By Emma Wallace
Throughout this week I have been attending the rape and sexual abuse case against Ven. Pahalagama Somaratana – chief monk of Selsdon Buddhist Temple in London – at Isleworth Crown Court.
To give a bit of context: Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country, and there is controversy over the fact that many Buddhist monks are now dipping their toes into political matters on the island.
Hardly any media faction is touching this story in Sri Lanka, so when I was asked by a newspaper called The Sunday Leader, and the BBC, to attend court I simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity. A parallel can perhaps be drawn between this case and those against priests who were accused of child abuse in Catholic-majority countries recently.
When Chief Monk Pahalagama Somaratana first arrived in England, in 1978, he was 32 years old. He was part of Chiswick Temple from 1978 to 1981, and thereafter went on to create his own Temple in Selsdon, South Croydon, where he remains today.
Key prosecution witnesses took to the stand this week to give their account of what had allegedly occurred during 1978-79 and 1984-86. Both witnesses were aged between 9 and 10 when the first was allegedly raped and both were sexually abused.
The court heard that a majority of the alleged rape and indecent assaults occurred primarily after the Temple’s Sunday school. The accused would routinely visit classes where approximately 20 children, aged 4 to 16, attended each week.
The first victim brought forward 10 abuses, including 5 counts of indecent assault and 1 count of rape, which allegedly occurred in the spring of 1978 when the victim was just 9 years old.
As to why she hadn’t come forward when the alleged rape and abuse occurred, the witness stated that Ven. Somaratana had threatened that her “parents would be angry and that her father would die.”
Ven. Somaratana claims that he does not remember the first victim during the time of the alleged rape and sexual abuse. He further claimed that as a monk “he does not touch people, especially women, as it is wrong and considered a sin.”
Neither defense team nor the chief monk has contested the alleged rape of the first victim in the Buddhist Temple in Chiswick, during 1978-79. What remains to be proven is whether it was perpetrated by Pahalagama Somaratana, as the victim claims.
The prosecution brought attention to the statement that the chief monk had made in his first police interview, after he was arrested in September 2011 at Heathrow Airport. He had suggested to the police that the first victim might have got him mixed up with someone else. However, the prosecution pointed out that he himself had confirmed that “priests in their robes were distinctive” and could be told apart.
The second witness, whose was allegedly sexually abused by the chief monk in the mid 1980’s, described to the court that she remembered “being alone” in Ven. Somaratana’s room on the pretence of discussing upcoming temple services. Describing the placing of furniture in precise detail, the witness stated that it was “no bigger than a box room”.
The crown court was told of incidents of abuse when the witness was taken to the bedroom alone with Ven. Somaratana, and that she has memories of “sitting on his lap”.
After the court recessed briefly to give the witness time to compose herself, she continued describing the alleged sexual abuse that she was subjected to during the course of 2 to 3 years.
When questioned as to why the second witness had only come forward approximately 25 years following the alleged assault, she stated that at the time she thought that the monk’s actions were an accident.
One prosecution witness was the former hypnotherapist of the second victim. The alleged victim had visited the witness back in 2009. The witness had asked the victim to complete a routine assessment form that would provide an insight into why it was that the victim had visited the hypnotherapist and to also ascertain the problem.
The witness then told the court that the victim, when asked what was wrong, had said that she “had been touched as a child.”
The case continues next week when the defense plans to bring a numberof witnesses from London and from Sri Lanka, via video call, to comment on the nature of the monk’s character. 65-year-old Ven. Pahalagama Somaratana, chief monk of Thames Buddhist Vihara at Dulverton Rd, Croydon, has pleaded not guilty of all charges.