Abuse alleged at monastery for Tibet exiles

Buddhist monk is accused by 18-year-old novice at Scottish Borders centre supported by Dalai Lama, Richard Gere and David Bowie

Robert Mendick
Sunday 10 September 2000 00:00 BST

The largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the Western world is at the centre of a police investigation into sex abuse involving a senior monk.

The largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the Western world is at the centre of a police investigation into sex abuse involving a senior monk.

The Samye Ling Centre, in the Scottish borders, has an international reputation as the "home of Tibetan culture in exile".

The claims that the centre is a hotbed of abuse as well as drug-taking have prompted a four-month police inquiry that has caused deep embarrassment to the Buddhist world.

The monastery has in the past received backing not only from the Dalai Lama but also a clutch of celebrities, including Richard Gere, David Bowie, Ruby Wax and Billy Connolly.

For the villagers of Eskdalemuir, long suspicious of the goings on at the monastery, the inquiry confirms the suspicions aroused ever since its establishment with the sanction of the Dalai Lama in 1967.

The case under police investigation follows accusations first made in April by an 18-year-old who claims he was sexually abused by one of the centre's most senior monks. He has also alleged that some of those in charge turned a blind eye to drug use, sexual affairs, theft and deception.

Police said an unnamed senior monk "is being reported" to the Procurator Fiscal, Scotland's equivalent of the Crown Prosecution Service, over claims of abuse of a teenage novice. The investigation is being carried out by Dumfries and Galloway Police's family protection unit, which is responsible for investigating crimes against children and vulnerable adults. It is not investigating the drugs claims.

The centre has constantly been sniped at and endures an uneasy, fractious relationship with villagers in Eskdalemuir. The first rumblings date back to a series of contentious planning applications which led to the development of a number of Tibetan-style buildings in the heart of the Scottish borders and a mile outside the village.

But the growing popularity of Buddhism - it has become the religion of choice for a number of celebrities - has seen Samye Ling thrive over the past 20 years.

The centre has branches in Dublin, London and Brussels while in 1991 it bought Holy Island, off the Isle of Arran, for £350,000. That purchase prompted an intense opposition campaign, with letters to the local newspaper claiming "their presence on the island would attract all kinds, from religious cultists to spivs ... our precious Scottish Christian and cultural heritage is not to be bargained with".

The office of Eskdalemuir's local Labour MP Russell Brown, the member for Dumfries, has received tip-offs from members of the public suggesting there is widespread benefit fraud at the centre, none of which allegations have been proved. But the allegations of sex abuse will be the biggest test yet of the monastery's popularity and once again put it at the forefront of public concern.

The monastery's case will not be helped by the conviction in June of another monk from the centre for indecently assaulting a 14-year-old girl. Tenzin Chonjoe was a guest at Samye Ling at the time but was travelling back to London to visit his wife. He claimed he was forced to stay overnight in Carlisle after being mugged on a stop-off. The girl was molested and Chonjoe, who was drunk at the time and suffers an alcohol problem, was sentenced to three months' jail and placed on the sex offenders register.

Now locals are awaiting the outcome of the police inquiry and any trial. Miriam Bibby, a resident and former member of Eskdalemuir Community Council, said: "There has been tension in the past between locals and the retreat. Everybody would be interested in knowing what the findings [of the police investigation] are."

A Samye Ling Centre spokesman said: "Our monastery has given full support to the police over the past months and worked positively with them to help establish the truth in this case. Furthermore they and many other bodies have been very helpful in advising us on drawing up new guidelines to help us respond better to the needs of the young, the disabled, ageing or vulnerable people who may be staying here."

The spokesman said the monk under investigation was no longer at the centre. He could not comment further for fear of prejudicing the case.

What the inquiry may well prejudice, however, is the public perception of Buddhism, a 2,500-year-old religion based on the principles of "non-violence, universal loving kindness, peace and forbearance", as the Samye Ling website puts it.

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