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Saturday, May 18, 2024

Betrayal of Trust: Child Abuse by Buddhist Monks in Sri Lanka

BY Sahan Wiratunga.

Buddhism has been a part of Sri Lanka’s culture for centuries and the ordination of young boys as novice monks is a well established tradition. It is a practice that is meant to instill discipline, self-control and religious values in the younger generation. However, recent incidents of abuse and mistreatment of young monks have brought the issue to the forefront. These incidents have revealed a systemic problem in the power dynamics of the monastic community where senior monks wield their authority to take advantage of younger and more vulnerable monks.

The abuse and mistreatment of young monks is a cause for concern and it requires urgent attention. The incidents that have come to light in recent years are disturbing and unacceptable. They range from physical abuse to sexual assault and they all highlight the vulnerability of young monks who are placed in the care of senior monks. The abuse has left a deep scar on the lives of these young boys and it has shattered their trust in the monastic community, which is supposed to be a safe haven for them.

Last week Chairman of National Child Protection Authority (NCPA),  Udayakumara Amarasinghe, said it was the responsibility of the clergy to take measures within temples to prevent the abuse of novice monks. He said the NCPA had taken steps against offenders accused of abusing novice monks in temples and instructed the police to take further action when criminal offences were reported.

The abuse of young monks goes against the core teachings of Buddhism, which emphasizes compassion, kindness and respect for all living beings. It is a betrayal of the trust that the community places in its monks and a violation of the basic human rights of the young boys who are victimized.

One incident occurred on April 23 where an eight year old novice monk at a temple in Pussellawa was admitted to the Gampola hospital with severe injuries. The young monk alleged that three senior monks had brutally assaulted him as he failed to recite sermons properly and that they continue to beat him when the chief incumbent is not at the temple. According to the police, a statement had been recorded from the chief incumbent but no arrests have been made.

On April 25 a 14 year old novice monk at the Moragammana Mayurapada Rajamaha Viharaya was allegedly sexually abused while at the temple. According to the police media division, the monk was abused about two months ago by two monks who had visited the temple. The novice monk is currently receiving treatment under the supervision of the police. He had been subjected to grave sexual abuse on two occasions.

These are some other incidents of abuse that occurred this year:

On January 11 the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) began an investigation into a monk accused of sexually abusing a 13 year-old child who was being cared for at a child development center in Kadawatha.

On January 13 Kelaniye Sudhamma Thero of Ranmuthugala, Kadawatha Viharaya, was arrested on the charge of abusing the children of Ranmuthugala Orphanage.

On January 24, a monk was granted bail after being arrested for severe physical abuse inflicted on a 12 year-old child in Beruwala.

On February 17 an old monk was arrested for sexually abusing an 8 year-old girl child in Anamaduwa.

On March 1 an 8 year-old child was sexually abused by a 70 year-old monk for over two months in Hettipola.

On March 2 a monk had assaulted a 13 year-old boy using a knife causing severe injuries to his leg in Pitigala.

On March 30 a monk assaulted a 16 year-old child for making fun of him in Wellawaya.

Monks are seen as religious leaders and are expected to uphold certain moral values. However, the power dynamics in the monastic community allows some monks to abuse their authority and take advantage of the younger monks. This abuse of power is not limited to sexual abuse but also includes physical and verbal abuse, which has long lasting psychological effects on the victims.

The abuse of young Buddhist monks takes place despite the existence of several institutions and mechanisms established to prevent and tackle such atrocities and ensure the welfare and protection of children. These include the Ministry of Buddha Sasana, The Ministry of Religious and Cultural Affairs, the National Child Protection Authority and the Police Children and Women Bureau.

It is clear that these mechanisms are not functioning effectively. The power dynamics within religious institutions and the fear of speaking out against senior monks contribute to the problem while political interference and lack of proper monitoring mechanisms within religious institutions exacerbate the problem.

It is imperative that a proper monitoring mechanism is established for all religious institutions without any political interference to ensure that perpetrators of abuse are identified and brought to justice. The safety and protection of vulnerable individuals, particularly children, is of utmost importance and should not be compromised for any reason. It is the responsibility of every member of society to raise their voices against such atrocities and work towards a safer and more just future for all.

A taboo topic

Unfortunately, this issue has long been considered a taboo topic because it involves monks. Therefore, it is imperative that society openly addresses these issues without fear or hesitation. The authorities must take stringent action against the abusers regardless of their position or authority and enforce the law to protect the victims and ensure justice is served.

It is also important for parents and caregivers to be vigilant and aware of the risks that young boys face when they enter the monastic community. They must take steps to ensure their children are safe and not subjected to abuse. They should also encourage their children to report any abuse, no matter how small or insignificant it may seem. This can help prevent abuse and hold the abusers accountable.

In a letter to the Minister of Buddha Sasana, Religious and Cultural Affairs, the Child Protection Alliance (CPA) charged that the ministry had not taken steps to hold institutions accountable for failing to protect children and that religious institutions have failed to take steps to address systemic child abuse, including de-robing and expelling monks and priests charged with child abuse.

The CPA requested the minister to refrain from providing political protection to the accused and empower the police to arrest monks and implement legal procedures; acknowledge the global principle of “in the best interest of the child” and identify a minimum age to ordain children; prepare a policy jointly by CPA and the Social Services Department to regularize religious institutions before children are handed over; monitor the welfare of all monks below age of 18 years at least every six months; provide compulsory training on child rights and protection to all religious institutions, including responsibilities as guardians who are substituting as parents; and appoint an independent commission to investigate cases of child abuse in religious institutions in the past and present.

Courtesy of GroundViews.

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