LOWELL, Mass. - A video circulating of a Buddhist monk having sex with a woman helping him lead a temple project in Lowell, Mass., has rocked a Cambodian community and further splintered the community's feelings about the effort.
Those angered by the video's contents, as well as the alleged lack of financial transparency by leaders of the temple project, protested Saturday morning across the street from the temple group's Cambodian New Year's celebration at the Lowell Lodge of Elks on Old Ferry Road.
About 50 people held signs written in Khmer and English that were critical of the Community of Khmer Buddhist Monks and its leadership. The crowd included a former Lowell city councilor of Cambodian descent and two former members of the temple project's leadership team, one of whom ran for Congress in the area.
One sign had the word "sex" circled in red, with a line through it.
The video was has been widely circulated in the Cambodian community within the last 10 days. The video shows Venerable Nhem Kimteng, a monk, engaging in sexual activity with Maya Men, a lay person. Both are listed on the CKBM's website as members of the now three-member executive committee working on constructing a $10 million temple and community center in the city's Pawtucketville neighborhood.
The video also appeared briefly on YouTube a week ago before being removed. It is unclear who recorded the video or when.
Kimteng and Men were filmed in the Trairatanaram Temple in North Chelmsford. The Sun received a DVD of the video and independently confirmed Kimteng and Men were in it.
Community members, who also gathered Thursday night at the Sunny Da Restaurant on Chelmsford Street to discuss the controversy, say they are disgusted by the video's contents because Buddhist monks are supposed to be celibate and not entertain the thought of having sex.
"It outraged all of us and hurt all of us," said City Councilor Vesna Nuon, who attended the Thursday night gathering. "It is also embarrassing for all of us and cannot be tolerated.
"It is one of the worst things a Buddhist can do," said Rithy Uong, a former Lowell city councilor who was present Thursday and at the Saturday protest. "We cannot believe it happened. It discredits the entire Cambodian and Buddhist community."
Both Nuon and Uong said they learned about the tape just over a week ago. They called on the head monk of CKBM, Venerable Sao Khon, to dismiss the individuals involved.
The two leaders said they were disappointed Khon did not take immediate action. They met with him on Tuesday to reiterate their concerns and pressured him to act. Uong told The Sun on Saturday that Khon dismissed Kimteng from the project by Thursday evening, according to information Uong received from a intermediary. Kimteng was expected to return to Cambodia.
And as of late Friday night, Uong also said Men had been told to depart from the temple project.
"For now we are happy they will not be part of the project anymore and we will deal with any other issues at another time," Uong said.
Government officials in Cambodia are also being notified about Kimteng's actions to see if they want to pursue any action against him, said Uong. The video has been viewed by people in Cambodia, he said.
Khon, who appeared at the CKBM's New Year's celebration Saturday, declined to comment. Samkhann Khoeun, a spokesman for the CKBM, did not respond to a request for comment.
Men, who several people said they saw enter the New Year's celebration at the Elks club shortly after 10 a.m. before quickly departing, could not be reached for comment.
James Boumil, an attorney for Men and the CKBM, said he was unsure if Men had been removed.
The Lowell attorney told The Sun that taping activities without permission and distributing them is illegal, and in this case permission was not granted. He anticipates legal action will be taken against the individual or individuals involved as early as this week. He would not say whether he knows who recorded and distributed the video.
"This is not fun and games in the playground," Boumil wrote in an email. "This is an extremely serious invasion of privacy."
Kimteng could not be reached for comment.
Some supporters of the temple project at the New Year's celebration said they had heard about the video, but were either skeptical or not too concerned with its contents.
"Whatever might have happened is none of my business," said Daren Lim, 43, of Dracut. "I am just here to support the head monk."
"I don't believe it," said Saravy Men, 33, of Lowell, no relation to Maya Men. "But if it did happen, that is between the two people. It is not between the temple, the monk and others in the community."
Those at the protest were upset about the video. One sign read: "Ven. Sao Khon & supporters stop protecting Monk, Kimteng & deceitful Maya Men."
"They need to be gone," said Sinath Em, 53, said of Kimteng and Men. Em said she used to support the temple project.
"What they did is beyond heinous," said Rady Mom, 43, a member of the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association's board. "They have caused pain and suffering among the elders and are trying to destroy the community we have built here."
The other focus of the protest was a renewed call for an independent audit of CKBM's books because of concerns about financial improprieties.
Sam Meas, a CKBM executive committee member who was dismissed last August after a call for an audit, was at Saturday's protest. He was joined by Sambath Soum, a former executive committee member who said he resigned because there was secrecy about the handling of money coming in for the temple project.
Meas has filed a complaint with the Attorney General's Office seeking an investigation of the CKBM's finances. He said he still hopes an audit takes place.
"They have not been accountable," said Meas, of Haverhill, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2010. "They have not answered the people's questions about where the money has gone. We will not be satisfied until the truth is provided."
A petition was circulated asking for signatures calling for the CKBM to provide receipts to all of those who have donated to the project.
As of late December, the CKBM had raised $500,000 from more than 5,000 supporters. The CKBM has defended its handling of funds, and has denied the requests for an audit.
The group has argued that their bylaws do not contain a provision calling for an outside audit, so if one was needed, the organization's board of directors would have to vote for one to take place.
Some critics have alleged that temple money may have been used to buy a house for Maya Men near the construction site. The house is owned by Men's relatives, according to the Registry of Deeds. Boumil said the accusations about the house purchase are not true.
Boumil also said he has been told by temple leaders that Meas sought the audit after he was not named executive director of the temple project.
"No one is going to undertake a significant expense not required by law because one person who did not get a job he sought had unsubstantiated suspicions," Boumil said.
Meas says temple leaders mentioned the idea of the executive director job to him at one time, but they never followed up and he never requested the position.
Follow Lyle Moran on Twitter @lylemoran.