The head of China's Buddhist Association resigned from his position on Wednesday amid an investigation into allegations that he sexually assaulted and harassed female followers, official media reported.
Shi Xuecheng, abbot of Beijing's Longquan Temple, tendered his resignation during a meeting of the association, which is backed by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, just days after the authorities launched an investigation into the allegations.
"The association did not state the reasons for Master Xuecheng's resignation, but it came after he was accused of sexually harassing several nuns in early August, including sending illicit messages to them and forcing them to have sexual relations with him," Xinhua news agency reported.
The allegations, which included allegations of sexual assault as well as text-based harassment, formed part of a report written by monks Shi Xianjia and Shi Xianqi, also of Longquan Temple, it said.
Xuecheng had previously dismissed the accusations as "fabrication," but China's State Bureau for Religious Affairs announced it would investigate his conduct after the report became public.
According to Hong Kong's Singtao Daily newspaper, Xuecheng is currently being held under residential surveillance in the southeastern city of Fuzhou, and has been slapped with a travel ban pending the inquiry.
The initial whistleblowing report began circulating online earlier this month, and accused Xuecheng of sending sexual text messages to nuns and female disciples.
An employee who answered the phone at the Longquan Temple on Wednesday declined to comment.
"All official news related to this will be published through official channels, so you can check our website and Master Xuecheng's account on Weibo," the employee said.
He declined to comment on Xuecheng's whereabouts.
Repeated calls to the Chinese Buddhist Association and the State Bureau of Religious Affairs rang unanswered during office hours on Wednesday.
'A systemic problem'
Jiangsu-based feminist Wang Xiaoli said merely resigning from the association was insufficient punishment, if the sexual assault claims are upheld.
"If he were sent to jail or executed, we could perhaps speak of a deterrent effect, but he is now out of the picture, and the authorities are partly turning a blind eye to this," Wang told RFA.
"Even monks are sexually assaulting women now; we have monks assaulting nuns ... and the authorities are waiting for it to blow over, and then they'll do nothing; they won't arrest him," she said.
Buddhist monk Guoshi told RFA on Wednesday that Xuecheng's resignation comes amid growing concerns over moral decay.
"This is also a systemic problem, a question of the way things are done, with everyone trying to chase accomplishments and profit," he said. "They want to be officials; they want to make money."
"These are not the kinds of things monks should be doing, and it will affect their practice [of Buddhism]," he said. "It doesn't matter who the monk is. Once he starts doing this sort of thing, then he will do anything; it will be hard for him to stay within the precepts. It's hard enough to do that anyway."
Buddhist monks and nuns are required to refrain from harming living things, taking what is not freely given, sexual misconduct, lies or gossip, and using intoxicating substances.
Rights attorney Wu Kuiming said that many Buddhist temples in China seem to be more concerned with making money than following such precepts, however.
"In the last 10 or 20 years, I have learned that a lot of these temples have been taken over by certain people, who are only interested in making money," Wu told RFA.
"He is the head of a large Buddhist organization, and the reports indicate that this sort of thing is very common, that this is the kind of people they are," he said.
String of assaults
China has seen a string of sexual assault and harassment allegations against prominent figures in public life in recent months, in a society that has long been plagued by reports of "straight-guy cancer," online slang for male entitlement and sexist behavior.
More than 20 women came forward earlier this month with allegations of sexual misconduct and even rape, after Lei Chuang, founder of the prominent charity Yi You, confessed on social media to an accusation of sexual assault. Lei has since left the organization.
A recent survey of more than 400 female Chinese journalists found that more than 80 percent of them had been victims of sexual harassment in the workplace, according to Sophina Huang of the Anti-Sexual Harassment (ATSH) campaign group.
Huang, herself a former journalist for a state-run news agency and a Guangzhou newspaper, said she was inspired by the global #MeToo hashtag campaign encouraging victims of sexual abuse and harassment to publicize the issue.
Some 250 million Chinese are officially Buddhists, and those numbers are believed to be growing as young people increasingly seek a spiritual or religious path under the atheist ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Reported by Wong Lok-to for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.