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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
"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."
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."
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.
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
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".
Saytha 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 Saytha Sai Baba Centres in more than 100 countries .