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Scandal-hit charity remains under scrutiny after disgraced founder's death

PUBLISHED: 17:35 24 September 2019 | UPDATED: 17:35 24 September 2019

The headquarters of Rigpa UK in the Caledonian Road. Picture: Google Streetview

The headquarters of Rigpa UK in the Caledonian Road. Picture: Google Streetview

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A Buddhist charity in the Caledonian Road remains under investigation following the death last month of its guru founder and the disqualification of an ex-trustee.

Ex-trustee Patrick Gaffney, who has been disqualified from all charities until 2026. Picture: Lotsawa108/Wikimedia CommonsEx-trustee Patrick Gaffney, who has been disqualified from all charities until 2026. Picture: Lotsawa108/Wikimedia Commons

The Charity Commission first opened a statutory inquiry into Rigpa Fellowship in November 2018.

It followed an independent report published in August 2018 that found students at Rigpa, a global organisation teaching meditation courses in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, had been subject to physical and sexual assault and abuse by founder Sogyal Rakar - also known as Sogyal Rinpoche - going back decades.

In April a British former trustee, Patrick Gaffney, was disqualified for eight years as the watchdog found he failed to take appropriate action on the claims and instances that he knew about.

The devotee, 70, had known Lakar since 1970 and was described by him as "one of my oldest and closest students".

Sogyal Lakar, a Tibetan Dzogchen lama and founder of Rigpa, who died last month. Picture: Lotsawa108/Wikimedia CommonsSogyal Lakar, a Tibetan Dzogchen lama and founder of Rigpa, who died last month. Picture: Lotsawa108/Wikimedia Commons

The Commission found Mr Gaffney "had knowledge of instances and allegations of improper acts and sexual and physical abuse against students".

Amy Spiller, head of the Charity Commission's investigations team, said: "This trustee has been disqualified with immediate effect for failing in his duty to protect those who came into contact with the charity."

The Gazette attempted to reach Mr Gaffney through the charity for comment but was unsuccessful.

An inquiry scrutinising Rigpa Fellowship's governance, policies and practices towards adult safeguarding is still ongoing.

Sogyal Rinpoche pictured in Germany in 2014. Picture: Patrick Pleul/DPASogyal Rinpoche pictured in Germany in 2014. Picture: Patrick Pleul/DPA

The Commission will also examine recruitment processes and financial controls at the charity, which is based in Caledonian Road and operates as Rigpa UK.

Its founder and ex-spiritual leader Sogyal Rakar died aged 72 on August 28 in Thailand, where he was reportedly undergoing cancer treatment.

On the day, Rigpa's international arm immediately published a statement expressing "deep sadness" as its students commenced a seven-week period of traditional prayers and ceremonies.

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Then on September 5 the charity published a second statement, which added: "Rigpa acknowledges that this may also be a difficult period for past and present members of the Rigpa community who have experienced hurt, and wishes to express again our deepest apologies."

Rigpa UK and Rigpa US commissioned an investigation by legal firm Lewis Silkin LLP after eight former students made allegations against Rakar in July 2017.

Lead investigator Karen Baxter gathered evidence from 22 witnesses in three countries, including three former trustees of Rigpa UK, before publishing her findings the following summer.

The report concluded: "Some students of Sogyal Lakar [...] have been subjected to serious physical, sexual and emotional abuse by him," adding: "Senior individuals within Rigpa were aware of at least some of these issues and failed to address them, leaving others at risk."

It is not known whether or not the alleged abuse took place at the UK branch.

Witnesses described being punched, hit repeatedly with a backscratcher and other objects such as a book and wooden hanger, and being subject to daily beatings.

Lakar is said to have used his position to coerce, intimidate and manipulate women into giving him sexual favours. Students also reported being groped and said young female attendants had been "offered" to other lamas (teachers) for sex.

One former Rigpa UK trustee said they had known about this since the early 1990s and tried to raise concerns with colleagues before resigning but was "blocked". It is not clear if any allegations were reported to police.

It was also upheld that there had been a "vacuum of accountability" at the charity for many years and witnesses were referred for "therapy" within the organisation rather than going to the police.

Sogyal Rinpoche retired from Rigpa in 2017 following the allegations and Patrick Gaffney retired in 2018.

Since the report's publication the charity has instituted a new code of conduct and begun establishing a National Grievance Council for each of the countries it works in. Rigpa UK, which was first established in 1979, also has a new safeguarding team and has joined Thirty-one:eight - a Christian charity that helps faith groups comply with safeguarding laws in the UK. The first training workshop was held in April this year.

A spokesperson for Rigpa UK said it could not comment further while the Charity Commission's inquiry was going on.

But they said: "Rigpa absolutely acknowledges the gravity of the independent report and has committed to act on its recommendations."

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