We received this heartfelt letter from Carol Merchasin today, who asked that we share her words with the community in light of the recently issued Wickwire Holms Report. Her clear perspective, empathy, and understanding are deeply appreciated.
Below is the letter we received:
This seems like a good day to share my gratitude, regrets, clarifications, and disappointments with the Wickwire Holms Report.
I am grateful that the Wickwire Holms report is out and that it has in large part confirmed what seemed all too apparent, that Claimant #1 was sexually assaulted by the Sakyong and also that Claimant #3 was a victim of clergy sexual misconduct and an abuse of power.
I am grateful that Ms. Bath was able to talk to enough people to see the patterns of misconduct, including alcohol abuse, abuse of power, financial mismanagement, shunning, silencing and shaming. I am also grateful that she identified the possibilities of collusion among those whose loyalty to the Sakyong might sway them to be untruthful.
I am grateful to Ms. Bath. This is not easy work, this was not an easy project. I have had no doubt about her neutrality from the beginning to the end.
I am grateful for the opportunity to work with BPS. I came in with a lot of experience in doing investigations but little understanding of working with survivors of sexual trauma. I am grateful for all of those people who taught me what I needed to learn. I have tried to help them validate their claims.
I regret that more of the women who were harmed did not come forward. But Shambhala’s long history of betrayal, silencing and shunning made it very difficult for survivors to want to devote any time and energy to this. I have learned in this past year that these survivors owe us nothing and they will participate when they feel safe enough to do so.
I regret that the leadership of Shambhala and their lawyers did not understand that to be effective, an investigation has to be neutral and independent in perception as well as reality. I called for an independent monitor for this reason; instead 1) the Sakyong’s lawyer announced that the Sakyong had never assaulted anybody, 2) Shambhala revealed that the WH report would go to Alex Halpern, a longtime supporter and the Sakyong’s lawyer, and 3) the Kalapa Council’s lawyer advised survivors to ‘just believe’ that despite years of abuse all could be trusted because he said so. In the end, the community suffers – it does not get the benefit of hearing from all of the people who had allegations and from whom we could learn, and as a result, the investigation is incomplete.
The report finds that the Sakyong engaged in “sexual misconduct” with Claimant #1. What does that mean? Sexual misconduct is a broad term that includes “sexual assault” as well as a number of other types of misconduct that are sexual in nature. The conduct that Ms. Bath validated is in general sexual misconduct but in specific terms, it is a sexual assault. So, let’s call it what it is – a sexual assault, which is a criminal offense with no statute of limitations in Nova Scotia where it took place.
The IB has stated in their prologue to the WH Report (Reports Related to Sexual Misconduct and Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche) that there were ten individuals (including Claims No. 1 and No. 3) who conveyed issues of misconduct but that “[n]o one reported criminal behavior.” That is not accurate. Claimant #1’s allegations of sexual assault were substantiated, and sexual assault is most definitely criminal conduct.
I am disappointed that the scope of the investigation did not include an investigation into who, among Shambhala officers, administrators, teachers and the Sakyong’s personal staff, knew about and were complicit in covering up the Sakyong’s misconduct. Making change is hard and I understand that the IB is working diligently to do that. But you cannot change the organization without a full understanding of what went wrong. Part of what went wrong lies with the Sakyong; but another large part is with a leadership that enabled and covered up his behavior. Without knowing the full extent of that, a lot of activity, committees, and group discussion will feel like movement, but perhaps not in the direction of lasting change. Without a full diagnosis of all the dysfunction, it is unreasonable to expect a cure and healing.
I am beyond disappointed that the Chilean woman’s claim from the July BPS Memorandum was not considered. In fact, as late as December 2018, I believed that her claim was being investigated. It is true that the Chilean woman did not wish to come forward because she did not perceive the investigation as independent or neutral. Ms. Bath had all the information to reach out to corroborating witnesses. In addition, she investigated Claimant #1’s allegation without talking with her (Claimant #1 did come forward later in January). It is a “best practice” that all complaints, even anonymous ones, must be investigated to the fullest extent of the information available, particularly a claim as serious and with as much corroboration as this one.
I believe that the IB should authorize Ms. Bath to do just that – to investigate and make a finding.I can tell you what the finding will be – that it is more likely than not that the Sakyong locked the Chilean woman in a bathroom and tried to assault her. There are reliable witnesses and plenty of evidence of what happened immediately before and after and in the ensuing days, not to mention a flurry of activity when the Chilean woman moved to NYC. There is also independent corroborating evidence that a cover-up was begun immediately.
I am disappointed in the Sakyong’s letter/apology. Here is a checklist of what should be in an apology:
Expression of regret
Explanation of what went wrong
Acknowledgment of responsibility
Declaration of repentance
Offer of repair
Request for forgiveness
Here is another rule: Don’t let someone else, especially your criminal lawyer, write it for you. His job is to keep you out of jail. His job is not to help you understand that if you had actually done the six steps above, you probably wouldn’t be in this situation.
I am disappointed that no one in a position of authority in Shambhala, certainly not the Sakyong, has ever made an official public apology to the people who were harmed and who had the courage to raise these issues to the community. Remaking the organization can’t happen unless there is a complete reckoning with the past. Apologies are hard work, but it is work that must be done. It cannot be outsourced.
So, in the absence of anyone else doing the hard work of an apology, here is what should be said to every single one of the men and women that have been harmed. I especially include Andrea Winn along with the many others who have been working for years to shine a light on this dark part of Shambhala. You cannot heal if you cannot honor the whistleblowers.
Here is my dream Shambhala apology which (in my dreams) would be signed by every single leader of Shambhala, past and present:
“We are beyond regret that you have experienced trauma at the hands of your spiritual teacher and the organization you trusted and relied on. All of us as leaders of this community have betrayed your trust; we have been complicit not only in seeing and allowing this aggressive behavior to continue, but we also inflicted more pain on you by not listening, by seeking to minimize the harm, by denying this happened, by demeaning you, by labeling you as ‘needy,’ ‘troubled,’ or ‘too ambitious.’ We understand that all of these actions were wrong – not only wrong but done in an attempt to protect ourselves and not you. For all of this we stand before you in breathtaking remorse for the harm we have allowed. In addition to making the changes that must be made to the organization, we intend immediately to begin a program of restitution and repair for each and every one of you who has experienced pain due to our action and lack of action.”
I am not holding my breath on this, but still, what would be the harm in sending this aspiration to survivors on this Shambhala Day?
I wish all of you a good new year with much healing ahead.