Buddhists Need Own Dallas Charter

The Chicago Tribune is reporting that Buddhist monks are facing allegations of sex abuse; that monastic authorities have established no system for tracking the movements of the accused, and appear in some instances to be stonewalling investigators.

According to Meghan Twohey, in 2000, a 12-year-old girl accused a monk named Camnong Boa-Ubol of assaulting her during a “tutoring session” at Chicago’s Wat Dhammarang temple. Temple administrators sent her parents a letter, assuring them that Boa-Ubol had “accepted what he has done,” and would be banished to Thailand as punishment. Now, 11 years later, it’s emerged that Boa-Ubol simply moved to a temple in California. His Chicago superiors made no attempt to stop him, did not warn anyone in California of the charges against him, and hid the information from their own temple’s board of directors.

In Thai Therevada Buddhism, it seems, monastic life is loosely organized, with each temple operating as a law unto itself. At least according to the Tribune’s sources, there are no motherhouses, no provinicials and no dicasteries charged with investigating allegatoins against monks. Twohey reports: “Monks are viewed as free agents…Those found guilty of wrongdoing can pack a bag and move to another temple — much to the dismay of victims, law enforcement and other monks.”

Temple heads do, reportedly, have the authority to laicize monks, but they exercise that authority only under very narrowly defined circumstances. P. Bonshoo Sriburin, head of Wat Dhammarang, said he found no grounds for laicizing Boa-Ubol. “As long as we don’t know any sexual intercourse, we have no reason to charge anybody on that ground,” he said. “We were informed that he just touched body.”

It’s a grim business, and my own first impulse is to joke about it, grimly. I can picture Boa-Ubol pleading, “Don’t send me to Thailand! Anywhere but there!” like Br’er Rabbit before the briar patch. At this point, any Catholic can be allowed a certain rotten satisfaction in noting a sex scandal in someone else’s religion. But reading the Tribune piece does, I think, have a more serious and respectable purpose: the Therevada sex abuse crisis looks like a funhouse mirror of our own. Many of the same basic variables are in place, but in proportions distorted enough to make comparison fascinating and worthwhile.

Norms of investigation and dispute resolution alien to those of American legal system? Check? Lag in appreciating the harm of sexual assault on victim? Check. Failure to keep pace with the improvements in the status of children that have taken place in postwar America? Double check. There’s no definitive proof that temple authorities were paralyzed by fear of scandal, or that they extended a loyalty to fellow monks that they denied laypeople, but there’s certainly room between the lines to read one or the other or both.

Wincing and groaning in recognition yet? Well, knock it off, ’cause that part’s over. Now comes the fun part, the lording-it-over-the-other-guy and marking-signs-of-progress part. Unlike Therevada monks, our priests and religious are not free agents; instead, they’re subject to a form of well-regulated top-down management. Once disciplined, a Catholic cleric can’t simply turn in an application at another franchise. At best, he can jump ship to a schismatic sect, like a disgraced Grenadier Guardsman joining the French Foreign Legion. (Hopefully, he’ll have just as much fun.) If those in charge have not always been the wisest stewards of that splendid apparatus, at least nobody’s had to build it from scratch.

Not only do our Church leaders have the authority to keep order, they have an incentive. Whatever role ranking Therevada Buddhists play in Southeast Asian public life, they seem content to be invisible here. Our bishops strive to serve as prophetic voices, agents in the New Evangelization, shapers of public policy. To meet any of these goals, they first must prove themselves adequate babysitters. Partly toward this end, we’ve seen the introduction of safe-environment training programs and the constitution of diocesan review boards. Generally, these have failed to root out abusers only where they went un- or underutilized. An efficient, press-driven feedback loop now tends to reveal these oversights as folly. Where virtue pales as its own reward, an escape from nasty headlines should fill in nicely.

The Therevada establishment, such as it is has yet to issue a formal statement on this new media scrutiny. Hopefully, they’ll see it for what it is — a gift, in the form of a call to reform. No abbot has gone on record complaining about unfair treatment, which sounds like a good sign. Or it could be they’re still smarting over Kickboxer.

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  • Diane D’Angelo

    I understand that your frame of reference is the Catholic hierarchy. Buddhism is not comparable. For example, the Dalai Lama is not a Buddhist version of the Pope. It is not a deistic belief system. There is no Therevada “establishment,” so you’re unlikely to see an official statement.
    That said, what is it about power that corrupts so easily?

  • elleblue

    Having been a Buddhist practioner in the past I can tell you that none of this is new. The news circulates inside Buddhist circles however I’ve never seen it in newpaper headlines which I think is unfortunate. As already been said, there is something about power that has the ability to corrupt. Most often it is men in Buddhism that are in positions of power and their behavior goes unchallenged. Everyone blames the victim or looks the other way. Sound familiar???

    I think the lesson is, people who are in posiitions of power need to be monitered and held accountable by someone or something regardless of whether it relates to a relgion, philosophy or any other structure whether there could be a power imblance in play.

    Yours for accountability!

  • kenneth

    The Catholic abuse scandal really should be a wake-up call and a “teachable moment” for all organizations, particularly religious ones. Within the last year or two, a pretty wide coalition of pagan groups has put together a sort of consensus statement of principles where that is concerned. It’s not perfect and of course we don’t have a central hierarchy of any kind, but it has gotten a pretty widespread buy-in. My own group adopted it as part of our policy on the matter. Of course no policy or statements mean a thing if there is not a culture of accountability and transparency within the leadership of an organizaiton. Policies can help foster a positive culture, but they can in no way replace it.


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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=706090622 Barbara O’Brien

    Max Lindenman, thank you for your insightful observations. One complicating factor for the Theravadins is that the temples in question mostly serve ethnic Asian communities and are staffed mostly by Asian monks here on visas. While they are mostly invisible in the U.S., in their home countries the monks enjoy a high status, and their temples and associations (there is more of a hierarchy in Asia than there is here) hold long-accrued institutional power.

    Further, Buddhist institutions in southeast Asia are enormously patriarchal. One suspects that the way some temples are choosing to shield monks rather than turn them in would be considered “correct” in their home countries.

    Needless to say, other Buddhists in the U.S. are horrified at this situation and are calling for the predatory monks to be turned over to law enforcement asap. Unfortunately, we’re pretty much invisible also.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=706090622 Barbara O’Brien

    Diane D’Angelo — Actually, there is a Theravada establishment in Asia, or more correctly, several establishments. They tend to be loosely organized by country and/or monastic order. As you say, there is no equivalent to the Pope, and no institutional authority tying all of Theravada Buddhism together. But in some places (Sri Lanka in particular) parts of the Buddhist monastic establishment have considerable political influence. And, yes, power corrupts.