Least Protected of All

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

9 minutes

In the spring of 2015, along with the Dutch Eight O’clock News, I reported various allegations of abuse against the Thai Vipassana teacher Mettavihari. This faux monk sexually abused underage boys and young men in the Netherlands in the 1970s through 2000s. In addition, Mettavihari embezzled funds from his sangha and got involved with the Amsterdam underworld. His Dutch patrons not only enabled Mettavihari’s misconduct for decades, they reinstated him after he was ousted from the Thai temple he headed. Shortly before his death in 2007, in a single ceremony Mettavihari gave fourteen followers ‘transmission’ as Buddhist teachers. His apologists dominate the Dutch Vipassana scene to this day. In the midst of the commotion that ensued from my reporting at the time, I had an eye-opening experience. It serves as a vignette of the gradual blurring of moral standards that characterizes a large segment of Western Buddhism and poses a serious threat to the well-being of underage children.

Dhammawiranatha

This occurred when I met Willem Edelbroek, erstwhile chairman of a foundation that began investigating cults in the Netherlands in the 1990s. His organization—which turned out to be a one-man show, which is now dissolved—investigated the alleged sexual abuse of female followers by the Dutch ‘monk’ Dhammawiranatha (Pierre Krul). In 2001, members of his own Buddhayana sangha pressed Dhammawiranatha to admit his misconduct to Vajirañāṇa Mahāthera of the London Budddhist Vihara by telephone, and forced him to disrobe.

By the time I met Edelbroek in person, I had already studied his 2002 reports on the matter. In quasi-legal language, they encapsulate the drama of that day, listing the allegations against Dhammawiranatha as well as his ad hoc defense. The derailment of the Buddhayana commune in the north of the Netherlands became something of a cause célèbre, since it was the first time that an abusive Buddhist teacher was profiled in mainstream media.

Forthright and alarming

Edelbroek was hard to find, and it took a lot of effort to reach him by telephone. When I finally did, his immediate response to my query into the Dhammawiranatha investigation was: ‘After a case is closed, I destroy all the evidence. I no longer have access to these files.’ From his voice I could tell he was lying. Fortunately, however, Edelbroek did want to meet. Oblivious to the fact that I had already read his reports, his first remark to me in person was: ‘I told you that I have no access to my files. This was a test. Actually, I do.’

I cautiously steered our conversation to the matter that concerned me most. Finally I asked him: “While I was reading your reports, I was struck by this: former followers of Dhammawiranatha publicly alleged that Dhammawiranatha sexually abused at least one underage girl. However, I find no reference to this in your reports at all. Why not?” Edelbroek’s response was forthright and alarming: “I know. Had I addressed this during my investigation, the vice squad would have been involved—and my work would never have been completed.” Right then it dawned on me that the anti-cult activist had ‘sanitized’ his mode of operation for fear of seeing a criminal investigation take precedence of his own.

‘Lion has a cub’

Even so, after Dhammawiranatha was forced to disrobe and Buddhayana faltered, female followers repeatedly accused him of having begun a sexual relationship with a high school student. In 1998, a fourteen year old girl came to live at Dhammawiranatha’s commune. She was without parental supervision as the girl’s mother moved to a nearby town.

The Buddhayana Newsletter (January 1999) announced: “As we know, a powerful statement by the Buddha is often compared to a lion’s roar. Those who know Bhante [Dhammmawiranatha] a bit better, recognize the lion in him. Now a cub has been sighted in the lion’s nest.” According to this article— titled ‘Lion has a cub’—the girl visited Dhammawiranatha’s centres from an early age, and now came to live with her “Dhamma father”.

Buddhist Union of the Netherlands

Just before Dhammawiranatha’s fall, a board member of the Buddhist Union of the Netherlands (BUN) made a diary note after a visit by “three Buddhayana apostates”: “The stories about Dhammawiranatha were truly staggering: brainwashing; belittling; setting members against each other, squeezing dry (by having people move to the monastery in Friesland and have them donate the proceeds from the sale of their former home); forgery; sexual relations with (mostly emotionally dependent) women, but also with very young underage girls (such as a four-year sexual relationship with a girl from the age of 14); fear of improprieties with their own young children (daughters); having abortions, and the like.”

The board member’s final assessment was: “But apart from the forgery and fooling around with little girls, nothing is actually liable to punishment, because everything happened ‘voluntarily.'” He therefore counseled his visitors to keep a dossier, write down the stories, and do nothing “rash”. Although Buddhayana was not a BUN-member at the time, the board member referred the three apostates to its chairman Johan Niezing.

Legal options

In 2015 Niezing recalled: “I was approached by a man who was involved in investigating cults. He told me that he would expose the Dhammawiranatha case. In my capacity as chairman of the Buddhist Union I then agreed to meet a number of victims in a café in Zuidhorn. Later, I took them to see a lawyer friend. I had a big car at the time, with two benches large enough to seat three people. He talked to the victims and concluded that they had few legal options.” Whether or not the lawyer took the abuse of minors into consideration, is not clear. However, if he did not take it into consideration, it seems likely that he was not told.

With these remarks, Niezing referred to the involvement of Edelbroek’s anti-cult foundation. Right after their visit to the BUN board member, a former sympathizer of Buddhayana retained Edelbroek’s services to help investigate the matter. Edelbroek was closely involved in the developments from then on. He was present when Dhammawiranatha was forced to step down and wrote a 22-page report on the events.

As Edelbroek explained to me: “At the time, I was merely asked to investigate whether Dhammawiranatha had been guilty of sexual abuse of adult women. It was a general investigation, and the women who filed the complaint were all adults.” In doing so, he willingly censured accusations about the teenage girl of which he was well aware.

A monk with a hobby

Some five months after Edelbroek submitted his report, a national newspaper published allegations of child abuse within Buddhayana. Reporter Lodewijk Dros of Dagblad Trouw interviewed three female ex-followers of Dhammawiranatha: Anjali Osseman, Marianne van Lobberegt and ‘Lisa’ (a pseudonym): “There was a lesson in everything, says Van Lobberegt, and the monk would point it out in public, in an abrasive and humiliating manner according to ex-sympathizers. However, directions were ‘that you had to learn something from it, no matter how strange his directions were.’ Right until the moment ‘that we stopped telling each other this line,’ Osseman says.”

Why did they stop? Dros:

Was it the ‘hurtful’ dressing down by the teacher whose mother, having moved from The Hague could not settle in Makkinga, for which he blamed his followers? Or was it when Van Lobberegt saw the monk lock the door behind himself and a ’15 year old girl’ while she remembered how he had touched her inappropriately? Then there was the messing around and massaging [with a number of women], and the Bengali apprentice monk in bed with Dhammawiranatha—all of which is inappropriate for a Buddhist celibate monk.

Might Dhammawiranatha, as they say in Sri Lanka, have been “a monk with a hobby”, Dros asked himself.

‘Think of it as an exercise’

Eleven years later, in a book on cultish movements by Carine Damen, similar accusations reappeared. Damen devoted an entire chapter, ‘Think of it as an an exercise,’ to the Buddhayana affair. She too had sources among Dhammawiranatha’s ex-followers, who are all referred to with  pseudonyms. In her book, ‘Anna’ is the young girl who came to live with Dhammawiranatha in 1998—Damen’s sources routinely used his real surname, Krul.

‘Barbara’ said to Damen: “Krul had an eye for women with a history of abuse. It is no coincidence that Anna stuck to him. She was five when she first met Krul through her mother.” She continued: “After her father fled abroad due to a sex offense for which he was pursued by the police, Anna and her mother became more and more involved in the foundation. When she reached puberty, Anna did not get along with her mother. ‘Go and talk to Bhante, you can always go there,’ she was told. So, Anna came to live in Krul’s community in Makkinga. One thing led to another. Two years after the group fell apart, Anna became pregnant at the age of twenty. She wanted to keep the child. Krul then married her.”

Another ex-follower, ‘Ellie,’ added: “Anna must have been sexually involved with Krul since she was sixteen. She herself thought it was great, this man was everything to her. While I was still living in Oosterwolde, I just knew what was going on. I cannot say why. At first, Anna’s mother was unhappy about the relationship. Krul was not allowed to come over the mother’s house, not even when the baby had been born.”

Although allegations about Dhammawiranatha’s sexual relations with minors did reach board members of the Dutch Buddhist Union, investigator Willem Edelbroek, and reporters Lodewijk Dros and Carine Damen, no one bothered to report the facts to the police or the Child Welfare Council when it could—and likely would—have made a real difference. Buddhayana, though, is by no means the only community that failed to protect children when other abuses were being exposed.

Mettavihari

In the spring of 2015, my Dutch colleague Bas de Vries of the Eight O’clock News reported that the afore-mentioned Mettavihari abused underage boys, one of whom was only twelve years old. Another boy was 19 when Mettavihari first abused him in 1974. At that time that 19 was underage. The abuse took place in the Buddharama temple in Waalwijk and continued for years. Another man told De Vries that he was abused by Mettavihari in the late 70s, when he was aged twelve. He lived on the street where the temple was located. Mettavihari lured him into the temple with a glass of lemonade.

In 1981, the Waalwijk police alerted a Buddharama board member—who had been abused himself—about Mettavihari’s sexual abuse of yet another minor. He decided to intervene with the help of a prelate of the Sangha in Thailand. As a board member, he forced Mettavihari to resign as chairman of the the Buddharama temple. A few months later, however, Dutchman Henk Barendregt, Mettavihari’s successor as chairman, reversed his guru’s dismissal.

Reinstated

Mathematician Barendregt became Mettavihari’s follower when he had just begun a distinguished academic career. Mettavihari made hime the Buddharama temple’s secretary in 1975. After Mettavihari had been ousted, Barendregt became chairman and let Mettavihari sit on the Buddharama board again.

Barendregt’s decision was supported by a fellow-student, Aad Verboom, who was treasurer of the Young Buddhists of the Netherlands Foundation. Verboom volunteered in the Buddharama temple when the board member who had forced Mettavihari out told him that the Thai Sangha prohibits monks from engaging in any sexual contact at all—rightly so. This board member reproached Verboom for subverting tradition by reinstating Mettavihari, but failed to sway him from it.

‘Too vague’

When I questioned Verboom about the events of 1981, he declared that the allegations were “too vague” to respond to: “I can only say that I did not know. I only know for sure since October 2014. Then someone told me he was abused himself, while I looked him in the eye. That was a turning point for me. There were rumours before, I know. But how can you tell if they are true?” Verboom did admit to supporting Mettavihari’s comeback: “But my support was informal, for I was not on the board. I did it because I believed the allegations to be rumours. I had little influence then, but I did voice my opinion. The story seemed more like a power struggle to me than being related to sexual abuse.”

The issue led to an exodus from the Buddharama board: five board members stepped down. From December 1981, Barendregt and Mettavihari exercised full control—right until the pseudo-monk was permanently banned from the Buddharama temple in June 1983. Even though Verboom’s Young Buddhists’ organization was founded to support the monks in the Buddharama temple, Verboom cum suis subsequently focused solely on providing material aid to Mettavihari personally. Mettavihari continued to pose as a monk and sexually abuse more young men, wearing his robes. He died in 2007.

The 1981 intervention and its immediate cause—the sexual abuse of underage boys—were covered up by all of the involved until Bas de Vries and I exposed them in the spring of 2015.

Self-serving interests

Like Mettavihari’s patrons before them, Dhammawiranatha’s followers did not act on well-founded allegations of abuse against underage children. Since then, more allegations of the grooming and sexual abuse of children in Western Buddhist communities, some of them by their own parents, have surfaced. Western Buddhist organizations that come to mind are Buddhavihara, Shambhala, Rigpa, Ogyen Kunzang Choling (OKC). But, unfortunately, there are many others.

The events in the Buddharama temple and Buddhayana community in the Netherlands in the 1970s through 2000s give us a clear warning sign. They demonstrate that when adult Buddhists stand up for themselves and oust abusive Buddhist leaders, the abuse of children may be covered up at the same time by the same people.

While talking to the Dutch anti-cult activist Willem Edelbroek in 2015, I realized that self-serving interests of Buddhists practitioners in the West, triggered perhaps by an awareness of their own complicity, can enter into the equation to the detriment of the protection of sexually abused minors. If so, underaged children are the least protected of all.

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.