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Two trustees disqualified after Charity Commission inquiry into abuse allegations

20 Nov 2020 News

Two trustees at the Rigpa Fellowship who ignored or minimised a string of allegations about abuse have been banned by the Charity Commission.

Today the Commission published the findings of its two-year inquiry into the charity, which was set up to promote Buddhist teaching. The regulator has taken action against two trustees, Patrick Gaffney and Susan Burrows.

The regulator found that Gaffney and Burrows had ignored or minimised a string of allegations against the charity’s spiritual director, Sogyal Lakar, accusing him of physical, sexual and emotional abuse against his pupils.

Gaffney is disqualified from sitting on any charity board for the next eight years. Burrows is disqualified for taking up any other trustee position for life.

Lakar died in 2019.

Abuse allegations

The Charity Commission says that in August 2017 it became aware of a letter published online by eight of Lakar’s former pupils.

The letter, addressed to Lakar, accuses him of both “physical, emotional and psychological abuse” and “sexual abuse” of students. It states: “Your private behaviour, the way you conduct yourself behind the scenes, is deeply disturbing and unsettling.”

The letter alleges Lakar would “coerce, intimidate and manipulate” female students into sexual relationships with him.

He would also get angry and physically attack students if his food was served at the wrong temperature or if he could not find the right channel on television, according to the letter.

Legal inquiry: Trustees left beneficiaries ‘at risk’

A separate independent inquiry into these allegations, conducted by the law firm Lewis Silkin at the request of the charity, confirmed in August 2018 that some pupils “have been subjected to serious physical, sexual and emotional abuse” by Lakar, and that “there were some senior individuals within the charity who were aware of at least some of these issues and failed to address them, leaving others at risk”.

The Charity Commission opened its statutory inquiry into the charity in November that year.

Misleading the regulator

In the course of the inquiry, the regulator says that it became aware of other allegations against Lakar, made in a lawsuit by an unnamed woman in the United States in 1994. She too accused him of physical, sexual and mental abuse.

The Commission found that Gaffney and Burrows had been aware of all these allegations, and had failed to report the 1990s allegations to the regulator as a serious incident.

In meetings with the regulator, both had “either failed to recognise or sought to downplay” their seriousness, the inquiry concluded, while Burrows had also tried to mislead the regulator about how much she had known about the accusations against Lakar.

Gaffney, described by the Commission as one of Lakar’s “closest students”, resigned as a trustee of the Rigpa Fellowship in August 2018.

Mishandling cash

The Commission also raised concerns about handling of cash, after one trustee withdrew £12,000 from the charity's bank account and handed the money to a staff member to use for covering expenses.

The inquiry warns: “Handling large amounts of cash is not good practice because of the risk that the person entrusted with the cash could misappropriate it.”

New trustees ‘have adopted new safeguarding policies’

The Charity Commission’s report concludes: “The inquiry found that some former trustees and senior management figures at the charity were responsible for acts of mismanagement and misconduct in relation to the governance of the charity.

“In particular, some key former members of the charity’s governing body had failed to demonstrate the willingness and capability to effect meaningful change to the charity’s safeguarding culture and processes.

“However, the inquiry also found that the current trustees have adopted new safeguarding policies and procedures to better safeguard the charity’s beneficiaries.”

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