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Buddhist monks walk away from sex-abuse cases

By Megan Twohey, Chicago Tribune, July 24, 2011

Across the U.S., temples frustrate investigators by insisting they have no control over monks' actions, whereabouts

Chicago, USA -- The meeting took place at Wat Dhammaram, a cavernous Theravada Buddhist temple on the southwest edge of Chicago. A tearful 12-year-old told three monks how another monk had turned off the lights during a tutoring session, lifted her shirt and kissed and fondled her breasts while pressing against her, according to a lawsuit.

<< A woman who alleges she was sexually assaulted by a monk at a Theravada Buddhist temple in Chicago holds her 11-year-old daughter, who was conceived, according to her mother, during the assaults. (Stacey Wescott, Chicago Tribune / July 24, 2011)

Shortly after that meeting, one of the monks sent a letter to the girl's family, saying the temple's monastic community had resolved the matter, the lawsuit says.

The "wrong doer had accepted what he had done," wrote P. Boonshoo Sriburin, and within days would "leave the temple permanently" by flying back to Thailand.

"We have done our best to restore the order," the letter said. But 11 years later, the monk, Camnong Boa-Ubol, serves at a temple in California, where he says he interacts with children even as he faces a second claim, supported by DNA, that he impregnated a girl in the Chicago area.

Sriburin acknowledges that restoring order did not involve stopping Boa-Ubol from making the move to California. And it did not involve issuing a warning to the temple there. Wat Dhammaram didn't even tell its own board of directors what happened with the monk, he said.

"We have no authority to do anything. … He has his own choice to live anywhere," Sriburin said.

A Tribune review of sexual abuse cases involving several Theravada Buddhist temples found minimal accountability and lax oversight of monks accused of preying on vulnerable targets.

Because they answer to no outside ecclesiastical authority, the temples respond to allegations as they see fit. And because the monks are viewed as free agents, temples claim to have no way of controlling what they do next. Those found guilty of wrongdoing can pack a bag and move to another temple — much to the dismay of victims, law enforcement and other monks.

"You'd think they'd want to make sure these guys are not out there trying to get into other temples," said Rishi Agrawal, the attorney for a victim of a west suburban monk convicted of battery for sexual contact last fall. "What is the institutional approach here? It seems to be ignorance and inaction."

Paul Numrich, an expert on Theravada temples in the United States, said that like clergy abuse in other religious organizations, sex offenses are especially egregious because monks are supposed to live up to a higher spiritual calling. The monks take a vow of celibacy.

But he cautioned against any sweeping generalizations.

"I'm sure most of the monks are living up to their calling," said Numrich, a professor at the Theological Consortium of Greater Columbus, Ohio.

'A free land'

Theravada temples surfaced in the U.S. in the 1970s to serve immigrants from Southeast Asia. They have grown by the hundreds, serving as homes to religious, cultural and educational activities, such as Sunday school.

Theravada monks who come here from Thailand report only to their temple's head monk and board of directors, said Phramaha Thanat Inthisan, secretary-general of the Council of Thai Bhikkhus in the U.S.

The council offers advice and other support to the Thai monks based in the U.S., he said, but doesn't keep track of everyone's name and has no authority over the monks. Neither do the religious leaders in Thailand.

Theravada monks who travel here from other countries, often on temporary religious visas, experience a similar lack of oversight, experts say.

"In America, it's a free land," said Bunsim Chuon, who assists the president of the Community of Khmer Buddhist Monks Center, a national association of Cambodian Theravada temples in the U.S.

Consider the case of Chaliaw Chetawan, who was convicted of battery after a 2010 attack at Wat Buddhadhamma, a temple outside west suburban Willowbrook.

A 30-year-old man told authorities that Chetawan, a Thai monk, held him against his will in the temple's bathroom, groped him and tried to force inappropriate conduct.

"It was very forceful," the man testified in court. "It was very humiliating."

In a civil suit, the victim alleges that the temple ignored earlier instances of sexual misconduct. The claim is echoed by another man who alleges the temple's leaders laughed when he reported being groped in 2009.

Chetawan is not here to face the lawsuit. In fact, it's unclear where he is.

Just as Chetawan was to begin a year of probation, a DuPage County judge agreed to release him from his court-ordered supervision after his attorney said the monk would be sent back to Thailand and stripped of his title for breaking the vow of celibacy.

No responsibility

But when a Tribune reporter inquired, two monks at the suburban temple could not confirm Chetawan was in Thailand or deny rumors that he had remained in the U.S. The monks said he was no longer of concern to the temple.

"I don't know where he is," said Worasak Worathammo, a head monk.

He is not the only Theravada Buddhist monk whose whereabouts are unknown after getting in trouble with the law. A monk charged with sexual assault of a child in Harris County, Texas, also is missing.

The charges came in January after a 16-year-old girl confided in her high school counselor that the monk had been having sex with her for months, according to the complaint. Sgt. William Lilly, of the Harris County sheriff's office, said he visited the temple in search of the monk after the teen's outcry and "just got the sense they weren't going to help."

Days later, the monk's attorney announced his client had fled and was believed to be in Cambodia.

Where is the monk now? The temple's president could not say.

"That's the thing with these Theravada Buddhist temples," said Richard Flowers, an attorney who represented two sisters attacked by a monk in Pomona, Calif., in the 1990s. "No one claims responsibility. … Theoretically no one is in charge."

The monk in California landed in prison after his convictions for sexual assault of the sisters and sexual assault of a child, court records show. The sisters also had success with a civil suit. It described the monk as "a serial rapist who seductively wrapped himself in the robes of religious office" and alleged that other temple officials played a "role in the cover-up and the attempted flight from justice."

The court found multiple parties guilty of negligence, including the operator of a California temple where the assaults of the sisters took place, and a monk at another Theravada temple where the sisters were members.

But identifying higher-level targets was difficult, Flowers said.

"Our objective was to put liability on a responsible party," he said. "I think they've figured out that under Western law they can be held liable and that they adhere to a code of silence. I don't believe for a second that no one else is in charge."

What's apparent is those in charge don't always agree on the definition of celibacy.

The temple outside Willowbrook said Chetawan would be stripped of his monk title for breaking the celibacy vow after he was convicted of battery.

But at Wat Dhammaram, the temple on the edge of Chicago, the monks did not see Boa-Ubol's alleged abuse of the 12-year-old as cause to strip him of his title because there was no sexual intercourse, said Sriburin, the monk who penned the letter to the girl's family.

"As long as we don't know any sexual intercourse, we have no reason to charge anybody on that ground," Sriburin said. "… We were informed that he just touched body."

The temple took the less severe step of expelling Boa-Ubol from Wat Dhammaram and ordering him back to Thailand, Sriburin said. When Boa-Ubol returned to Wat Dhammaram months later to gather his belongings on his way to a temple in Long Beach, Calif., there was nothing the monks could do to stop him, Sriburin said.Boa-Ubol, who has not been charged with a crime, told a Tribune reporter he secured the position at the Long Beach temple with the help of a friend who lives there.

A DNA test

Speaking by phone from the California temple, he responded to the allegations involving the 12-year-old and another woman who alleges Boa-Ubol sexually assaulted her at Wat Dhammaram in the late 1990s.

The woman is suing Boa-Ubol, Sriburin and the temple, alleging negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress and gender violence, and has included the alleged sex abuse of the other girl in her suit.

She alleges Boa-Ubol began assaulting her in the temple and a trailer behind it when she was 14 and continued to do so for nearly a year until she became pregnant.

The monk threatened to kill her father if she told anyone about the sex and provided her with money to keep quiet, according to the lawsuit. She alleged that other monks assaulted teenage girls and witnessed some of the attacks on her.

When she later told a woman at the temple that Boa-Ubol was the father of her daughter, the woman allegedly instructed her to relinquish the child to Wat Dhammaram — a response that caused her to flee the site, according to records.

By that time, Boa-Ubol was in California. It wasn't until two years ago that she decided to confront the temple again — this time with an attorney.

She and her daughter, a lanky 11-year-old who suffers from health problems, have bounced around the Chicago area, trying to make ends meet. At one point, she said, they lived in a van.

"It's been really hard," said the woman, who dropped out of high school when she became pregnant. She doesn't want to make a criminal complaint for fear that her daughter will be harassed if their names become public, she said, but they can act as Jane Does in the civil case.

At the insistence of the temple's attorney, she and her daughter provided DNA samples last year that were compared with a DNA sample collected from Boa-Ubol. A test performed by DNA

Diagnostics Center determined the probability that Boa-Ubol fathered the child was 99.9999997 percent, according to a copy of the results.

In the interview, Boa-Ubol acknowledged he provided a DNA sample but denied having sex with the then-teen, saying he only gave her money and candy when she asked him for help.

"Oh, how wonderful," he said when informed by the Tribune about the DNA test results. "I don't believe it."

And the case of the then-12-year-old who told the monks Boa-Ubol kissed and fondled her? He said he had "contact with her by accident."

In their response to the lawsuit, Wat Dhammaram and Sriburin acknowledged that the woman "probably became pregnant as a result of an act of sexual intercourse with defendant Boa-Ubol" and that the DNA testing "was reported as showing that defendant Boa-Ubol was probably the father."

But they deny the woman's other allegations and claim the case of the 12-year-old is irrelevant.

Sriburin told the Tribune that the monks did not inform the temple's board about why Boa-Ubol was leaving because the board "leaves monastic issues to the monks."

He said informing other members of the temple about the alleged abuse of the 12-year-old would have been a mistake.

"If they know that, it would disturb," Sriburin said. "It's not useful to their mind."

The accusers from Wat Dhammaram expressed outrage that Boa-Ubol has continued to function as a monk at another temple.

Boa-Ubol said he enjoys helping care for the temple and providing instruction to children and other members. Asked whether there had been any problems at the California temple, he said a female member had falsely accused him of wrongdoing, but the head monk did not take action.

As he sees it, it is his right to be there. "I have my independence," he said.

About Theravada Buddhism

An estimated 350 Theravada Buddhist temples are in the United States, housing more than 1,000 monks, according to Paul Numrich, professor at the Theological Consortium of Greater Columbus, Ohio.

They are five of the 75 Buddhist temples in the Chicago area, according to the Buddhist Council of the Midwest. Theravada is considered the oldest and most traditional school of

Buddhism. It is practiced primarily in South and Southeast Asia, with sub-branches in several countries. Most of the Theravada monks in the U.S. travel here from other countries, often on temporary religious visas.

They follow the Vinaya, an ancient text governing monastic life, which calls for the automatic expulsion of those who break the vow of celibacy.

The monks symbolize the overcoming of human desire in pursuit of spiritual enlightenment, Numrich said. By feeding and supporting the monks, laypersons can gain blessings and spiritual merit in the next life, he said.



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