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….