New allegations surface against Buddhist leader accused of sexual misconduct
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, left, and his bride Princess Tseyang Palmo smile during their Tibetan Buddhist royal wedding ceremony in Halifax on Saturday, June 10, 2006. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan)
Brett Bundale, The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, August 23, 2018 8:38AM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, August 23, 2018 5:59PM EDT
HALIFAX -- The spiritual leader of one of the largest Buddhist organizations in the western world is denying new allegations of sexual misconduct and financial coercion, saying his apology to the Shambhala International community should not be misinterpreted as a validation of the accusations against him.
A new report by Buddhist Project Sunshine released Thursday details new accusations against Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, leader of the Halifax-based Shambhala organization and its more than 200 meditation centres worldwide.
He stepped back from his duties last month pending the outcome of a third-party investigation into an alleged pattern of sexual misconduct highlighted in previous reports about incidents in the Buddhist community.
Former Shambhala community member Andrea Winn said the latest report brings to light new accusations that are "more serious in nature."
"The new report brings to light a deeper gravity of the alleged crimes and what it means to be a sexual predator," she said in an interview.
The new accusations include allegations of underage sexual encounters, sexual misconduct that appears to implicate other Shambhala leaders and claims of coercion for money and real estate.
Michael Scott, a lawyer for the spiritual leader, said "the Sakyong categorically denies assaulting anyone, sexually or otherwise, sexual contact with minors, or any other criminal offence."
"We are greatly disappointed that Ms. Winn has chosen to include the abuse of children to her list of accusations," Scott said in an emailed statement.
"As fits the pattern to date, the allegations are vague, unsourced and uncorroborated. If Ms. Winn has information about the abuse of a child, any child, by anyone, she should contact law-enforcement authorities immediately."
Shambhala International also dismissed the new allegations against the Buddhist organization's spiritual leader, calling the fresh claims "grossly irresponsible."
"These allegations are not only unfounded, but they each are based on speculative and unsubstantiated claims made by a single unnamed source," the Buddhist organization said of one series of allegations in the report.
"For Project Sunshine to publish such salacious and defamatory information is grossly irresponsible."
The statement is a departure from the organization's response to earlier reports, which recognized that Shambhala was part of a "broader cultural reckoning in contemporary society."
In February, Shambhala leaders acknowledged in an open letter that "abhorrent sexual behaviour" by some men in the community caused some women to feel unsafe.
The Kalapa Council -- the governing body of the Buddhist group, which announced last month its members would resign en masse through a "phased departure" -- said the community was going through its own "collective wake-up call."
Previous accusations against Mipham suggested a pattern of behaviour of heavy drinking and using his "kusung" or attendant to "procure women students for his own sexual gratification," according to a report.
None of the allegations has been proven in court and Halifax Regional Police said there are no charges against him.
Carol Merchasin, a lawyer overseeing the ongoing investigation with Buddhist Project Sunshine, said in a memo included in the latest report that the new allegations against Mipham and other Shambhala leaders suggest "a new level of harm."
She said she found the complainants -- whose accounts are included the report -- "extremely credible."
"There are simply too many reports following the same pattern to believe that this number of unrelated women are all lying," Merchasin said, noting that Mipham allegedly engaged in sexual misconduct and an abuse of power over three decades.
Last month, Mipham apologized for the "pain, confusion and anger" sweeping through the Shambhala community.
"In a state of complete heartbreak, I write to you, humble, embarrassed, and thoroughly apologetic for disappointing you," the 55-year-old guru said in July.
He said he "engaged in relationships with women in the Shambhala community" and has recently learned that some of these women felt harmed.
"I would like you to know that over the years, I have apologized personally to people who have expressed feeling harmed by my conduct, including some of those who have recently shared their stories," Mipham said in the public apology.
On Thursday, Mipham's lawyer said that apology "should not be misinterpreted as a validation of the accusations being advanced by Ms. Winn and her associates."
Shambhala announced a leadership transition plan after members of the Kalapa Council announced their resignation.
In a letter to the Shambhala community last month, the council announced that a transition team will select and appoint an interim board of directors, an effort to separate the current leadership from the appointment of the next board.
The council said the transition team will also select a so-called process team, which will be responsible for improving the Buddhist organization's future leadership, representation and governance structures.
The council has hired Halifax law firm Wickwire Holm to investigate the allegations.
Scott said Mipham "will provide his full co-operation to investigators and he hopes others will do the same."
"We have full confidence in the integrity and independence of that process," he said.
The latest report by Buddhist Project Sunshine said there is a "general mistrust" of the investigation, as it's unclear who hired the law firm or who it will report to.
An interim board and the process team are expected to be in place by Sept. 10, with the Kalapa Council transitioning its responsibilities to the interim board by Sept. 22.
The council also said the process team "will listen to the community, take feedback, and guide a process to oversee the deeper and longer process of inviting a new approach to community leadership in Shambhala."