these as violent. He said that these were only occasional; he had only seen around half a dozen incidences which were meant as a teaching method with no intention to harm. Mr Gaffney stated that he had never received any complaints from those who had been on the receiving end of such acts. In the meeting, Mr 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 kindest thing one could say about such obfuscation is that Gaffney has lied so much for so long, to himself and others, that he has lost all grip on the truth. But I suspect it conceals real malice towards those Sogyal harmed, who are labelled as “shit-stirrers” and “trouble makers” by the leadership for saying that bullying, assault and rape are not acceptable behaviours by anyone, not even Sogyal.
As for Susan Burrows:
‘The inquiry found that Ms Burrows had knowledge of instances and allegations of improper acts and sexual and physical abuse by Sogyal Lakar against students at the charity. Ms Burrows failed to take appropriate action in response to this information. At a meeting with the inquiry on 23 January 2019 Ms Burrows was specifically asked whether anyone at all had previously told her of instances of abuse concerning Sogyal Lakar and she stated “absolutely not” and indicated that she had no knowledge of the allegations against Sogyal Lakar until the letter dated 14 July 2017 was published.’
They then go on to refer to a series of documented occasions, starting in 1994, where she was presented with just such information. Their account doesn’t include the many other times individuals confided in her as a trusted person.
Her lies and failures have led to her being disqualified from ever being the trustee or senior manager of any charity for the rest of her life, whilst Patrick Gaffney received an eight-year ban. The reason for the difference in treatment is that Patrick Gaffney had already stepped down as a trustee in 2018 before the Statutory Inquiry began, whereas Susan Burrows was still on the board. (It’s worth pointing out she was also part of the group of four US/UK trustees tasked with overseeing the Lewis Silkin investigation.) The Charities Act 2011, which defines the powers of the Charity Commission, allows lifetime bans for sitting trustees but not former ones. So, this difference in treatment in no way implies that they consider Gaffney’s failings and misbehaviour to be less serious.
The Charity Commission enquiry into Rigpa UK also reveals that no serious incident relating to physical or sexual abuse was ever reported before the publication of the letter by eight ex-students in July 2017. However, after the Charity Commission contacted the trustees, they suddenly submitted one. It appears to have cut no ice with the Inquiry. The absence of reports by Rigpa trustees is particularly perplexing given that Ros Oliver – part of the Spiritual Care team and whose late husband was a long-time trustee – told a former student after the publication of that letter that she had a file “this thick” (indicating several inches) of such things.
On the financial side, the only irregularity they identified was the withdrawal of £12,000 in cash in a single day, into the hands of one trustee. Although criticised for this, apparently the money was accounted for. Of course, the Charity Commission has no means to investigate what happened to large sums that were kept in cash and never banked, unless an individual concerned were to confess. Their powers include looking at bank statements but do not extend to ordering a safe to be opened.
Several sources have confidentially stated that two people with long-term administrative responsibilities within Rigpa UK were involved in movements of cash on Sogyal’s behalf, as well as talking of very large sums being kept in the safe of the London Rigpa centre and of “cooking of the books” so outside investigators would find nothing. At least one of these individuals recently left the organisation. These serious allegations merit further investigation, including the police interviewing any such individuals under caution
RIGPA’S STRUGGLE FOR SURVIVAL
I know that many are desperately disappointed that harsher sanctions were not taken, such as the removal of Rigpa UK’s charitable status, but the organisation has, however reluctantly, done everything it can to survive, to tick every box that needs ticking to make sure they would not be shut down. Every visible connection to Rigpa International in Lerab Ling has been cut. Nobody British remains on any of Rigpa’s many international Boards, Teams and Groups. Rigpa UK even issued a laughable statement distancing themselves from Patrick Gaffney’s recent online teaching for Rigpa.
These are extraordinary lengths to go to when one remembers that, at heart, Rigpa is fundamentally British. It all began forty years ago in London, and all the key leadership have been British, until now. This move is not just dissociation, but dislocation, a bit like ripping off your right arm with your left arm and saying that was the arm that did all the bad stuff: the rest of the body had nothing to do with it. The reason this has been done is that they knew that the unrelenting and uncompromising fanaticism of the Lerab Ling loyalists risked dragging Rigpa UK to destruction. And if they lost their charitable status, it would drastically weaken the position of other national groups and threaten the “religious congregation” status of Lerab Ling.
Vinciane Rycroft, part of the Orwellian-sounding, Sogyal-founded “Vision Board” told a recent enquirer that the Board did not accept the findings of the Lewis Silkin Report (that Sogyal abused students) BUT it did not reject them either: as if this piece of pseudo-Buddhist sophistry demonstrated a higher level of thinking, as opposed to signalling that they not only lacked vision, but also a grip on reality. Perhaps she was imagining what Sogyal would have said if he had ended up in police custody – as he rightly should have done. She may picture him sitting there in the interview room, hands folded over his belly, telling the attentive Inspector, “I’m not saying I raped those women, but I’m not saying I didn’t rape those women,” and then leaning back and giving a contented little smile, indicating that he has said something very wise indeed. Well, it wouldn’t have worked for Sogyal, it isn’t working for Lerab Ling and it definitely won’t work for Rigpa UK, because there is nothing non-dualistic about this issue. If you are on the wrong side of it, the state can take action.
After all these changes, the current UK trustees are now Gregory Burne, Mary Deeks and Daniel Nwume. The latter two are recent additions. Greg Burne is a long-standing UK trustee who served alongside Patrick Gaffney and Susan Burrows for many years. He needs to be exceptionally careful to make clear that he does not represent a continuity of their thinking.
Rigpa UK has promised to follow proper safeguarding procedures, as it always should have done, and has made certain gestures as evidence of being serious about this. This has been essential for its survival. It has not, however, acknowledged that Sogyal Rinpoche committed abuse or ever acted in a wrong way. Rigpa UK’s trustees issued a statement in response to the Charity Commission Report, which did not mention Sogyal. They said they accepted the findings of the Inquiry, but limited this to “We accept that, as set out in the Report, historically there was mismanagement and misconduct in the administration of Rigpa UK,”. So, they accept there were administrative issues, but not a problem with abuse. In other words, they’re trying to have their safeguarding cake whilst claiming to be on a diet.
HOW TO HOLD RIGPA UK TO ACCOUNT
The Inquiry may have concluded, but its findings mean that the Charity Commission will be keeping a particularly close eye on Rigpa UK to ensure it fulfils its new commitments. If it was to come to light that Rigpa UK had paid lip service to the Charity Commission’s demands whilst in reality they did not believe that abuse ever really took place, that would constitute a failure of safeguarding. How can you safeguard people if you consider that a lama doing things like Sogyal did is fine?
Helen Stephenson, the CEO of the Charity Commission was unequivocal about this in her public response to the Inquiry:
“Today’s findings make for very difficult reading. 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. People were let down because senior figures not only failed to listen and act on concerns, but also failed to properly address the problems… Charities should be spaces in which all people are free from harm. This is not a tick box exercise. Having the right policies and procedures must be combined with the right cultures.”
So, this is what I propose. If you are concerned about these issues, please contact the current Rigpa UK trustees at firstname.lastname@example.org and request that they make a clear statement about whether or not they accept Sogyal abused students. Also, ask whether they intend to make a proper apology to the many people harmed, acknowledging this abuse, as opposed to just referring to their experiences as “safeguarding issues”, and whether they have asked former national leaders and the sanctioned former trustees and national directors to do likewise.
In the wake of both the Lewis Silkin report and the Charity Commission Inquiry, this is a straightforward matter. All they need to say is something like “Rigpa UK accepts the findings that our founder and former Spiritual Director, Sogyal Rinpoche/Lakar, physically, sexually and psychologically abused students over a period of decades. We recognise that individuals in senior positions of responsibility knew about these matters and failed to take action, resulting in further avoidable harm coming to many students. There is no justification for any of this within Buddhism or wider society. We apologise unreservedly for all the enduring harm that has come to many students. We commit ourselves to practically supporting them in every way we can and ensuring such things never happen again.”
Since the trustees have autonomy to act and Rigpa UK is now autonomous from Rigpa International, this does not require long thought or complex consultation, so I suggest an absolute deadline of 31st December 2020. If you don’t get a prompt reply, then this is a matter for concern as the trustees are now supposed to be proactive on these matters. If an unequivocal, unqualified statement is not forthcoming on their website by the year’s end, please formally complain to the Charity Commission at https://forms.charitycommission.gov.uk/raising-concerns/ stating that it appears Rigpa UK have sought to deceive them about safeguarding and are thus incapable of delivering a safe environment for students. Please post messages below to say if you have written to the trustees and what response you do or don’t get – or contact Tahlia directly if you prefer.
CHANGE CAN HAPPEN
Some of you may have read about the scandal around sexual misconduct relating to Dagri Rinpoche. There too there was an investigation and report, there too there was foot-dragging by the leadership, but FPMT have now put out a clear statement that accepts the truth of the allegations. What Sogyal did was so much worse and affected so many more people. It’s time for Rigpa in the UK and beyond to face reality and do the right thing. If not, they are choosing to cease to exist.
Jo Green, December 2020.
Shameless image by Wokandapix from Pixabay
The face behind the shameless blocks is of Patrick Gaffney from Wikipedia Commons.