THE Australian head of global Buddhist network Rigpa has confirmed she was hit by network founder Sogyal Rinpoche before he was forced to step down in 2017 following allegations of serious sexual, physical and psychological abuse, including using attendants as "a punching bag".
Retired Newcastle GP and Rigpa Australia chair Kathryn James said she was hit once by Sogyal, a friend of the Dalai Lama, but she did not detail if it occurred at Rigpa's Myall Lakes or Blueys Beach centres during one of the guru's summer retreats over two decades.
Rigpa Australia took a September, 2018 investigation report that substantiated the majority of allegations against Sogyal to Newcastle Police, to comply with a recommendation that suspected criminal allegations be reported to authorities.
But the approach was not made until nearly a year later, on August 8, less than three weeks before Sogyal's death of cancer.
Rigpa is in damage control after the abuse scandal, leading to a collapse of its finances in Australia and the attempted forced sale of the Blueys Beach centre, described as a "sacred place" in April sale documents because of its association with Sogyal.
Despite statements on Rigpa websites around the world, including Australia, about "moving forward" following the scandal and Sogyal's death in August, Rigpa Australia is yet to comply with a number of recommendations from the 2018 report.
These include completing a risk assessment of Rigpa's teaching practices, based on unquestioning obedience to the guru, after the report found Sogyal "used his position to coerce, intimidate and manipulate young women into giving him sexual favours".
Rigpa Australia is also yet to fund professional counselling for people abused by Sogyal, as recommended by the 2018 report which substantiated allegations he pushed students to the verge of emotional breakdown and made a male attendant take film and photos of young female students and girlfriends naked.
Rigpa Australia was also yet to appoint an external member to its board or complete training in safeguarding policies throughout its operations, Dr James said.
These were things "we haven't done and should have", Dr James said in response to Newcastle Herald questions after an article on Wednesday, in which one of eight people whose 2017 letter exposed the dark heart of the guru of mindfulness accused global Rigpa of trying to whitewash Sogyal's abusive behaviour after his death.
A substantial amount of abuse detailed in the investigation report, but anonymised, occurred at the Myall Lakes and Blueys Beach centres, said an Australian former Buddhist nun who was one of the eight.
Dr James said Rigpa Australia had been "working hard from the beginning to investigate what happened and make sure that it cannot happen again".
"In Australia we have learnt a huge amount from the investigations into and response by the Catholic Church," Dr James said.
"Rigpa Australia accepts the allegations of abuse and the findings and recommendations of the Lewis Silkin Report (in September, 2018). We believe that this abuse was wrong."
In a letter to Rigpa Australia followers after the report's release Dr James, and other Rigpa leaders, said the report "has laid bare the pain experienced by those students and the failures within Rigpa to adequately protect, respond to and support them".
"We, in Australia, acknowledge that pain and apologise for our own failures to listen, understand, accept and protect our students."
Dr James was Rigpa Australia national director from 2004 until 2016, when she was made chair of the board after a governance review.
Dr James said she did not witness physical hits or punches by Sogyal at Myall Lakes.
Rigpa Australia vice president and University of Newcastle public health lecturer Craig Dalton said what Sogyal did was wrong, but he had "never witnessed Sogyal Rinpoche physically hitting someone".
Rigpa Australia chair Dr Kathryn James' statement on Rigpa Australia response to substantiated Sogyal Rinpoche abuse allegations:
Rigpa Australia accepts the allegations of abuse and the findings and recommendations of the Lewis Silkin Report (in September, 2018).
We believe that this abuse was wrong. This is seen in action in our response to the report.
I list below what we have done, and what we have failed to complete so far:
July 2017 - Email from the 8 current and former students alleging physical, emotional and sexual abuse and misuse of funds by Sogyal Rinpoche. Of these students 5 were from the USA, 2 from Australia and one from the UK. The Australian students had lived mostly in Europe for much of the last 15 - 20 years.
Shortly thereafter Rigpa International put together an internal team to respond to the allegations. This included seeking outside advice globally on the best-practice response, that included openness and transparency, was well as looking after the welfare of the people who made the allegations and any other people impacted in our community. From the beginning we were completely open to reforming the organisation.
Between July 2017 and January 2018: Sogyal Rinpoche retired as the Spiritual Director of Rigpa. He had no legal or other organisational connection with Rigpa Australia.
July-December 2017 - the 8 writers of the email were contacted individually by members of Rigpa's national and/or international teams. Boards of Rigpa entities (countries and major retreat centres) committed to developing a Code of Conduct and Grievance Procedure. The development of the code of conduct was an international collaboration and in this country was workshopped with approximately 30 members of the Australian membership from multiple parts of the organisation.
The draft was distributed to the world-wide community of students for feedback. The Code was finalised before the Lewis Silkin report was published and was not a response to it.
Rigpa Boards jointly commissioned an independent investigation to create a safe environment for complainants to come forward and be listened to in a confidential and sensitive way. They appointed an independent experienced law firm in the UK, Lewis Silkin LLP, to undertake the investigation. In the interests of transparency it was agreed that the investigation report be made public.
Open workshops with students were held internationally including around Australia on what was wrong in Rigpa and that people wanted to remove, and what was good that they wanted to retain. As part of major change in governance of Rigpa internationally a new spiritual advisory body was established - the Vision Board. It replaced the Spiritual Director role held by Sogyal Rinpoche with a Board of senior Rigpa students and Buddhist teacher advisors external to the Rigpa organisation.
June - August 2018 Code of Conduct and Shared Values & Guidelines of the Rigpa Community adopted. All Australian instructors and management teams have now signed the Code of Conduct and it is publicly displayed in Australian Rigpa centres. Students have been advised of the Code of Conduct and that instructors and teachers must abide by it.
The Grievance Process was adopted as a simple and clear process for making complaints throughout the organisation, that allows opportunity for beneficiaries to report retrospective instances of abuse and harm and includes mandatory reporting of serious allegations, suspicions or disclosure of abuse to the relevant authorities. An International Independent Grievance Council appointed with two independent external Councillors.
The announcement of Grievance Process in Rigpa Australia newsletters elicited a report that was investigated to the complainant's satisfaction. September 2018 Lewis Silkin investigation, led by Karen Baxter, published its report and the Boards committed to act on the recommendations. The three main international Rigpa leaders resigned before release of the report.
October 2018 - in the first Australian national newsletter the following apology was written by the President (Chair of the Board) and the National Director: Message from the National Director and Chair of the Board
You will all know, in July last year eight students wrote to our then Spiritual Director, Sogyal Rinpoche, making serious allegations about his behaviour. Rigpa immediately instigated an independent investigation by a legal firm to give those students an opportunity to talk about their experiences in a safe, independent environment. Released just a few weeks ago, the investigation report has laid bare the pain experienced by those students and the failures within Rigpa to adequately protect, respond to and support them. We, in Australia, acknowledge that pain and apologise for our own failures to listen, understand, accept and protect our students.
November 2018 - we obtained legal advice that there was no legal obligation for Rigpa to submit the Lewis Silkin Report to the police in Australia. This included checking the confidential annexures of the Report. However, to make sure we were carrying out all of our obligations, we presented the Report to the Newcastle police in August 2019. The police declined to take the report.
December 2017-June 2018 - Rigpa Australia was investigated by the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC). The investigation was finalised in June 2018. Rigpa had demonstrated willingness to make the changes recommended by the LS Report as well as extra policies for care for Vulnerable Adults, Whistleblower Policy, policies on Inviting and Responding to Feedback, and on Conflict of Interest requested by the ACNC and had accomplished most of those changes by the time of finalisation. 2017 - present - as part of restructure of the Rigpa organisation an international Federation system has been trialled and it is aimed to be formalised in early 2020.
This Federated structure is to allow for some autonomy of individual Rigpa countries while ensuring consistency in curriculum, practice, quality of instruction, and continuing the Nyingma lineage. This Federation structure will support our values of collaboration and transparency which are an increasing part of the change in how the organisation works.
Rigpa Australia reviewed and updated its Finance Procedure for third party fundraising and attending external speakers.
We have been working hard from the beginning to investigate what happened and make sure that it cannot happen again. In Australia we have learnt a huge amount from the investigations into and response by the Catholic Church.
We have been proactive while needing to gain agreement from 12 different entities with quite different sizes, cultures and priorities.
What we haven't done and should have - the pressures we've faced and limited resources in this time have meant Rigpa Australia has not yet completed these tasks:
To best address the concerns and needs of the 8 letter-writers, who were from various countries, an international and best practice process was preferred and this Restorative Process, which is about to start, will be led by two professional mediators from Europe.
We will also invite any Australian students who may have been hurt to take part.
Funds for counselling may be one of the needs identified and responded to.
Appointing an external member of the Board
Completing training in safeguarding policies throughout the organisation
Completing the formal risk assessment, focusing on student-teacher relationships - to be completed by end 2019.
Kathryn James, President/Chair Rigpa Fellowship Inc.