by Dushy Ranetunge in London
This is a personal journey, which has touched our lives deeply and thus I will not pretend that it is an unbiased account. I have changed the names of the persons involved to attempt to safeguard the little privacy that they have.
In 2004, we purchased a home in a private gated compound in Winchmore Hill, North London. Our neighbour two doors next, was uncle Jine and aunty Serina, both Sri Lankans who had emigrated to the UK many decades ago.
They were both retired medical consultants, who had lived in the Midlands, and several stints in Sri Lanka, where they had returned several times to make their home unsuccessfully. They had three children, a son and two daughters. Two are leading medical consultants at British hospitals and the other is a GP.
We felt secure and happy at our new neighbourhood where our teenage children were growing up, as I had known this family from my childhood in Sri Lanka.
As neighbours now in London, we got on like a house on fire. Uncle Jine had difficulty in walking and I would pop over and have a glass of wine with him, and occasionally take him for a slow walk and he would tell me “putha, you go on, as I am slowing you down”. He loved to play the piano and sing and they were pillars of the “Sinhala-Buddhist” community in London, loved by all who knew them. They were frequent visitors and participants at the Buddhist temples and community charitable activities, raising funds for various charities in Sri Lanka.
Being senior medical consultants and respected in the community, our High Commission also used to regularly use them for their various activities as a “respectable” face of Sri Lanka in the UK.
A few year ago, we hosted uncle Jine’s birthday party in our home. Two of the children were present and as usual, uncle Jine serenaded us with his old Sinhalese songs, while playing our piano.
Within the next 12 months or so, while we were in Sri Lanka, we learnt that uncle Jine had passed away. We could not attend the funeral, which had been a grand community affair, extended to those who had served their community in the extraordinary manner that he had.
A few months later, we heard that a Buddhist monk had been charged in London, for sexually assaulting a little girl several decades ago. It was then that we learnt that the victim was Uncle Jine and Aunty Serina’s daughter, who was in our home for Uncle Jine’s last birthday party.
We were shocked.
We wondered why no action had been taken at the time. There could be many reasons, primarily among them would have been the fear of putting a small child through the legal process and even the destruction of any marriage prospects for the young girl. Perhaps the parents never knew what had happened and the girl kept quiet as has happened on many an instance.
The victim, is now a medical Consultant in a leading specialist hospital in London. She is married to an English doctor, who fully supported her through this terrible legal process, which ended on Monday with a verdict of the Buddhist monk being found guilty unanimously by the jury, of indecent assault of a minor.
It was when she was pregnant a few years ago, that she has decided to take action against the Buddhist monk, hoping that her unborn child will never have to face, the trauma that she had undergone for so many years in silence.
She had visited uncle Jine, and discussed it with him. When Aunty Serina came home, both of them had told her of their decision. Before he died, Uncle Jine had given a statement to the Metropolitian Police, child protection unit.
Several year ago, a distant relative, WJM Lokubandara who was speaker of the Sri Lankan parliament at the time, invited us to parliament for lunch and to his official residence for dinner. Although a relative, I had only met him a few times in my life, but I was impressed with his opinions. When questioned about the disrepute that Buddhist monks bring to Buddhism with their participation in politics, he said, that the monks robe is a “uniform” and that we respect the “uniform” and that there will always be many who abuse the “uniform”.
The Buddhist monk who has been found guilty in London of indecent assault of a minor, is in no way a blemish on Buddhism. It is simply an individual abusing his “uniform”. Buddhism is and will remain one of the greatest philosophies known to man, one of great tolerance and humanity. Unfortunately very little of this is practiced in Sri Lanka, where a certain fundamentalist Talibanism exists in its place, with its latest manifestation is to demolish mosques, in Anuradhapura and now an attempt in Dambulla.
What prompted me to write this article was the response of the Sri Lankan community to the charges of indecent assault against a Buddhist monk.
Except for a few enlightened minds, a vast majority perceived it as an assault on “Sinhala-Buddhism”. It has been alleged that several Sri Lankan Ministers, leading Buddhist monks including the head of a London Buddhist Vihare, several officials at our High Commission to London, a judge from the Western Province of Sri Lanka etc wrote letters to court in support of the monk. Aunty Serina and her family were marginalised, made to feel as if they were mounting an assault on “Sinhala Buddhism”
It was alleged that there were two other parties who had been sexually abused by the Monk. One came forward to give evidence but her evidence was not articulate. She was a teacher, also married to an Englishman. Her husband also supported her through the harrowing legal process. The other, did not want to come forward, understandable considering the bigoted mind frame of the community.
As the monk was found guilty, grown men were found crying. I was informed by a “Sinhala-Buddhist lawyer” and a relative, closely connected to the Monks’ temple, to be wary about writing anything because he feared for my life, as he explained to me “there were many who are prepared to die for their cause.”
It has been alleged that the Monk operates a children’s home in Gampaha. In light of the successful conviction it is not clear what procedures will be put in place to protect those children from abuse.
The Monk is likely to be deported to Sri Lanka after he serves his prison sentence, which will be delivered on Monday.
Since the offence was committed before the new legal recommendations on child abuse came into force it is expected to be milder.
The “Sinhala-Buddhist” community at large seems reeling from the verdict. Some who supported the Monk are beginning to have doubts. Some are trying to get the monk de-robed. Others are trying to prepare an appeal, but considering that the Judge bent over backwards to accommodate the Monk, it is unclear what legal or technical grounds could be found for an appeal, especially in light of the unanimous decision by the jury.
There was a grand Vesak celebration planned at the Monk’s temple this weekend, to welcome him back with a bang, but he is now in remand prison, awaiting sentencing.
While the general conversation of the “Sinhala-Buddhist” grouping is one of outrage and hurt, no one is focusing on the topic of child abuse and of evolving systems to challenge it.
Here in Britain there are various child protection policies and procedures in place. Schools and places that work with children are required to ensure that all persons that come into contact with children or even do ancillary work in places where children play and study are required to have an enhanced criminal records bureau check to be carried out.
They are required by law to have child protection policies and procedures, which are required to be reviewed regularly and policed in favour of the child. Unfortunately many Buddhist temples in London which operate Sunday schools do not follow these legal requirements and are operating outside the law, exposing children to abuse.
At a leading Buddhist temple in London, controlled by an old famous charity in Sri Lanka, these issues of child protection were raised at the management committee level in London, but were not taken seriously or dismissed. The Sri Lankan Charity which is supposed to “control” it from Sri Lanka seem unaware of these legal requirements in the United Kingdom. Whether it is being “controlled” or “administered” from Sri Lanka is also a big question mark, as according to UK charity law, if there is no effective “control/administration” from abroad, it is required to be registered in the UK, under UK charity legislation, thereby subjecting it to a more stricter regime.
It was in this prominent temple that this convicted monk first committed the offences of child abuse before being asked to leave the temple so many decades ago. Large numbers of children gather here every Sunday, to learn Sinhalese and Buddhism, but it is unclear as to how many of the monks and lay teachers who handle children have complied with British Law and carried out an enhanced Criminal Records Bureau check. It is unclear if there are any child protection policies and procedures in place, vigorously policed in favour of the child.
The culture in the community is one of familiar unaccountability, and more outrageously a certain tardiness even to meet the provisions of legislation in the United Kingdom.