Charity regulator: Rigpa UK Put Students at Risk of Harm

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

4 minutes

The Charity Commission for England and Wales chastises the Rigpa Fellowship in the United Kingdom ‘for putting students at risk of harm.’ It finds that former trustees Patrick Gaffney and Susan Burrow failed to recognize the seriousness of the allegations against their Tibetan teacher Sogyal Lakar (previously known as Sogyal Rinpoche). An official inquiry has found misconduct and mismanagement at the London-based Buddhist charity, where students were put at risk of harm as a result of serious safeguarding failures. Today’s report heavily criticises institutional failings to provide a safe culture and environment.

The Charity Commission already disqualified Gaffney and removed Burrows in 2019. 1 However, Patrick Gaffney’s standing among the remaining members of the international Rigpa community is undiminished and he is still teaching. 2 Sogyal, who is credited as the author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (1992), died in 2019 while hiding in Thailand. Gaffney was his right-hand man for decades. 3

The Charity Commission opened a regulatory case into the charity when serious allegations of abuse towards its students by Sogyal Lakar surfaced in 2017. An independent investigation by lawyer Karen Baxter of Lewis Silkin found that some of Lakar’s “inner circle” were ‘subjected to serious physical, sexual and emotional abuse by him.’ 4  The Commission escalated its engagement to a statutory inquiry after it found that Rigpa Fellowship was not making sufficient progress in addressing the safeguarding concerns.

Trustees failed to take appropriate action

Patrick Gaffney and Susan Burrows both failed to take appropriate action despite having knowledge of instances and allegations of improper acts and sexual and physical abuse against students. The Commission determined that the two trustees were less than honest about their prior knowledge:

During a meeting with the inquiry, Gaffney appeared unable or unwilling to recognise the serious nature of the allegations that had been made and the lack of appropriate action taken. Evidence seen by the inquiry also did not support claims from Burrows that she had no prior knowledge of instances of abuse involving Lakar.

The inquiry says that both former trustees ‘failed to recognise or sought to downplay’ the seriousness of the allegations. Investigators also found that the charity failed to report incidents relating to physical or sexual abuse to the Commission, as would have been expected.

Failure to provide a safe environment for all

The inquiry criticises safeguarding policies that the charity previously linked to on its website. 5  It says that they blurred the distinction between consent and submission and placed too much responsibility for safeguarding on the student rather than the teacher.

These policies were developed by the international Rigpa body. However, the inquiry found that the former trustees were insufficiently rigorous in their consideration and analysis of the policies and procedures produced by the international Rigpa body. The former trustees should have ensured that any international policies referred to were sufficient for UK regulations and law.

The inquiry concluded that former trustees and senior management figures at the charity were responsible for mismanagement and misconduct, particularly around how former trustees responded to safeguarding concerns. The report says that their inability to create a safe culture within the charity exposed some beneficiaries to harm.

The Commission says that current trustees have now implemented new safeguarding policies and procedures tailored specifically to the operations of the UK charity. Also, they have taken steps to sever the governance link between the UK charity and its international counterparts. The Charity regulator expects the new trustees to comply fully with these safeguarding policies and procedures, and to monitor their effectiveness in protecting people.

Evidently, the new trustees have the uneasy feeling that they’re being watched. When The Times reported that various Rigpa centres invited Patrick Gaffney to teach online, the Rigpa Fellowship in London hastened to distance itself: ‘Rigpa UK has not been and will not be involved with this teaching. (…) Rigpa UK is an independent charity registered in England and Wales with the Charity Commission and not legally part of Rigpa International.’ 6

‘Very difficult reading’

Helen Stephenson CBE, Chief Executive of the Charity Commission, said about the inquiry:

Today’s findings make for very difficult reading. The fact that students were subjected to abuse by somebody in a position of power is shameful, and I am appalled that this was able to happen in a charity where people should have felt safe. People were let down because senior figures not only failed to listen and act on concerns, but also failed to properly address the problems with the charity’s safeguarding culture once these came to light. I hope that our findings bring some comfort to those so badly affected by what went wrong at Rigpa Fellowship. The charity is now a safer place, and that must continue.

The Commission has repeatedly warned charities that safeguarding should be a governance priority. Earlier this year it launched a new register of charities which allows the public to see clearly whether a charity has safeguarding policies in place 7

Helen Stephenson adds: ‘Charities should be spaces in which all people are free from harm. This is not a tick box exercise. Having the right policies and procedures must be combined with the right cultures, vital to building trust, sending an important signal to everyone connected to a charity that it prioritises keeping people safe.’

No admission of wrongdoing by Sogyal Lakar

In response to the inquiry, the Rigpa Fellowship published a statement on its own website, admitting that ‘historically there was mismanagement and misconduct in the administration of Rigpa UK.’ 8

The present trustees ‘acknowledge and sincerely apologise for the hurt and pain of the eight complainant students, and others who have since come forward to raise safeguarding concerns, and for the insufficient safeguarding measures in place in the charity at the time.’

However, they stop short at acknowledging and apologising for the criminal wrongdoing by Sogyal Lakar. 9

The full text of the Charity Commission’s statement of the results of its inquiry into Rigpa Fellowship can be accessed through this link.

Postscript: The original post has been updated to reflect the response to the Charity Commission’s inquiry by the Rigpa Fellowship in London.

  1. Author unknown. (June 13, 2019). Charity Commission disqualifies trustee from Rigpa Fellowship. Retrieved November 19, 2020; Author unknown. (September 23, 2019). Charity regulator removes trustee from Rigpa Fellowship. Retrieved November 19, 2020.
  2. Brown, David. (2020, June 15). Abuse guru Sogyal Rinpoche’s aide to give online talks. The Times. Retrieved November 19, 2020.
  3. Finnigan, Mary & Rob Hogendoorn. (2019). Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism: The Rise and Fall of Sogyal Rinpoche. Portland: Jorvik Press.
  4. Baxter, Karen. (2018). Report to the Boards of Trustees of: Rigpa Fellowship UK, and Rigpa Fellowship US: Outcome of an Investigation into Allegations made against Sogyal Lakar (also known as Sogyal Rinpoche) in a Letter dated 14 July 2017. Retrieved November 19, 2020.
  5. Rigpa Fellowship, UK.
  6. See note 3. Author unknown. (June 4, 2020). Rigpa UK Statement. Retrieved November 19, 2020.
  7. Author unknown. (2020). New online register of charities “widens the public’s window” into how charities are run. Retrieved November 19, 2020.
  8. Author unknown. (June 4, 2020). Rigpa UK Statement. Retrieved November 19, 2020.
  9. For my personal take on the Charity Commission’s inquiry, see this op-ed: Lamaism Crashes into the Rule of Law.

About the author

Rob Hogendoorn

Investigative reporter and academic researcher Rob Hogendoorn (b. 1964) began researching the reception of Buddhism in Western society and culture in the early 1990s. His modus operandi remained the same ever since: independent, inquisitive and provocative.