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.