Today news.com.au released a follow-up report to Background Briefings investigation into the sex scandal at the Mount Eliza Ashram. You can read it here:
In part 3 of this series, we continue the review of the meditation process.
In the previous post, we showed that in his report (dated 12.02.15), the mediator explained in detail to the Management Committee that trust in them was at an all-time low, and as a result participation in the process was minimal (although one of the women claiming sexual abuse did speak to him). He stated that:
- A significant number of callers were extremely reluctant to participate due to trust issues.
- The community wanted the promised transparent investigation and felt that mediation was premature.
- People believed it was a fishing or fact-finding mission on behalf of the board.
- There were perceptions of attacks from the board upon people making the claims of sexual abuse or those who wished to raise issues.
- The community felt that the Management Committee were being secretive and not transparent.
- They also believed that the board members merely followed Russell’s instructions and were not really independent.
The Management Committee dismissed these findings and appear to draw other conclusions from the report. The next day they met to discuss it:
If the community suspected that the Management Committee would be biased or “not really independent” then Russell being invited to “attend as a guest of the Committee” is a cause for concern. Particularly given that the community members who participated in the Mediation were not allowed to know what the report contained or how their testimony had been worded.
“Reverse the undertaking…?”
Astonishingly, they discussed the possibility of reversing Russell’s written commitment to the community to “cease the activities” because if another woman in the future also alleged sexual abuse then the Management Committee would have to deal with it. In their own words reversing the undertaking “took away the risk factor” (i.e. their Duty of Care responsibilities).
“Swamiji’s word is what matters…”
One member of the board even went so far as to state for the record that Swamiji’s word is what mattered to him. Bias? Confirmed.
In another set of meeting minutes dated 17.02.15 they summarised the Mediation process as follows:
“Under no obligation…”
To put this statement into context: The Managing Director of an ACNC Registered Charity Organisation had been accused of sexual abuse by a number of female volunteers, and the Management Committee felt that he was under “no obligation to make a full disclosure” as to what had occurred?
“No reason to believe….”
Although the committee states here that they have “no reason to believe that Russell has not made full disclosure”, they note in the very next paragraph that one of the women who spoke to the mediator disputed Russell’s account:
The woman in question had spoken to the Mediator and “alleged sexual abuse”, or in his words “sexual contact with Swamiji and pressure to progress to sexual intercourse” (also known as Sexual Harassment). Surely this would prompt the Management Committee to look further into the claims of the other women on their so-called “Jane Doe” list?
Clearly not. The only conclusion they drew from it was the need to create a “further legal safeguard” for themselves.
“Nothing more to investigate…”
Despite the fact that barely eight weeks had passed since the initial Satsang announcement and the community was demanding a real investigation, the Management Committee regarded the matter as already closed. In their view, Russell’s version of events combined with the lack of participation in the offered mediation process was the only “investigation” required.
More to follow…
In this essay, we review the Management Committees’ mediation process.
To recap, during the Saturday night Satsang program in late 2014 a senior Management Committee member surprised the gathering crowd by announcing that there had been “allegations of a sexual nature made against Swamiji”, and made a verbal commitment to the community that the Management Committee would conduct a thorough investigation into the allegations.
Just several days after making this statement, they posted their now infamous “Letter to the Community” (seen here) in which they claimed that Swami Shankarananda had been engaged in secret tantric practices “in line with age-old Hindu Tantric scriptures”.
This caused consternation and outrage in the community.
Shortly following this, another letter was sent out by the Management Committee which offered to enlist the services of an external mediator to resolve the matter, which many people in the community felt was extremely premature as the promised investigation hadn’t been completed (or even started as far as anyone knew). This post dated 13th Jan 2015 outlined some of the concerns that the community had regarding this at the time.
The Management Committee chose to ignore the raised concerns and proceeded with the Mediation process regardless, fueling further mistrust within the community. Shortly afterwards they sent out the following invite to the community via email (we include it in its entirety here :
The Management Committee stated in this invitation that the purpose of the offered mediation was “for the benefit of the Ashram community”, yet they subsequently chose to keep all of the information gathered during the process to themselves. Even people who participated in mediation were not allowed to know what the Mediators Report contained, or how the information they had provided had been worded or expressed.
Excerpts from the Mediator’s Report:
The mediator himself was quick to identify the trust issues with the Management Committee and reported to them that participation in the process was lacking as a result:
“Fishing, or a fact-finding mission…”
“Attacks from the board…”
“Perception of reprisals…”
The following two recommendations by the mediator on how to resolve the lack of trust issues were subsequently ignored by the Management Committee:
This review of the mediation process will continue in the next post…
Rumours of sexual misconduct at The Ashram, Mount Eliza have continued to circulate in the broader Melbourne community, despite the group’s best efforts to rebrand (several times) and attract new recruits to fill the seats left by the large number of devotees who left in 2014.
The version of events they have been peddling to new members ever since (that it was all a vicious smear campaign by a gang of “haters”) was recently exploded by the ABC’s journalist Dan Oakes and the team at Background Briefing. You can listen to that excellent piece of investigative journalism here or read the extended written article here.
One question that seems to haunt ex-members to this day is: “How did they get away with it?”
To understand this, we must look at the actions of the ashrams Management Committee during the early days of the scandal.
In the following series of essays, we will examine leaked internal documents and emails from the period that offer a disturbing impression of this Management Committee: a group of individuals who seem preoccupied with creating “legal safeguards” for themselves and Russell (but mostly for themselves) and the formulation of a strategy to weather the crisis until it went away.
Perhaps not surprisingly, there are no indications in any of their communications that the seven Management Committee members had the slightest concern or compassion for the female members making the claims of sexual harassment or abuse.
In this portion of their meeting minutes dated 30.01.15 (barely a month after the initial revelations of sexual abuse) they note the following points of discussion and agreement on how to proceed:
There are several things of interest here:
Despite their legal Duty of Care towards the women making sexual assault allegations, investigating the matter is literally not on their agenda. And yet they have already decided that dismissing Russell “won’t help events.”
The fact that they even discussed Russell’s dismissal is completely at odds with their letter to the community in which they claimed that his activities “were in line with age-old Hindu tantric scriptures.” If they actually believed that his actions were in line with age-old Hindu scriptures, why even consider his potential dismissal?
They also reasoned that if he took a sabbatical (stepped down, as in the original Satsang announcement) this would “confirm peoples suspicions” and probably wouldn’t help with their dilemma over how to keep the ashram going; after all what’s a guru-cult without a guru?
So they settled on a business-as-usual policy; Russell would remain in place as the Ashrams figurehead and programs would proceed as normal, including his up-coming birthday celebrations.
As for the large number of devotees who left – many of them after a decade or more of selfless service to the ashram and thousands of hours of unpaid work – they were to be “put aside”.
They believed that “hate will disappear over time” – a euphemism for “this will all blow over.”
They would also concoct “a new narrative about the future and hope” aimed primarily at the remaining devotees and ashramites who might be wavering or beginning to have doubts, as well as working out what to say to new people who might ask awkward questions. This “new narrative” is evidenced in the Management Committees’ response to a member of the public who asked about the sex scandal via email and received this reply:
“Perhaps you have received some misinformation about Mahamandaleshwar Swami Shankarananda.
Swamiji and his community were the victims of a vicious smear campaign last year. Many people became very confused and hurt in the process. Thankfully, Swamiji and his ashram have survived and his spiritual community is thriving.
Please let me know if you need any more information.”
(Provided by the member of the public who contacted the ashram, June 2016)
More to follow….
Veteran journalist Dan Oakes and his team on the Background Briefing program investigate The Ashram, Mount Eliza.
There is also an extended written piece available here:
Following their exposé on Osho in the amazing series Wild Wild Country, Netflix recently released another documentary about Bikram. They are doing a great job of exposing these fake gurus and the methods they use to disempower and sexually abuse young women. The pattern is always the same; foster a “parent-child” relationship with the target (under the guise of “student-teacher” or “devotee-guru”) and then begin to slowly groom them for sex using every form of emotional manipulation in the narcissist’s arsenal.
It’s also amazing how many of these guru-abusers have a female accomplice (usually the wife or partner) or as was the case at the Mount Eliza Ashram, a whole team of enablers in the form of the Management Committee.
Maybe we can get Netflix to come to Mount Eliza – there is a story there just waiting to be told that is every bit as creepy and disturbing.
The resources page has been updated to add a new support group that an ex-member recommended. It is worth noting that many of the women who were abused by Kruckman at The Sri Nityananda Ashram in Mount Eliza are still in therapy four years after leaving. The remaining senior members of the ashram continue to refuse to acknowledge that anything happened and prefer to lie to new recruits, claiming that they are the victims of a conspiracy.
More of the same from the Saraswati Lineage along with the predictable attempts by Agama Yoga to salvage the situation by using carefully crafted softening language in their “open letter to the community”. Compare the experiences as described by “Kelly Anne” in the article above to Agama Yoga’s letter available here. They are also claiming to be the victims of a “media war” (read smear campaign) exactly like the claims made by The Sri Nityananda Ashram in Mount Eliza.
Agama Yoga was apparently trying to keep a lid on the situation by framing it as an “internal investigation” but their attempt failed; the women went public because they were dissatisfied with the Soma being offered to them in the form of “healing” or “guidance”. Agama’s letter aims to cast doubt on the validity of the testimony of the women, which was the same strategy used by the Management Committee at The Sri Nityananda Ashram from the outset.
Yoga communities that are based around the worship of an allegedly “enlightened” charismatic leader are incapable of conducting any kind of impartial internal investigation because the abuse will be as hierarchical as the group itself. Hence the victims are expected to trust that the often narcissistic abusers and their committed zealots will now conduct an honest investigation into their own abusive culture and sociopathic behaviour. FYI, not very likely.
This new article by Body & Soul asks “Has the yoga community enabled sexual predators?”
In our experience at the Sri Nityananda Ashram in Mount Eliza, it wasn’t the community that allowed the abuses to occur (because for the most part people were unaware of what was going on), but rather the people who were responsible for providing a Duty of Care towards the community, namely the Management Commitee. Furthermore, they didn’t just passively allow it to occour; in the case of some indiviuals they were actively involved in enabling it.
As Australian yoga teacher and author Alice Williams wrote on her blog, “match a charismatic teacher with eager and often vulnerable students, add a touch of human ego and just enough mysticism that students won’t question any dodgy practices too closely. Wait a few years, then watch the whole thing end up in court cases and recriminations.”
A long-serving devotee of Swami Shankarananda Saraswati (a.k.a Russel Kruckman) of the Sri Nityananda Ashram in Mount Eliza recently decided to leave the community and share her story on her blog.
As usual the ashram’s policy and that of the few remaining hardcore devotees is to vilify and threaten the victim:
“They stick by him and deny he has done anything wrong even though they have heard many stories like mine .. “I don’t believe he abuses women and that’s an allegation you should be very careful about making” said one of the other women high in his circle after I told her my story .
Having spoken to many people who have left, it appears to be a common theme that one of the most difficult things to come to terms with is this complete dismissal and lack of concern for the impact of the abuse demonstrated by the people who choose to stay.
We are glad that this woman eventually found her way out of the Sri Nityananda Ashram in Mount Eliza and commend her bravery for speaking out.
The legal case is still ongoing.