Temples no longer safe for children

Temples no longer safe for children

News about monks' sexual misconduct has become so frequent that it no longer shocks. But the latest scandal involving a rapist, paedophile monk makes my blood boil.

It involves an abbot in Kanchanaburi who detained a 13-year-old novice at his temple residence to sexually assault the boy at will, using power and threats on his life to silence him.

After five days of sexual slavery, the boy swallowed his fear and phoned his family, pleading with them to move him to other another temple. When pressed, the traumatised boy revealed the ordeal he had gone through. The crime became public when the novice's father pressed charges against the abbot, which was followed by an order from the Kanchanaburi cleric elders to defrock the paedophile monk.

A rapist, a paedophile, in the guise of a monk. This is not an isolated case. Type "monks rape novices" into a search engine and the ugly reality will hit you in the face. The system is sick. Seriously sick. Yet the clergy keeps turning a blind eye to these heinous crimes which are happening right under their noses to protect their image.

In rural Thailand, being a novice is a ticket for poor boys to get a free education, shelter and financial support. Without proper oversight, sexual abuse is rife, both among the older and younger novices as well as between monks and novices.

Often, as recently happened in Kanchanaburi, the abbots themselves abuse their authority to sexually assault fearful boys with impunity, knowing their victims cannot fight back.

The novice in Kanchanaburi could escape because he has a family to ask for help. Most novices are not that fortunate. They are poor, their families live far away, and many are orphans, making them easy prey for sexual predators. Their plight is hidden in the temples' dark corners because they are powerless.

This hush-hush approach to the sexual abuse of novices sometimes fails to keep a lid on the problem in the summer when mass ordinations of schoolboys into novices during the long break occurs.

After sexual assaults occur, furious parents call for the monk rapists to be arrested, defrocked and sent to jail. After the scandals make the news, cleric authorities give the same empty promises of better oversight.

According to the law, sex with minors under 15 regardless of consent is categorised as rape with a maximum jail term of 20 years and/or a maximum fine of 400,000 baht. The sentence can be increased by one-third if the rapist assaults a child under their supervision. They may also face a life sentence if the child is under 13.

Yet most paedophile monks escape the law because they are protected by a culture of fear, secrecy and impunity in temples.

Interestingly, the crimes are often revealed by the paedophile monks themselves when they post video clips of sexual acts or texts boasting about their sexual conquests on social media.

How many more paedophiles are still at large in the clergy is anyone's guess.

How many boys continue to suffer and how many become abusers themselves when they grow up, perpetuating the cycle of sexual violence and trauma in temples? No one knows. And the clergy does not want to know either. Their mission is to protect the clergy's name, not to save the kids.

Despite the monks' frequent sexual scandals, the cleric authorities prefer to treat them as isolated crimes committed by a few rotten apples. They're not.

And despite the clergy's resources, they have made no attempts to look at the problem systematically. Don't waste your time looking for records or statistics of sexual abuse in the clergy. There are none because the clergy refuses to confront the problem.

A study in 2019 on monks' misconducts shed some light on the situation. According to a study by Phra Priyaphong Khunpanya on some 100 news items about rogue monks, one-third of them involved sexual misconduct. The majority of perpetrators are senior monks with high cleric education. Many are the abbots themselves.

To appease the angry public, the clergy has recently set up a new rule requiring preceptors to check the criminal records of people requesting ordination. Only those free of criminal records are allowed to enter the monkhood.

The aim is to fix the lax monk recruitment system. The move, however, raises many questions.

For starters, those who have already served their sentences are now denied an opportunity to live a monastic life should they want to. Undeniably, the clergy's move reflects prejudice against former convicts and violates human rights.

Don't forget that many of them are mere scapegoats or the poor who could not afford legal help to fight for justice.

Had this rule been in force during Buddha's time, Angulimala, the ruthless murderer who killed 999 people before he was ordained by the Buddha, would not have had a chance to redeem himself and finally attain enlightenment.

The clergy should follow the Buddha's example by embracing compassion, not prejudice.

Also, the new rule only applies to new ordination requests when the clergy is already infested with corrupt, abusive and paedophile monks. How to weed them out?

The new ordination rules would be unnecessary were the clergy to strictly observe the Vinaya or cleric disciplines set by the Buddha.

Apart from being in the monkhood for more than 10 years, preceptors are required by the monastic rules to train people they have ordained for at least five years, or until the trainees can fully abide by the monastic disciplines by themselves.

Nowadays, this training period is no longer observed. You can just go through the ordination ceremony and leave whenever you like.

The lax recruitment and training system are not the only culprits, however.

Under the Vinaya, the cleric structure should be egalitarian and the decision-making should be communal, open and participatory to prevent abuse of authority.

The clergy, however, has now become an autocracy with a feudal hierarchy that commands total submission from junior members. Any criticisms or calls for reform are not tolerated and those who dare to voice dissent are subject to punishment, even ostracism.

This closed system without transparency and accountability is a fertile breeding ground for corruption and abuse of power.

The temple's governing structure mimics this autocracy. Under Sangha law, abbots are empowered to rule their temples like feudal lords, owning all temple assets and enjoying absolute administrative powers, especially over temple donations.

This authoritarian system governed by fear enables abbots and their inner circles to accumulate wealth and sexually assault minors with impunity.

Any new rules that leave the abusive system intact cannot tackle financial and sexual abuse in the clergy. Opening up the system to usher in transparency and accountability can.

The monastic disciplines already provide a way out -- if the clergy chooses to follow them.

Under the Vinaya, dictatorship and feudalism have no place in monastic governance. The clergy needs to return to participatory decision-making and egalitarian monastic structure that allow internal monitoring as well as external oversight from lay communities.

The Vinaya also prohibits monks from being involved in money matters. They are barred from seeking or receiving money. The violations will be forgiven only when they make confessions to their monastic community and give up what they have received.

Greed leads to other vices, including sexual abuse. The closed system governed by fear perpetuates the culture of impunity, allowing paedophiles to thrive.

Short of cleric reform to make monastic communities transparent with external oversight, paedophiles will continue to have a field day in temples that are no longer safe for our children.

Sanitsuda Ekachai

Former editorial pages editor

Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post. She writes on human rights, gender, and Thai Buddhism.


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