Temples of temptation
Reports of Buddhist monks being caught having sexual relationships or embezzling temple money have become daily staples of local news stories. The controversies are serious enough to make the relatively quiet and inert authorities revise some laws regarding the Buddhist clergy.
On Tuesday, the House panel on religion amended the 1962 Sangha Act and related laws to include punishment for sexual offences.
The move comes after ex-monk Pongsakorn Chankaeo -- known as Phra Kato and a former acting abbot of Wat Pen Yat in Chawang district in Nakhon Si Thammarat -- was exposed as having had sexual relations with a woman while he was a monk. Mr Pongsakorn also faced a charge of embezzling 600,000 baht from the temple's account to bribe women and media so they didn't report his misdeeds.
The National Office of Buddhism (NOB) and the Royal Thai Police Anti-Corruption Division decided to amend the law so that monks and the women with whom they commit sexual offences can be punished.
The amendment will include a prison term of one to five years and a maximum fine of 100,000 baht for offenders.
The amendment is not only a case of "too late, too late" but is also unlikely to overcome the crisis of faith apparently plaguing Thailand's Buddhist monks.
Monks who break their celibacy vow are just the tip of the iceberg. More damaging than these salacious stories is the level of graft taking place at temple.
What Thai Buddhism needs is major structural reform to ensure its closed-off and non-transparent clergy are open to outside monitoring. That said, the Sangha Supreme Council that oversees Buddhist temples, monasteries and monks must revise and tighten its rules on how temples and monks handle money.
According to a study on temple donations by the National Institute of Development Administration (Nida) in 2012, some 30,000 temples in Thailand amass around 120 billion baht a year from the faithful. Yet these people barely know how their money is being spent. It would not be a surprise if the donations were much higher than reported.
At present, there are more than 41,000 temples nationwide. The NOB has provided 3 billion baht in state support every year. Moreover, each temple has various fund-raising activities year-round to drive up their income, aside from what falls into their donation boxes unsolicited.
While public institutions and charitable foundations are required to have their accounts publicly audited on a regular basis, Buddhist temples are exempt.
The 1962 Sangha Act requires each temple to conduct proper accounting but it allows the abbots to keep these accounts private. They are only required on rare occasions such as following an abbot's request for a royal insignia, if they are to be officially appointment as a "developed" temple, or if they are needed as evidence in the face of public complaints.
In 1968, the ministerial rules under the Sangha Act later required temples to send their reports on income and expenses to provincial branches of the NOB every month. However, these reports on state subsidies and temple donations are not open to the public.
It is time for the NOB and Sangha Council to audit temples' finances in a more transparent manner. Giving monks carte blanche to handle temple money only undermines Buddhism.