Charity failed to act on 'serious physical, sexual and emotional abuse' by founder

Trustees and senior managers at a religious charity failed to protect its students from “serious physical, sexual and emotional abuse” from its founder, the regulator has found.

The Charity Commission found misconduct and mismanagement at London based Buddhist charity Rigpa Fellowship, where students were at risk from its spiritual director and founder, disgraced Buddhist guru Sogyal Lakar.

“An independent investigation (commissioned by Rigpa Fellowship and Rigpa Fellowship US) found that, on the balance of probabilities, some of Lakar’s ‘inner circle’ were ‘subjected to serious physical, sexual and emotional abuse by him’,” said the regulator.

“The Commission’s engagement escalated to a statutory inquiry after it found that the charity was not making sufficient progress in addressing the safeguarding concerns.”

The regulator’s official inquiry report follows action already taken this year against two former trustees, Patrick Gaffney and Susan Burrows.

In June, Gaffney was disqualified from all charities for eight years after it emerged that he had knowledge of sexual and physical abuse against students and failed to act.

Meanwhile, in September Burrows was removed as a trustee at the charity and banned from trusteeship for also knowing about and failing to act on the abuse.

The full report into Rigpa Fellowship further criticised the two trustees, saying that they “failed to recognise or sought to downplay” the seriousness of the allegations.

“During a meeting with the inquiry, Gaffney appeared unable or unwilling to recognise the serious nature of the allegations that had been made and the lack of appropriate action taken,” found the regulator.

“Evidence seen by the inquiry also did not support claims from Burrows that she had no prior knowledge of instances of abuse involving Lakar.”

Safeguarding policies at Rigpa, which had been developed by the charity’s international body and not in the UK, were also criticised by the regulator. These “blurred the distinction between consent and submission and place too much responsibility for safeguarding on the students rather than the teacher”, the Commission found.

It added: “The inquiry concluded that former trustees and senior management figures at the charity were responsible for mismanagement and misconduct, particularly around how former trustees responded to safeguarding concerns.

“The report says that their inability to create a safe culture within the charity exposed some beneficiaries to harm.”

The regulator notes that new safeguarding policies and procedures tailored to the UK have been implemented by the charity, which has “taken steps to sever the governance link between the UK charity and its international counterparts”.

Sogyal Lakar, also known as Sogyal Rinpoche, died in Thailand in August after suffering a pulmonary embolism.

“Today’s findings make for very difficult reading,” said Charity Commission chief executive Helen Stephenson.

“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 with the charity’s safeguarding culture once these came to light.

“I hope that our findings bring some comfort to those so badly affected by what went wrong at Rigpa Fellowship. The charity is now a safer place, and that must continue.”

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