This video from the Netherlands is called The Memorial Ceremony 2555 (2012) for Luang Poh Mettavihari – Amsterdam.
Alarms about abuse among Buddhists ignored
Followers of the Thai monk Mettavihari are shocked at the extent of the sexual abuse of which their teacher was guilty. They say they are overwhelmed by the news and the extent of the abuse.
But how surprising can the news actually be for them? A reconstruction by the NOS shows that leaders of Buddhism in the early 1980s were informed about the abuse. Also in a major abuse case in Middelburg prominent Dutch Buddhists were warned at an early stage, in 2004.
Main outline in these two cases: the warned executive officials and others downplayed the abuse, looked away and neglected to take adequate measures, which meant that the responsible monks could continue to make victims.
1. Mettavihari (abuse from 1974 to at least 1992)
In late 1980 or early 1981, the police called the Buddharama temple in Waalwijk. Board member Patrick Franssen answered the phone. The police told him that a message had been received of sexual abuse of a minor by head monk Mettavihari.
For Franssen this was the straw that broke the camel´s back. He also had particularly bad experiences with Mettavihari in this. In 1974, as a 19-year-old “labile” boy, he had already been forced to have sex with the monk. In the at least two years that followed from there, that happened again, according to Franssen, still some forty to fifty times. As a 19-year-old one was at that time legally underage.
Franssen decided: this guy has to go. He flew to Chicago to talk about Mettavihari’s conduct with a high priest, who in his words represented the Thai “Ministry of Religious Affairs.” The high priest, according to Franssen, decided to replace Mettavihari by another head monk without further discussion. In June 1981 Mettavihari was deposed as president of the temple administration, to be replaced by Henk Barendregt. This eminent mathematician who later would win the most important scientific award in the Netherlands, the Spinoza Prize, had been a board member since its inception in 1975.
To Franssen’s amazement, Barendregt returned his teacher a few months later to the temple administration, supported by another loyal follower of Mettavihari: Aad Verboom, president of the Foundation of Young Buddhists in the Netherlands. Franssen knew that the new head monk wanted to grant Mettavihari a second opportunity. That he accepted, but having Mettavihari back in the temple administration? That would really be too much of a rehabilitation.
There arose a fierce debate. How bad is it in modern times if a monk has sex? Franssen thought that the Thai Dutch, for whom the temple was intended primarily, would be cheated if their monk secretly would break his vow of celibacy. Barendregt, according to Franssen, argued that this was an old-fashioned view: most Dutch still even now think that a parish priest should not be judged if he falls in love with his housekeeper?
That in this case it was involuntary sex with minors who are not on an equal footing with the teacher played for Franssen in that discussion no decisive role. It’s the early 1980s, the era of ‘anything goes’ in the progressive Netherlands. Aad Verboom admits in 2015 that he also had not believed Patrick Franssen’s story about the abuse he had suffered. For that, he has meanwhile apologized to Franssen via the Boeddhistisch Dagblad.
Eventually Barendregt got what he wanted, after which Franssen drew his conclusions. He left the temple administration in December 1981 disconcertedly, to emigrate to Thailand four years later, dismayed by in his eyes “amateurish” Dutch Buddhism. He was replaced on the board by Mettavihari, the man against whom he had tried to take action.
There may then have been further incidents, because in 1983 the monk had to disappear definitively from the temple in Waalwijk. Anyway Barendregt and Verboom neglected to find out how often Mettavihari had misbehaved and how bad his misdemeanors were. According to the Thai monastic rules, a monk should take off his habit when he has had sex, but Mettavihari’s prominent students do not think that is necessary. They cover up why their teacher had to leave the temple in Waalwijk. In an introduction to a book he published later that year, Aad Verboom explained the break with the temple as because of “significant differences in views on Buddhism and the practice thereof.” This Verboom was from 1990 to 1998 board member and president of the Buddhist Union in the Netherlands (BUN).
With the help of Barendregt and Verboom Mettavihari got the chance to leave the Thai tradition in which he had got in a jam, to continue as the revered spiritual leader of a group of Dutch Buddhists. The boards of other Buddhist centers meanwhile exchanged only rumors about what happened in Waalwijk. A concrete consequence of this was that for nine years Mettavihari unhinderedly could abuse young adult men in other places, including in Groningen.
Overstep the mark
In 1995, according to some of his students, he was at last confronted because of his behaviour. Mettavihari admitted that he had crossed the line, but also said that he had since stopped the abuse. This apparently was enough for those followers; in 2006, fourteen of them accepted consecrations as teachers by him. A year later Mettavihari died.
Only in May 2015 there is a rupture between “the fourteen”. The immediate causes are the alarming findings of their own investigation into the extent of the abuse that two people in the group have conducted at last. Some of the teachers feel that the scandal must become known, name included, while Barendregt, Verboom and five other teachers think that this is not necessary. Their reasoning is that Mettavihari can no longer defend himself. The mention of his name would supposedly be offensive to the Thai community.
Barendregt claims also to have contacted the Thai spiritual authorities in the early 1980s. But Barendregt now also admits: “With the knowledge we have now, more should have been done to avoid repetition. In my ignorance I thought that the actions at administrative and spiritual levels were adequate.”
Verboom also notes that he had “been asleep at the wheel. I have accepted being lied to. And I have always given Mettavihari the benefit of the doubt. I must note now that there is much more pain and suffering for the victims than I thought possible.”
2. Gerhard Mattioli (2001-2007)
Frans de Reeper had visited for over a year a Buddhist center in Middelburg when he heard something disturbing in the summer of 2004. One of the women in the group told him, crying on the phone, that the monk who led the group had expelled her from the center. According to her, it happened because this Gerhard Mattioli, who told his students to call him ‘Lama Kelsang Chöpel’, for years had a relationship with her. During their vacation that broke up and then he also expelled her from the group.
De Reeper is stunned. To be sure, he immersed himself once more in the rules for monks: surely, this is absolutely unacceptable? He consults literature and hears evidence from an experienced monk and a Buddhist institute. He also asks in a letter to Mattioli what is going on. Mattioli refuses to answer the questions. “I am not subordinate or dependent on other Buddhist organizations or lamas or rinpoche, not even to His Holiness the Dalai Lama,” he writes.
De Reeper subsequently decided to take action. He writes a long letter to the other members of the group, in which he says what he has found out. And he also informs among others Jean Charles Hylkema, at that time director of the Buddhist Broadcasting Foundation (BOS) and also treasurer of the Buddhist Union (BUN). The BUN also receives a separate letter, like the editors of the magazine Kwartaalblad Boeddhisme (later renamed Vorm en Leegte).
The message of the letters is clear: “We believe that we have sufficient evidence that the people who visit the center get in touch with Buddhism in a way which is ultimately harmful for them.” The broadcaster and the magazine according to the letter’s authors should at least stop having commercials and ads for Mattioli’s center.
It does not have many consequences. The often very vulnerable followers of Mattioli are so spellbound that they ignore the warnings by De Reeper. An employee of the Kwartaalblad Boeddhisme / Vorm en Leegte calls De Reeper, but says that they are not responsible for what happens in the centers that are advertised in the magazine. The editors refuse to stop the ads.
A new letter to Vorm en Leegte in the spring of 2005 also did not yield anything, just like a personal request to the aforementioned employee of Kwartaalblad Boeddhisme / Vorm en Leegte during a lecture. BOS director Hylkema writes back that the broadcaster will stop paying attention to Mattioli’s center. The BUN announces there is nothing they can do because the center is not a member.
In late 2007, the issue exploded in Middelburg, as Mattioli’s group learns that their teacher had started sexual relationships with four women simultaneously. One of them has become even pregnant. Several people involved go to the police (according to Mattioli himself “under threat of violence from their partners’), but they eventually do not complain officially. In a letter Mattioli threatened his students inter alia with ‘reincarnation in hell‘ if they would break up with him.
President Varamitra (Theo Alkemade) of the Buddhist Union announced in April 2008 during a meeting that “a self-styled lama” in Middelburg “in a terrible way has wreaked havoc.” He also revealed that women in Middelburg now have been helped by the BUN: Varamitra and a Buddhist nun went to Zeeland to talk to the women and to offer them perspectives again. “A good example of tradition-borders crossing cooperation”, is said satisfiedly during the BUN meeting of April 2008.
The issue is not brought into the open. Buddhist and researcher Rob Hogendoorn finds out in 2013 and publishes about it in the web magazine Open Boeddhisme, which he runs together with his colleague Theo Dik. Hogendoorn and Dik also report the matter to the police. Because of that action, they are fiercely attacked by an editor of another Buddhist site, Joop Hoek. He points out in a column that Mattioli denies the allegations and has never been convicted by a court. He calls them inter alia “fake prosecutors, the fake Thomson and Thompson of our society.” Hoek was in 2004 an employee of Kwartaalblad Boeddhisme, so the magazine which was warned about the practices of Mattioli.
Hylkema also thinks that he did not have to do more to prevent worse things, after he had been warned about the activities of ‘monk’ Mattioli. To Open Boeddhisme he downplayed the seriousness of the situation, “Lamas impregnating women, that undoubtedly happens sometimes. There are women who wish to be more than just students, and who want a sexual relationship. Some lamas go along with that, and sometimes that leads to pregnancy.”