Thursday, November 18, 2021

Sex, gossip, religion? Can we talk?

One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. --Carl Jung

I feel like I just stepped onto the set of The View and have been put on the spot for talking about priests, gurus, illicit sex and sexual molestation. Just use any of these words coupled with the name of God, and the door to the world of intrigue, power, domination, manipulation, forbidden pleasures is flung open. Ethical guidance is clouded by the dark forces that have been called forth.

I was stung by the criticism from a trusted friend. My friend felt that some of my writing about the sexual behavior of both teachers and students whom I know and have had some relationship with, Buddhists, Enneagram enthusiasts, meditators, “verged on ‘gossip”-- their words. Further, it gave fodder for some within our loose knit community to lob attacks and discredit opposing positions. Just talking about it might discourage people from undertaking the hard work of introspection, self-analysis, and meditation that we’d like to encourage. And I also suspect that on some level, my friend feels that the criticism is unfair. This is the way of the world.

For me, for the Jesuit in me, this poses some thorny ethical questions. I know that I have to discuss these issues openly, including my personal experience, but I want to both avoid gossip and honor the confidence of friends as well as other people whom I’ve known and worked with. I totally reject any underlying assumption that this situation is “the way of the world,” and that we should be mute because of some larger, more influential matters at stake.

In this essay I will look at some of the implications of accusations of sexual misconduct, gossip and spiritual practice. But first I have to look at the conversations themselves, and try to distinguish between gossip and real situations that are open to both analysis and criticism.

Gossip is defined as the “casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details that are not confirmed as being true.”

In our current culture, it’s very politically, morally, even spiritually “correct” to talk about the consequences of sexual conduct, especially if it’s misconduct. These conversations have their own cachet with their own rules. But this is nothing new, is it? Every religion on the face of the earth spends a huge part of its capital in trying to corral the impulses of the lower centers, legislate sexual behavior, and devise punishments for those who stray.

One of the main reasons for the huge #metoo movement, including digging into the egregious behavior of many in the formal institutions of religion, is that for generations negotiating these tricky moral areas was done in secret; it was never talked about in polite conversations. No matter the consequences, even challenging the wisdom of saints, there is widespread public support for this type of investigation. When people began to realize that even the Sainted John Paul turned a blind eye to the sins of some men in his work force, that blew the lid off.

John-Paul was a saint, but he allowed priests who molested boys and young men to remain in positions where they could continue to abuse. The church admits no error when it comes to declaring saints, but if there is erosion of public support, i.e. donations, is any revision or qualification possible? The slowing of monetary support might force some hard questions about how a religious institution spends its political capital.

There are consequences when this kind of conversation breaks loose, and creates its own weather system. Humans love a good stoning when the clouds begin to threaten our comfortable sunny afternoon--especially if the miscreants appear to be having their cake [bought for them] and eating it too. And we’re not talking, for the most part, about a modern tabloid version of the Salem witch trials with an emphasis on sleaze. These are factual cases of unethical behavior and, as in the case of my own abuse, criminal behavior.

There’s a lot of blame to go around, from the butcher, the baker, to the candlestick maker. Michel Foucault argues that surveillance and punishment are part of a technology that poisons institutions from the top down. I will leave that analysis for a later discussion. For now it is enough to note that the sins of pedophile priests are at least partially shifted to the institutional mechanisms that allow them to function and more importantly continue in positions of authority after they’d been discovered.

Of course there’s a tendency for an institution, an organization, a church to sweep this kind of behavior under the rug, particularly if any exposure endangers a stream of income. I have encountered this criticism: you were raped, but it happened 40 years ago. Get over it. The pain caused by the trauma actually is as much a result of my inability to move on and deal with my issues as was Bob Hoffman’s fault for abusing one of his clients in Psychic Therapy. When a senior teacher of the Hoffman Process told me that I should move on, that it was only the result of my “patterns,” he was gaslighting me. The definition of gaslighting is to “manipulate (someone) by psychological means into doubting their own sanity.” Obviously he wanted me to shut up, which in my view is the response worthy of a cult follower with no integrity.

There are several other characteristics of the conversation about sexual abuse in spiritual groups that I’d like to highlight.

This conversation with regard to clergy sexual abuse is, for the most part taking place in rich, privileged parts of the world. But it is also privileged in other ways. Privileged usually describes a person as having special advantages and opportunities. When used to describe a position in a conversation, analysis or controversy, it points to what we might call an unfair advantage, insisting on a position because of the status of the speaker rather than the merit of their cause.

It is a conversation of privilege in that the main actors are men; and in terms of “privileging” the conversation, the conversation deals with men in power. In a study “Female Sexual Assault Perpetrators” we see that only recently has any attention been paid to female offenders. They exist, of course, but the conversations we are dealing with only involve male perpetrators.

Either by rank, authority of position, or what I will call “privileged knowledge,” there is a dominant voice in the conversation. People apply a different set of moral indicators when dealing with members of the clergy, gurus, or spiritual teachers. Time-honored demarcations of power and authority which accompany sexual restrictions and practices are normally unquestioned. This complicates the discussion.

The issue of misogyny: the conversations in the Catholic Church have been focused on male clergy because the actors are male and clergy. The conversation is skewed by a strong undercurrent of misogyny also present. Some indicators would be the differences in the level of condemnation between men and women (listeners); the conversation is also prejudiced by the high level of homophobia among the listeners.

Let's look at some other characteristics of these conversations.

The conversation can easily be shut down as gossip because it involves private behavior. What happens in secret, in the bedroom for example, automatically becomes hearsay. When some secretly recorded tapes were circulated of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, "Uncle Teddy,” seducing seminarians at his private beach house, I posted them to a group of mostly heterosexual former Jesuits. The response was “just crickets.” Actually they were so explicit and damning that most of the group just didn’t believe that they could possibly be true. After a two year Vatican investigation, McCarrick was defrocked. The crickets were speaking loudly but for my listeners, they spoke a coded language.

Another indicator that the private nature of most the behaviors prejudice the conversation is the evidence of widespread victim blaming. When a few victims of molestation by priests began to come forward, one of the hardest obstacles to highlighting the severity of the problem was the reluctance of other victims to speak openly given that the abuse was sexual, and for the most part, homosexual.

There are many divergent views of what is acceptable sexual behavior. The social norms, for example, in the gay community, and what is expected of a parish priest, a monk, or the leader of a New Age Spiritual Community are quite different. Gender, marital status, age, race, level of education, income level, sexual orientation, all play a role in how severely or leniently we judge sexual misconduct.

In some cases, sexual conduct outside the norm is excused because it is outside the norm. In an interview with Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove, Claudio Naranjo gave Swami Muktananda a free pass for breaking his religious vows: “My own interpretation of him is that he was playing the role of a saint according to Western ideals, or to cultural ideals in general. I think he was a saint in the real sense, which has nothing to do with that. For instance, it's the popular idea that a saint has no sexual life, and he was playing the role of a Brahmacharya, which I think was part of a cultural mission he was on, to be an educator on a large scale. It was fitting that he did that role, and my own evaluation of him is that he was clean, because he was not a lecher. He had a healthy sexual life. . . . “ In this regard Claudio was far too optimistic. Although Muktananda retained some following, both in India and internationally, his sex life did not help his “cultural mission to be an educator on a large scale.” He proved unworthy of the kind of trust that is required for a spiritual teacher to function. But given Claudio’s logic, again it is the fault of those of us who are uneducated rather than "the one who knows," who is enlightened or has some special knowledge

Naranjo also had, in my view, an outsized evaluation of the role of trickster in a spiritual teacher--the devious nature of our egos can only highlighted when we were tricked, or forced, into seeing our personality types, our behaviors, attitudes and mindsets, and their consequences by unorthodox methods. In my view this led him to place undue confidence in psychics, e.g. Bob Hoffman, Ann Armstrong or Helen Palmer, and 4th way teachers such as E.J. Gold and Henry Korman who were, the only word that comes to mind, bullies. This prejudice also tended to blur or excuse any sexual misconduct on the part of the male psychics or teachers.

People also tend to compartmentalize, and separate the offense from other qualities, events, teachings, which they value. This includes both those who are not directly affected by the abuse as well as the victims. A Zen priest told me that he felt Katagiri Roshi “got a bad rap” because Katagiri had been an important influence during a particularly difficult period of the priest’s training. Katagiri, a married man and Zen teacher, did have sex with his students, but in the subjective evaluation of my friend, the Roshi had other qualities that outweighed sexual misconduct. In my own case, I refused to acknowledge the damage that Hoffman caused because he was part of a much larger radical change in my personal life.

False equivalences ignore and/or exaggerate both similarities and differences. The distortion is particularly confusing and pernicious when it suggests that there is a moral equivalence between two or more things that are being equated--in the Katagiri case individual sexual misconduct and teaching meditation, or in the case of Hoffman Process, the pervasive influence of parental conditioning and my personal transference to Hoffman who was my therapist and counselor.

In summary these conversations about seuxal abuse are not gossip. They are not casual or unconstrained nor are they easily categorized. However, no matter the particular case, Catholic, New Age, or Buddhist, they all seem to contain several of these characteristics:
  • They take place in rich, privileged parts of the world, but they are also privileged because the main actors are men.
  • These are factual cases. For generations they were kept secret, but now open discussion has widespread public support.
  • They have developed their own cachet with its own particular rules.
  • They erode public support for institutions; they undermine the authority of teachers.
  • The conversations themselves are privileged because the status of the speaker is used to support a position or the perpetrator.
  • Some of the conversations are not easily understood because they are spoken in a coded language. They are prejudiced by misogyny as well as a high level of homophobia. There is also evidence of widespread victim blaming.
  • There are many divergent views of what is acceptable sexual behavior. People apply a different set of moral indicators when dealing with members of the clergy, gurus, spiritual teachers.
  • People tend to compartmentalize. Their arguments contain many false equivalences that ignore and/or exaggerate both similarities and differences in discussing actual cases.
Agatha Christie, through her gossip detective Miss Marple, makes a strong case for collecting useful information by paying attention to the whispers and tell-tale signs of bad behavior. Marple entered the until then exclusively male realm of English detective fiction as a female outsider whose methodology veered from the careful Aristotelean observation of, for example, Sherlock Holmes. In fact, I might argue along with Christie that what is commonly called rumor or innuendo is sometimes the only reliable source for gathering key information about bad behavior and holding people to account. Some would even argue that the blanket prohibition against gossip and gossiping was created by dominant male actors to protect themselves.

In the next part of my exploration I’m going to ask the questions: What next? Is there a way out of this? Can we perhaps step out of a black and white set of responses and look at the situation in a different way? I actually think that we already have. We’ve been forced to--a fact not yet recognized, accepted, or fully understood.

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