BEIJING (CNN) - One of China's former highest-ranking Buddhist monks sexually harassed nuns, China's top religious regulator said Thursday, just weeks after he strongly denied the accusations against him.
In a statement posted online, the National Religious Affairs Administration (NRAA) said its investigation found Shi Xuecheng had sent sexually explicit messages to multiple women.
In a 95-page document submitted to Chinese authorities in July, two monks at Beijing's Longquan Temple accused the 51-year-old of sexually harassing and assaulting multiple nuns, leaving at least one victim suicidal.
Following the investigation, the NRAA ordered the Buddhist Association of China to severely punish Xuecheng, who stepped down as head of the religious body last week.
Investigators also discovered numerous irregularities in the running of Beijing's Longquan Temple, where Xuecheng was the long-time abbot, including illegal constructions and missing funds.
The NRAA statement added allegations Xuecheng committed sexual assault have been reported to the police, who are now investigating.
Xuecheng, who has taken a vow of celibacy like most Buddhist monks, released a brief statement denying all allegations when the scandal first emerged in early August. He has not commented on the latest developments.
The explosive report compiled by the two monks contained numerous examples of explicit messages Shi allegedly sent to at least six nuns. In the messages, the sender demands total obedience from the women, including sexual favors, as part of their study of Buddhist doctrines.
It also included accounts from a number of the alleged victims, some of whom said they were so devastated by their experiences they became mentally unstable.
According to the document, which circulated widely online before being censored, one victim eventually reported the matter to Beijing police in June, alleging Shi had sexually assaulted her and several other nuns.
Shi Xianqi, one of the two monks behind the original document, which also includes allegations of corruption, told CNN earlier this month that he and co-author Shi Xianjia stood by their words and were cooperating with the authorities. It is customary for Buddhist monks in China to adopt the family name Shi.
In a statement to CNN at the time, Xianqi described how he began investigating the abbot earlier this year when a "fearful and nervous" nun told him about the explicit messages she had been receiving.
"So many faithful Buddhist women wanted to join the temple and I always voted yes," he said. "Little did I know I was sending them to the tiger's mouth."
"The abbot's learned image has crumbled in my mind," he added. "All that's left is huge fear. He is evil in the Buddha's robe."
High-profile religious leader
China boasts more than 240 million Buddhists despite the ruling Communist Party being officially atheist.
Shi Xuecheng was considered one of the most high-profile religious leaders in the country, penning numerous books and traveling around the world to promote Chinese Buddhism.
He had been known to put a modern twist on the ancient religion, maintaining an active online presence and teaching Buddhist ideas through cartoons. In 2016, he attracted brief worldwide attention when his temple launched a humanoid "robot monk" designed to greet young visitors.
His temple has also been viewed as an intellectual bastion with highly educated young monks. Both of the whistleblowers hold doctorate degrees in engineering from one of China's most prestigious universities.
The scandal comes at a time when women in China are pushing back hard against widespread sexual abuse, in a manner similar to the #MeToo movement in Western countries.
Xuecheng is not the first prominent Chinese Buddhist monk facing serious allegations in recent years. In 2015, Abbot Shi Yongxin of Shaolin Temple, the country's legendary kung fu monastery, was accused of being an embezzler and womanizer with illegitimate children.
Copyright 2018 by CNN NewSource. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.