CPO is Flawed but Necessary
Posted June 16, 2009
I agree with Visnugada das's findings ("CPO Mistakes Remain Under The Rug") that the CPO is inadequately equipped for its task and that much needs to be done for its improvement. However, I disagree with just about everything else in his paper.
It is important to be aware of Visnugada prabhu's position and possible bias when reading his presentation. I find his paper to be an oversimplification of an otherwise complex issue and his suggested solutions to be inadequate, impractical and difficult to implement.
His motives are to please Srila Prabhupada and protect devotees from a miscarriage of justice, which is commendable. Instead of requesting a case review, however, he tries to influence the reader towards a conclusion of innocence. He finds faults with the process and ignores what I consider simple facts of the case, which in my opinion shows a lack of objectivity.
A reader of Visnugada's paper could come to the inaccurate conclusion that the CPO and perhaps even the GBC as a whole are and have been biased against accused devotees in child abuse cases.
Dhira Govinda prabhu was the director of the CPO at the time of the first adjudication of one accused devotee, whereas Tamohara prabhu presided at the second. If, as per the statements of Visnugada prabhu, Dhira Govinda prabhu has seemed excessively zealous in prosecution, sadly it seems to me that Tamohara prabhu may have taken the opposite tack; yet Visnugada prabhu seems to regard them as if they were working very similarly. The GBC is made up of individuals with different and often conflicting opinions on many issues; child protection is certainly one of them.
The accused devotee enjoyed a substantial amount of support from several GBC members and senior devotees, many of whom took no trouble to ascertain his guilt or innocence. GBC Sesa prabhu, who happens to be a minister of education, acted as defense attorney in the CPO adjudication. When the CPO judges reached a unanimous verdict, HH Radhanath Swami, regarding the sanctions it imposed as excessive, interceded. Prior to his reduction of the CPO sentence, the accused devotee had, with the complicity of some GBC members, on more than one occasion disregarded the sanctions.
Without going into the merit of the fairness of the sanctions, it is commendable of Radhanath Swami, acting in integrity with his conscience, to have intervened to prevent an injustice. What leaves me puzzled is that to my knowledge he has never taken a similar stance to protect child abuse victims, either in CPO cases where the sanctions against a convicted abuser have been inadequate or where a known abuser posed an ongoing threat to children in the devotee community. His non-involvement in the protection of children was not due to a lack of instances where such scenarios have occurred.
I gained some experience and knowledge of the Child Protection Office, its laws and procedures during a case arbitration. In the adjudication of that case, three GBC members wrote letters of support for the alleged perpetrator. During the review of the case we were met with an unexpected amount of opposition and obstacles from both the GBC and the CPO; some of the decisions of the CPO unfairly favored the position of the accused. In the review of that case we did not have the support of even one GBC member.
If Visnugada das thinks that the implementation of faulty psychological tests requires the review of certain past cases, I am curious to know his opinion on the rebuttal issue. Generally, when accusations are leveled, the CPO passes the testimonies of the alleged victim/s to the alleged perpetrator to provide an opportunity to build a defense; and this is only fair. The CPO, however, has repeatedly denied the alleged victims an opportunity for cross-examination. In our adjudication, our request for access to respond to the defense document was flatly refused.
Only after we found the relevant rule in the CPO manual granting us the right to a rebuttal did we succeed in convincing Tamohara prabhu to reconsider his decision. This was the first time that he granted alleged victims the same rights he had been giving alleged perpetrators. Our rebuttal paper constituted important evidence for the case, and he has since agreed that in all future CPO cases the victims will be allowed to rebut. Given my experience, I find Visnugada prabhu's attempt to convince the reader that somehow the CPO has been biased towards the children to be almost amusing.
Furthermore, since the CPO investigation (which he argues was flawed) found guilt, I believe it is unprofessional, out of place and insensitive to the accuser to express sympathy and publicly declare the defendant innocent before a thorough review has exonerated him. I wonder if Visnugada prabhu has entertained the possibility that devotees found guilty by the system may indeed have been guilty.
In the case of the "humble sannyasi" mentioned by Visnugada prabhu, I suggest that even if the results of the "psychological test" did not indicate psychopathic tendencies, the swami's past actions were very much the acts of a psychopathic deviate who was not convicted because of a faulty test but on the basis of his past actions. He built his defense after viewing testimonies submitted against him, but again the CPO denied his victims the opportunity for a rebuttal. Finally, one of the judges had herself previously been accused of child abuse. She may have been biased and sympathetic in passing her judgment on the swami. I doubt if an objective review of his case would result in a lesser sentence. As in other high-profile cases, he enjoyed the unquestioned support of several GBC members and senior devotees.
The CPO's inability to deliver impartial and dependable justice over the years has failed the victims more than it has failed accused perpetrators. Victims have generally enjoyed less support and have had access to fewer resources than the alleged perpetrators.
Many past CPO cases have been reviewed, and some have even been re-reviewed. If we could establish a truly independent and objective commission to reassess past cases, this body would be faced with a monumental task requiring substantial resources, assuming the victims and the alleged perpetrators would be willing to undergo the stress of a review. It is understandable that the GBCs are reluctant to entertain such a possibility, and I am not sure that such reviews would be practical and even feasible.
A problem with the suggestion to replace the CPO and use civil authorities and court systems to investigate and prosecute child abuse arises in cases where statutory limitations prevent court prosecution. In some U.S. states this time is limited to just one year after the victim's 18th birthday, while child abuse is often not discovered until several years after the incidents. Another problem occurs where a victim is not willing to testify. At Bhaktivedanta Manor a man known to have molested two underage girls — and who had "consensual sex" with a third girl who chose not to press charges — was found innocent due to insufficient evidence. Without CPO intervention, this man would be allowed to visit the Manor and pose an ongoing threat to other children.
Many of the worst crimes perpetrated against children in ISKCON history occurred in our Indian Gurukulas. It would be impractical to attempt to prosecute these criminals through the Indian judicial system. Even where accused criminals are from western countries, the law will often not prosecute for crimes committed outside their jurisdiction.
Even where a pedophile has been convicted in secular courts, without the CPO we would still need to decide what needs to be done after the offender has served the sentence. Who would feel comfortable if a felon convicted for pedophilia were to become an initiating guru after having served his sentence?
I contend that imperfect humans cannot create a perfect justice system. Secular courts, although more established and reliable than the CPO, are far from perfect. The notion of justice itself is to some degree arbitrary; at best it may be possible to create a structure that will please the majority.
The CPO is more flawed than most can imagine, but I do not see shutting it down as a viable solution. I believe that the benefits of its existence outweigh and justify the costs, so long as its members are open to learning from past mistakes. The CPO requires more dedication, transparency, accountability and honesty. It requires the willingness and humility to assess, evaluate and implement constructive criticism; it needs to earn the support and approval of the devotee community. It needs for us to meditate on constructive ways it can be improved rather than shut down. It requires a more responsible involvement of the parents, teachers and former students. The CPO must be entirely and visibly independent.
The current CPO seems to be accountable exclusively to selected GBC members; while such an arrangement may have been functional and even practical, it prevents the CPO from being dependable, trusted and impartial, and in some ways defeats the very purpose for its existence. The CPO needs a director who is independent of the GBC.
Tamohara das, the current director, is also a GBC member, the headmaster of the New Ramana-reti School, a member of the Alachua Temple Council, and a recent appointee as chairman of the North American GBC Committee. The number and immense requirements of these different services makes conflicts of interest inevitable. It is likely that Tamohara prabhu is overworked and is unable to dedicate his undivided and unbiased attention fully to all of these services. At times, this will necessarily affect the quality and efficiency of his performance, causing frustration and stress both for himself and for whoever is in need of his attention. Such conflicting interests undeniably undermine the reliability and competence of the CPO as a functional body of justice that is beyond reproach; it fosters the belief that the GBC is intent on controlling the outcome of some sensitive and/or high-profile cases they deem significant.
Without negating the importance of avoiding the punishment of innocent devotees, I invite Visnugada prabhu to extend his compassion to the victims of any perpetrators who may have benefited from the shortcomings and limitations of the CPO. Campaigning for a review of such cases would also be a worthwhile pursuit; it would create a safer environment for the children in ISKCON, and would doubtless please Srila Prabhupada.