After being prompted by Joanne McCarthy, a journalist for The Newcastle Herald, Kathryn James, the chair of Rigpa Australia, recently publically gave the kinds of statement that we’ve been wanting to hear from every Rigpa organisation.
Journalist Joanne McCarthy isn’t someone that can be put off with platitudes and deflections. She won a Gold Walkley award, the most prestigious of the Walkley Awards for Australian journalism, so her writing holds weight. She’s experienced in dealing with religious groups and their methods of deflecting, minimising and covering up, due to her reporting on child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, as well as other cult and corruption issues, such as the pelvic mesh scandal.
McCarthy did her homework, interviewing several Australians and getting confirmation of what they told her from a second source, so she knew exactly what to ask to push for some kind of admission of the truth. She wrote three articles on Sogyal and Rigpa for The Newcastle Herald (Newcastle is the biggest city in the Hunter region where the Rigpa Australia national retreats were held each year.) At least one of the articles (the first one) was also published in The Canberra Times.
The first article gave the general story of Sogyal’s abuses – nothing there we don’t all know already – but she called Sogyal a ‘mindfulness’ guru, which is not a designation Sogyal would ever have accepted, and it unfairly tarnishes the mindfulness movement. I don’t know why she didn’t use the word ‘meditation’, but perhaps it’s because mindfulness tends to be used as a secular word for meditation as if interchangeable with it. For Buddhists, mindfulness is a specific Shamata practice not an alternative term for meditation, which encompasses a wider range of methods. And we know that Sogyal rarely taught on the mindfulness practices. That aside however, she was careful to get her facts straight.
The second article is the one of most interest to those of us in the What Now? group, and contains the content to which this article refers.
In this article Kathryn James showed a rare honesty by admitting that they had a way to go to fully implement the recommendations of the Lewis Silkin report. Mind you, the journalist already knew they hadn’t implemented them properly, so denying it would have been seen as lying – not a good look. Nevertheless, it was good to see someone speaking honestly about it. My own effort to get such an admission from Rigpa Australia via email received no reply!
The third article, written after the Herald apparently received a cease and desist order from Rigpa’s lawyer, spoke about the workers compensation claim made for one of Rigpa Australia’s National Directors who had an emotional breakdown. The article restricted itself to quotes on the matter from Rigpa Australia’s communications with members. The suggestion was that Rigpa Australia, having lodged the claim, accepted some level of responsibility for the man’s breakdown.
Report findings accepted
McCarthy asked James some tricky questions that pushed James to admit (after discussing with the Rigpa Australia management team how she should answer) that Sogyal had hit her – McCarthy already knew this to be true – and that Rigpa Australia accepted the findings of the Lewis Silkin independent report into Sogyal’s abuse.
Rigpa Australia accepts the allegations of abuse and the findings and recommendations of the Lewis Silkin Report.Kathryn James, Rigpa Australia
In contrast, the Rigpa Vision Board only said, ‘We acknowledge the gravity of the independent report.’ By using that wording, the Rigpa Vision Board never admitted that the report was a true account of Sogyal’s behaviour and their cover up. So good on Rigpa Australia for actually accepting the findings. That means that they agree that the contents of the Lewis Silkin report are true.
Finally, we have some honesty! Go Australia!
Mind you the wording of her admission is problematic in that she said Rigpa Australia accepted the ‘allegations’ of abuse, not that they accepted the truth of the allegations. Maybe their lawyer wanted to make sure her admission didn’t open Rigpa up for a legal action, because her next statement made it clear that they do accept that Sogyal abused people.
We believe this abuse was wrong.Kathryn James, Rigpa Australia
Hallelujah! It’s a relief to have someone in a major role in Rigpa who not only realises that what Sogyal did was wrong but also is prepared to say it publically.
A real apology
Later in the second article, James shares a genuine apology made in an email to the Rigpa Australia members after the release of the Lewis Silkin report. Unlike the communications from the Vision Board that refuse to admit any responsibility for their role in enabling Sogyal’s abuse – saying only that they apologise for the ‘hurt experienced’ or that they failed to educate students properly – this apology is the real thing.
The investigation report has laid bare the pain experienced by those students and the failures within Rigpa to adequately protect, respond to and support them. We, in Australia, acknowledge that pain and apologise for our own failures to listen, understand, accept and protect our students.Rigpa Australia in a message to the Rigpa Australia Sangha
How wonderful to see something real, something not in the language of minimisation or denial favoured by the Vision Board.
The apology was apparently sent to the Rigpa Australia members, but it is not available to the public on their website, nor was it sent to those who Sogyal did abuse in Australia or Australians he abused elsewhere. They didn’t send it to me to distribute to those harmed, either, and they have my email address and the addresses of the Australian members of the 8. What a pity they didn’t take that next step and deliver the apology to those who most need to hear it. Sending it only to those remaining in Rigpa makes it seem as if the purpose of the apology was only to appease their members. What use is an apology if you don’t make it to the ones you’ve harmed?
The statement on Rigpa Australia’s website about the Lewis Slikin Report is the one put out by the Vision Board, the one that does not accept the findings of the report, only the gravity of it. To make this apology, admission of the truth of the allegations and that Sogyal’s abusive behaviour was wrong a real gesture of healing, Rigpa Australia needs to take a couple of further steps.
Can Rigpa Australia make this a step for genuine healing?
Rigpa Australia could take a real step towards healing by:
- Making what James said into a public statement – one that includes the apology, admission of the truth of the allegations and their belief that Sogyal’s abusive behaviour was wrong – and putting it on their website in a prominent place.
- Sending that statement to the 8 letter writers and all those who have left Rigpa since July 2017.
Doing these two things would be a game-changing positive step, and it would pave the way for other National Rigpa teams to do the same. Does Rigpa Australia have the courage to make their own decisions on this, though? Only time will tell. If they do do it, I hope they will send me an email to let me know.
How great would that be!
(That’s an in joke for Aussies)
Further steps that would go a long way towards healing:
- Rigpa members have maligned, abused and attacked the integrity of the 8 letter writers and others who have exposed the truth about Sogyal’s behaviour. I suspect that apologies for such attacks on behalf of those who perpetrated them would constitute a genuine offer of reconciliation that would far exceed the bumbling attempts at ‘reaching out’ made to the 8 by a member of the Vision Board.
- Making sure that the person who is supposed to be dealing with grievances for Rigpa Australia actually replies to all emails detailing grievances and deals with them with due respect and consideration. (I put one in and never received a reply!)
On a personal note, I would appreciate an apology to me for not allowing me to attend the 2018 retreat without discussion or explanation, and for the Rigpa Australia members who treated me unkindly at the Sakyadhita Conference in June 2019 or abused me on social media. One of the saddest things about all this that remains for me is that Rigpa and I didn’t part on good terms, that the cruelty of some members has so overshadowed the good times, and I expect this feeling is shared by many. I remember the day I put the phone down, my hand shaking, after being told not to contact anyone in the organisation again. Such things may seem petty, but the hurt is real. I can drop it from my mind, but it remains in my heart.
That aside, I would love for Rigpa Australia to show some courage and leadership by making a statement as suggested above, and publishing it on their website.
What do you think of this development?
Photo of the new Rigpa Australia National Centre as shown on the Rigpa Australia Website.