· Sexual abuse accusations against group's leader
· 80th birthday invitation to hundreds of youngsters
Saturday November 4, 2006
A spiritual group whose "living god" founder has been accused of sexually abusing young boys has become an accredited partner of the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme, the Guardian can reveal.
Last night pressure was mounting on the charity to break its links with the group whose followers are devoted to the preachings of 79-year-old holy man, Sai Baba. About 200 young people will fly to India in two weeks' time on a humanitarian pilgrimage run by Sai Youth UK, a division of the Sri Sathya Sai Organisation. The teenagers and young men earn their Duke of Edinburgh awards for humanitarian work, chiefly distributing medical aid. The trip coincides with Sai Baba's 80th birthday and has been arranged, organisers say, after he gave a divine commandment for the UK's Sai youth movement to visit him for the occasion.
For decades male former devotees have alleged that the guru molested them during so-called "interviews". During the last youth pilgrimage, in 2004, young people were granted group interviews with the guru after administering medical aid to villages surrounding Sai Baba's ashram in Puttaparthi, Andhra Pradesh, although there was no evidence of abuse. Large numbers of young men have travelled from across the world to study alongside and meet the guru. His supporters say their encounter was spiritually enriching. Others, including participants in a BBC programme, The Secret Swami, two years ago, accuse him of abuse, claiming he massaged their testicles with oil and coerced them into oral sex.
Sai Baba has never been charged over the sex abuse allegations. However, the US State Department issued a travel warning after reports of "inappropriate sexual behaviour by a prominent local religious leader" which, officials later confirmed was a reference to Sai Baba. Tom Sackville, a former Home Office minister and chairman of FAIR, a cult-watching and victim support group, said: "It is appallingly naive for the award scheme to involve young people and the royal family with an organisation whose leader is accused of paedophilia. Parents who plan to send their children on this month's pilgrimage ... should be aware of the danger their children are being exposed to."
But Peter Westgarth, chief executive of the charity, last night faced down calls to terminate his organisation's relationship with the Sai organisation. He said: "This is not the only religion accused of paedophilia. Young people who are participating on these trips are doing so because they choose to," he said. "The awards accredit the good work they do for poor people in India. We make no judgment about their religion. We would no sooner intervene here than we would the Church Lads' and Girls' Brigade."
The Conservative MP Michael Gove said he would write to the charity asking it to consider a stricter monitoring of the organisations they they work with. "As a society we need a more determined effort to identify and expose those religious cults and extremists that pose a direct threat to people, so that they do not enjoy patronage that should be directed elsewhere," he said.
Shitu Chudasama, Sai's UK national youth coordinator, defended the trip, saying it was primarily a humanitarian mission to help impoverished people, saying that the sex abuse claims were "totally unfounded". He added: "We hope to have an interview with Sai Baba but it's not guaranteed. If he wants to see us, he'll call us."
Sai Organisation's UK branch has also came into contact with royals through the awards, something Buckingham Palace was made aware of in September. In correspondence seen by the Guardian, Brigadier Sir Miles Hunt-Davis, Prince Philip's private secretary, wrote: "[We] are very keen to get this sorted out properly and finally." He said trustees of the award would undertake legal advice before deciding how to proceed. In July the Sai Organisation received a certificate for their "invaluable contribution" to the awards at a Buckingham Palace garden party. A news story which appeared on a Sai Baba website after the ceremony was removed after an intervention by Peter Westgarth, who said the event had been misrepresented.
In the posting, Mr Chudasama recounted the moment he delivered a speech to "various dignitaries, diplomats, ministers [and] famous celebrities" at the palace. "I was the last speaker called up, and suddenly a confidence, a joy, engulfed my being," he said. "I attributed everything to our founder Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba. As I spoke I watched the sea of faces, they were hanging from my every word and there was a look of excitement on their faces as if to say 'why have we not heard of this organisation before?'." Mr Chudasama also attended a private audience with Prince Philip at St James's Palace last year. "Prince Philip showed a very keen interest in our youth and asked many questions," Mr Chudasama wrote in a Sai newsletter. "I also had the opportunity to mention ... that we drew our inspiration and motivation from our founder Sri Sathya Sai Baba; he paused for a few seconds and then said: "Very good".
Sathya Sai Baba, who has an estimated 30 million followers worldwide, is possibly India's most controversial holy man. He gained a following in his teens when he claimed to have divine powers and, later, said he was an incarnation of God. His teachings are benign - his most famous mantra is "Love All, Serve All" - and he encourages followers, which include many of India's political elite, to undertake humanitarian work. He purports to be able to miraculously conjure sacred ash and expensive jewellery into the palm of his hand, as if out of thin air. Opponents dismiss his miracles as party tricks. The Sai Organisation claims to have more than 1,200 Sathya Sai Baba Centres in more than 100 countries.