Triratna News

The Observer interview: what I really said, by Munisha (Triratna Safeguarding officer)

Posted by Munisha on Thu, 2 March, 2017 - 17:34
Munisha's picture
Munisha

As you may know, Triratna featured in the British newspaper The Observer on Sunday 19th February 2017, in an article referring to allegations of sexual misconduct in the FWBO in the 1970s and 80s.

As the person interviewed for the article, I thought I’d explain how this came about and what I actually said; in several places the article was misleading or quoted me inaccurately.

On 8th February a journalist emailed Adhisthana:

“Hi. I’m a journalist writing about what is going on within the Triratna community re sexual abuse claims. I understand you have reported some concerns about one individual to Croydon social services. But other people say claims of abuse against a senior figure in the community is not being investigated. It would be good to talk to someone about this urgently. Many thanks, Jamie Doward”

Given the subject matter, it was decided that I should respond, as Triratna’s Safeguarding officer.* I emailed Jamie Doward immediately but he postponed the article by a week and so the interview took place on the phone on the following Wednesday, 15th February.

It was a very friendly 35-minute phone conversation, which started with him asking me to explain the content of last September’s BBC report because he hadn’t seen it. At the end of our conversation he said,

“I’ll do a very straight story saying a few people have come forward, you’re aware of it and have apologised, you’ve put in new measures, you’re offering to talk to people from the past who’ve had these problems; it’s a legacy of the 70s and 80s and the Order is looking to address these issues but there is nothing contemporary that gives rise to concern.”

The finished article differed somewhat from this description. Let’s take it bit by bit:

Fears mount over scale of Buddhist sect sexual abuse

Jamie Doward never asked me whether I had any fears over the possible scale of sexual misconduct in Triratna and I did not express any such fear.

One of the UK’s largest Buddhist orders has been forced to report allegations of sexual abuse after a former follower claimed he was coerced into sex with one of its elders.

From his email to Adhisthana, we know the journalist had been told that Glenn’s account of being groomed for sex as a teenager by the former Chair of Croydon Buddhist Centre during the 1980s had been reported to social services. He did not ask whether or not I had been “forced” to report; and indeed we were not “forced” to report. I reported swiftly and willingly, and I said so in the interview. 

In the 1980s its Croydon centre was closed down…

I said the Croydon Buddhist Centre had been “closed down by Sangharakshita” but later reopened “with a completely new leadership”, and that “it is a very thriving centre today.” [Author’s note 10th March 2017: I have since learned that I was wrong in stating that the Croydon Buddhist Centre closed down. The arts centre, Independent Arts, closed down but the Buddhist Centre continued without a break, with completely new leadership.]

A document produced by the order suggesting that relationships between students and teachers could be beneficial was until recently still available online. ‘We took it out of public circulation, not as a way of covering it up but because we agreed it was unsuitable,’ Munisha explained.

He asked about something he’d heard about Sangharakshita suggesting somewhere that sex between teachers and students was a good idea, something to do with “a Clear Vision website”. I said several times that he was referring to a 4.5-minute video clip from an interview with Bhante [many years ago] which had been on the Clear Vision website, among hundreds of other such clips, 35 seconds of which had featured in the BBC report.

In this 4.5-minute clip Bhante is asked if there is anything he would like to say to lay to rest some people’s concerns about his sexual relationships. He says that people will always speculate, “people being what they are” and goes on to say how creative the late 60s, the 70s and, to some extent the 80s, were. In the 35 seconds the BBC extracted from this video, Bhante says “there was a lot of experimentation within the FWBO and for me personally within my own life there was also quite a lot of experimentation. In fact I may say that this was for me personally one of the richest and one of the most creative periods in my whole life. And it is because of that, because the FWBO was like that in those days, and because I was like that in those days, that we now have the FWBO that we have today.” 

I told the journalist I thought this a “wholly inadequate” response to the question. I said, of the whole video clip, “We took it out of public circulation, not as a way of covering it up but because we agreed it was unsuitable”, but that it remained in the offline archive.

I’ve checked the full clip and at no point in it does Bhante say anything directly about relationships between teachers and students, or that they are a good idea. However, he does say that we should not look back and apologise for our past. 

I explained that it had been alleged on the BBC programme that the presence of the video on the Clear Vision website indicated that Triratna still advocated sex as an element in friendship between Buddhist teachers and students, but that this was not the case: it was there because an archive’s job is to keep everything, whatever we think of it, for posterity.

I said our current teaching materials were on our main website [The Buddhist Centre Online] and that they did not advocate sex between teachers and students.

See Triratna’s response to the BBC programme. 

Munisha said: ‘Everybody knows he’s had sexual relationships with some of the people in the community. Some people around today say they were very happy with those relationships, and some say, no, they didn’t really want to, and felt confused by his advances and felt he should not have put them in that position.’

He’d asked me about Bhante’s having “admitted” in 2009 to having sex with some of his students and whether I would “accept that there might be a systemic problem in the Order”.

I said, “It’s not really a question of him admitting to it because it’s never been a secret. Everybody knows that he had a number of sexual relationships and some people are around today and say they were very happy with those relationships and they gained a lot from them, and then there are some who say they know that they didn’t really want to, and that they felt confused by his advances and afterwards felt that he shouldn’t have put them in that position. So I wouldn’t accept that there is something systemic there. There may be more to come out - that’s always a possibility - but nothing I’ve seen so far suggests anything systemic.” I said that so far at least there had been just two allegations of abuse committed by Order members in the 30 years since the late 1980s.

She said the order had set up a safe space for people who had been members of the order in the 70s and 80s who believed they were abused to have their stories heard.

What I said was that we had “set up a safe online space for the Order, where they could share their stories and be heard – the beginnings of a sort of truth and reconciliation process - first of all closed because you wouldn’t expect people to tell personal, painful stories in public. We’ve been criticised for that because it’s closed but we have to start somewhere. And the College have now set up a small subgroup which is going to work every day for the foreseeable future on looking at a process including possible external reconciliation processes so that we get to the bottom of absolutely anything that is still outstanding. We really want to do right by anyone who is still hurt.”

Finally he asked me if there was anything else I wanted to say. I said, “I want to make it clear we really do want to get into dialogue with anyone who feels that they have been hurt, that we are ready to listen, that we very much regret if anyone has been hurt through their encounter with Triratna.”

*I stepped down as Communications officer last October when it became clear there was a conflict of interests between that job and the work of a Safeguarding officer.

Afterwards, I emailed the journalist these documents:

Sangharakshita’s 2009 quote:
“…I have had many, many human encounters, the great majority non-sexual, and most of those encounters, including the sexual ones, have been satisfactory for both parties. If there were any encounters that were not satisfactory for the other person, whether at the time or in retrospect, then that is a pity and I am truly sorry that that should be the case.”

This comes from an interview on his website transcribed as ‘Conversations with Bhante’

The public page we have had on Triratna’s main web platform since 2013, regularly updated, containing links to material critical of Triratna: Our Development & Values

Sangharakshita’s statement

Statement from the College of Preceptors (endorsing Sangharakshita’s statement)

Statement from the College of Preceptors making explicit their pre-existing rule on sexual relationships between those conducting ordinations and those they ordain

Triratna’s model ethical guidelines for those who run/teach at our centres, including one on sexual relations with those new or relatively inexperienced to Triratna (reviewed and developed annually)

Our latest model safeguarding documents (reviewed and developed annually)

Job ad for new Safeguarding officer

Our public static page on safeguarding in Triratna

Various public posts relating to safeguarding in Triratna

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Responses

Dharmabandhu's picture

 Dear Munisha, many thanks for your very clear outline of your conversation with the reporter. I have been on the admin team on the Art  of truth and reconciliation forum but I have withdrawn from this morning as it’s very stressful,time-consuming  and a big problem  has been because  there has been no clear communication line between you and the PP’s and the Kula etc to us on the forum who are on the front line of criticism.   I tried to communicate with Parami a few times to letter know what I was doing and I know Upayavira and Aranyaka  have also trying to be in communication with you.  It’s been particularly confusing and challenging because I have been trying to keep track of all the other dialogues and communication on the order forums and Buddhistcentre.com. I have said that I will continue to post on the forum itself from time to time.  I have found being on the admin forum very challenging,painful and confusing as I had to listen to all the criticism,much of it misplaced, untrue, a bit like your reporters misrepresentation but much worse. Every day dealing with all sorts of queries and questions and anger.  There was also a lot of very positive sharing of the value and positives of Bhante and the movement. It was very difficult also because within the admin team itself there was someone who was very critical of Bhante and the movement and a couple of others had strong criticisms also .

    I’m feeling pretty exhausted at the moment also because I’ve been ill all week  with a bad cold and stomach problem .  So I want to thank you for all you have done and are doing and to everyone who is trying to bring some clarity and communication into these issues

      much love Dharmabandhu 

sheena's picture

Ahh, just goes to show what assumption I might have made. I experienced you as robust and supportive on the T and R page  and though I imagined your role was exhausting you put so much time and energy into the group and seemed consistently kind it didn’t cross my mind how painful it was for you. When I thanked you and wished you well as you signed off my thoughts were ’ though you doesn’t really need my well wishing’.  Well my wishes were well, and remain so. Thankyou Dharmabandhu. 

Dharmabandhu's picture

 Thank you Sheena,

     I think I was struggling partly because I’ve got quite a lot of other projects going  and I was feeling too stretched at times

    Good to be connected in the Dharma 

aranyaka's picture

Hi Dharmabandhu,

Thanks for this. Yes it is pretty exhausting at times isn’t it! Glad to hear you are taking a break. I think you deserve it as you have been doing a sterling job online.. well above and beyond the call of duty!

Just to say that I have managed to be in good contact with Munisha at times throughout this - that is when either of us have a spare minute I suspect! If it is exhausting for me I can only begin to imagine what it must be like for her at the moment!

Much Love Aranyaka xx

Dharmabandhu's picture

Thanx Aranyaka and Munisha

sheena's picture

Thankyou for sharing this Munisha. Best wishes, Sheena

onurpinar's picture

Hello Munisha, Thank you for the letter which made me feel a bit better about the article. I appreciate that! Sometimes changing some wording makes big differences on the tone and mood of the article.

Onur.

Shubhanaga's picture

Thank you Munisha for clarifying this in detail. You must be having a busy time and I appreciate what you have been doing for us. 

Munisha's picture

Busy is an understatement! Thank you very much.
x Munisha

Vijayasri's picture

Hi Munisha, thanks for your clarification of the real conversation, and thanks for the difficult job you are doing. I could read between the lines that your words were being distorted.


I do want to add, a matter of factual accuracy. Bhante didn’t close the Croydon Buddhist Centre. I can’t remember every detail but I don’t believe the centre ever missed a meditation class, even through the bumpiest part of the crisis. Perhaps someone else around at the time could confirm this?

He had a meeting with the Order members in which he told them they could either go with Padmaraja, or stay as Bhante’s followers, but they had to choose. Most chose to stay. I was not an Order member at the time so my account of this is secondhand, but thus have I heard.

The Arts Centre did close down. After Padmaraja and Satyadeva left there was a scheduled event. Satyadeva arrived to host the evening and announced unilaterally that the Arts Centre was closing. I can’t recall exactly what happened but either the speaker for the night insisted on continuing, or the speaker for the following week refused to cancel his event. But it was all very sudden.

gunabhadri's picture

Thank you, Vijayasri, for making the correction, which I confirm. The Croydon Buddhist Centre didn’t close. Everybody around at the time worked very hard to keep the Centre going, on quite a different footing. The Arts Centre did close down.

khemajoti's picture

Thanks for this Munisha. I thought the article was pretty bad so appreciate hearing what you  actually said. And big thanks for all your hard work particularly at the moment

sujiva's picture

Thanks Munisha. This does clarify it a lot. The newspaper article seemed sensationalist & inaccurate. However, in these times of trial by media, it will set perceptions about Bhante & Triratna in many people’s mind. What are we doing specifically to counter it in the media?  I think its important that this response about what you really said is circulated more widely within the order via Order Information Service. I only stumbled across it myself by chance.

Perhaps this is also a lesson that we remember that there are forces in the world who are strongly inimical to all that we stand for and will not shy from using whatever we say to advance their own agendas. While we open up to an honest dialogue about the mistakes that might have happened, we need to safeguard Triratna as well!

Sujiva

Munisha's picture

Thanks, Sujiva.

Sorry you didn’t see it till now, but the Buddhist Centre Online team have posted this article on the Order-only space Threads, and on the Mitra support space, as well as here on Triratna News. It’s also been widely reposted via Facebook, so it will have reached a great many people.

I’ll look into your OIS suggestion. x Munisha

sujiva's picture

 Thanks Munisha.  Has there been an official public response to this article from us?  I would like to forward it to the many friends & Mitras who have been affected by it. 

Munisha's picture

I think you can take it that this is our official response to this article and forward it to all your friends. We will also refer to it in a future post on the Adhisthana Kula page dealing more generally with our response to various criticisms and comments online.

sujiva's picture

 I think it will be helpful to have an official response even if your article forms the bulk of it. I will suggest this to the Adhisthana kula. 

Best wishes and thanks for your hard work in these difficult times!

sujiva

vcorreamor's picture

Thank you very much Munisha. I was very surprised with the interview and this helps a lot. I think we must be very careful to accept this kind of interviews specially when the journalist is someone who wrote some books called “Hostage” and “Toxic”. We could refuse I think. I hope we all will be aware here in Mexico. 

Metta,

Cuernavaca Buddhist Centre Mitra

Vanesa

James Eyre's picture

Is it true that you told the BBC that Sangharakshita was blind as this article alleges?
 

Munisha's picture

Hi James,

First of all thank you so much for taking the time to check this out.

This is what we told the BBC: “Sangharakshita is now 91, blind and extremely frail. For health reasons he is unable to take part in an interview for your programme.”

You can see from this that we did not say (as the article implies) that he was not available for interview because he was blind, but because of his overall ill health at the time. (His carers actually wondered if he was about to die, he was so fragile and tired.)

We described him as “blind” because he is registered blind. (He does have some residual sight but so do most people who are registered blind, even though that residual sight may be of no use at all.) However, in retrospect I think we should have said he was partially sighted.

Many other assertions made in the article you cite, and other Triratna-related posts on the same blog site, are addressed in the new FAQ document publicly available on the Adhisthana kula space: https://thebuddhistcentre.com/adhisthana-kula/triratna-controversy-faq

I hope this is helpful but do ask if you have further questions.

With metta,
Munisha

Damien Henderson's picture

Hi everyone. I’m not sure if this is the right forum for this comment but if not would appreciate it if someone could redirect me to the right place. 

As someone who has had occasional and positive engagement with FWBO/Triratna over the decades I have been worried about the allegations I have read about concerning abuse and that has made me question whether I should be further involved further. I accept that some of the points made in the media may be inaccurate or exaggerated but it also seems that there are some serious allegations underlying these which are substantive and well evidenced. The statements above and elsewhere appear to accept that a number of people feel they were in abusive relationships with Sangharakshita and other senior members of the order and yet the response here appears to be entirely defensive. I may be wrong in forming this impression but I don’t get the sense that these allegations are being treated seriously. I would welcome guidance on whether the order feels there is a big problem that needs to be addressed here or whether it feels these matters were relatively trivial and subject to exaggeration and distortion by the media and some of the figures involved. Yours kindly, Damien 

Centre Team's picture

Hi Damien,

Thanks for your thoughtful question. I’ll let Munisha speak for herself (she’s been away so may not be able to respond for a bit) but I think this piece is very specific to the publication of the particular interview in question, which was taking place in a much wider context of renewed interest in past troubles within our community.

Our Order and the wider community does, indeed, take very seriously the various controversies, allegations and unskilfulnesses that are at issue here. They are certainly not trivial, regardless of any distortions as a result of time, the media, personal disagreements around accounts of what happened, etc.

You can read our dedicated FAQ section attempting to open up key areas of the matters involved as they have been dealt with over the past 30 years or so. We’ll be updating this soon with a further range of questions. There are links here to many resources, including a full public archive of documents pertaining to this area of Triratna history over the decades.

You might also find it useful to follow the Adhisthana Kula space, set up a couple of years ago as a place for the senior Order team dealing with our response as a community to keep in touch with anyone interested. That work is ongoing, and they are now very much into the active phase of carrying forward Restorative Process as a way to genuinely meet the pain of anyone affected.

Finally, our community’s published story about itself – The Triratna Story (download for free) – is currently being updated to take account of changes since its initial publication and the recent resurgence of controversy from the past. We’ll make it available to everyone as soon as it’s ready.

I hope some of these resources are helpful as you consider all of this for yourself.

With metta, Candradasa
(Director, The Buddhist Centre Online)

Munisha's picture

I accept that some of the points made in the media may be inaccurate or exaggerated but it also seems that there are some serious allegations underlying these which are substantive and well evidenced. The statements above and elsewhere appear to accept that a number of people feel they were in abusive relationships with Sangharakshita and other senior members of the order and yet the response here appears to be entirely defensive. I may be wrong in forming this impression but I don’t get the sense that these allegations are being treated seriously. I would welcome guidance on whether the order feels there is a big problem that needs to be addressed here or whether it feels these matters were relatively trivial and subject to exaggeration and distortion by the media and some of the figures involved.

Dear Damien,

Thanks for writing. If there is there is anything defensive in my article above it is simply because I felt the journalist had partly misrepresented what I said in his interview with me. I am not defensive about what has happened in Triratna.

As Safeguarding officer, I have been working on Safeguarding in Triratna since 2013. I care very much that people should not be harmed and therefore I take any allegations of misconduct very seriously indeed and act on them according to the requirements of law, the Charity Commission and nationally agreed British Safeguarding requirements.

I will set out what we know so far about what has happened, and what has been done about it. I hope that will help you judge whether you think matters have been overstated or not, and whether you trust that enough has been done about it. You’ll find a lot more detail in the materials Candradasa has linked to in his reply.

“Abuse” is a broad term which covers both sexual relations which are unwise, unethical and have caused suffering but are not illegal, and relations which are unwise, unethical, caused suffering and were illegal.

Today in Britain illegal adult sexual relationships are sexual assault or rape. And any sexual contact with a person under 16 is illegal. At the time of the relationships in question the age of consent for sex between men was 21, but (unless someone alleges rape or sexual assault) the police are not interested in prosecuting anyone for breaching this out of date law - which was later declared an abuse of human rights given the age of consent was 16 for everyone else. Today the age of consent is 16 for everyone.

All Sangharakshita’s partners were over 18 and nobody has alleged rape or sexual assault, though some of them have clearly felt that given that he was their admired teacher and much older, they should not have been put in the position of being approached sexually, that it was confusing, and that (in some cases) they felt manipulated and/or later they were suddenly and insensitively dropped and replaced by someone else.

One person has alleged that a now ex-Order member had sex with him when he was 17 but has said it was not rape and has never pressed charges of any other kind. Another man has said this same man had sex with him when he was 16 or 17.

Another man has alleged that another now ex-Order member had sex with him when he was approximately 16-19. If he was under 16 at the start this was automatically a crime - but he too did not wish to bring charges. In both cases I have acted as required by law, the Charity Commission and Safeguarding guidelines, in consultation with the men bringing these accounts. Both Order members resigned from the Order many years ago.

Sangharakshita published an apology for any harm he had caused (including his sexual relations) in December 2016. This was welcomed by the College of Public Preceptors in January 2017. In February 2017 a group of senior Order members (the ‘Adhisthana Kula’) formed in and met almost daily for five months to look into these matters. They identified 24 men who had been Sangharakshita’s partners, and, using an external specialist in Restorative Process, they have contacted all those still alive to ask if they needed help in addressing any outstanding grievances. Most said they had no need; a handful have taken in some kind of Restorative work. This is obviously sensitive and therefore entirely confidential to the parties involved.

All the allegations relate to events in the 1970s or early 80s. My view is that things happened in the early decades of Triratna/FWBO which were certainly not OK by today’s standards, and which caused some people suffering. Such behaviour is completely unacceptable now, and since 2015 we have had modern Safeguarding polices and Ethical Guidelines which demonstrate our values and expectations in this area. Those who teach or support activities at Buddhist Centres are expected to sign that Centre’s policies to indicate their acceptance of them and willingness to abide by them.

I have never seen evidence of mass abuse in Triratna; however, I am not complacent. Should anything more come to light you may be sure the Safeguarding team will address it precisely as it should be addressed.

You can read all about our Safeguarding work here: https://thebuddhistcentre.com/search/node/safeguarding

I hope that helps, but do ask if there is anything more you want to know.

Metta,
Munisha

Damien Henderson's picture

Hi Candradasa- thanks for your swift reply and apologies for my rather slower one. The material you shared is really useful and has helped me get a much better insight into how this is playing out within Triratna and how you’re responding. Clearly it’s a really difficult issue and must be difficult for all of you to go through this but I do hope the journey is a positive one. Best wishes, Damien

Damien Henderson's picture

Hi Munisha- again, thanks for spending the time to address my questions so thoroughly. Having now  had a chance to look through a lot of the other material you and others have written about this issue I can appreciate that your organisational response is much broader and deeper than indicated on this post. I suppose crises (if that’s not too dramatic a term) precipitate change and I hope this period of change, albeit difficult, is a positive one for you. Best wishes, Damien 

Munisha's picture

Dear Damien,

That’s very good to hear! Glad to have been of help.

Metta, Munisha