Mar 31, 2021

These Former Cult Members Now Help Others Escape

Cult mediators tell us about their most dangerous cases—from finding their house covered in blankets to helping recruits break free from groups where babies were breastfed by mothers high on acid.

Shamani Joshi
March 30, 2021

Cults can get super weird. They can be abusive, destructive and even life-threatening. They can also be endlessly fascinating. 

A social group characterised by their extreme belief or reverence towards a particular leading figure or object, cults aren’t by definition dangerous. But, history has taught us time and again that people who believe violence is an act of love, or that they’re the chosen one to lead the otherwise doomed humanity, or that their leader is actually an alien, probably have issues that need resolving. 

In a world full of distress and disease, getting sucked into a cult that offers peace and the promised land is surprisingly easier than it seems. What is not easy, though, is getting out and helping others get out too. We spoke with some cult interventionists and deprogrammers on how they help people break away after having broken away themselves—and the repercussions the work has on their lives.  

Joe Kelly 

I was involved with two groups in the 70s. One was a group called Transcendental Meditation or TM, that was run by a Hindu guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who became famous for being the Beatles guru. Here, we went from a simple 20-minute meditation technique to being convinced we could levitate for world peace.

Simultaneously, I was studying comparative religions, and was especially fascinated by Hinduism. I met a man—who I thought was my true guru—named Swami Prakashanand Saraswati, who had a group called the International Society of Divine Love. In the 1980s, he took a group of us from TM and established an ashram in Philadelphia, which was more structured and rigid. Some of its members even sued Maharishi for millions of dollars for being a fraud. Swami Prakashanand then used the money to set up a temple outside of Austin, Texas, called Barsana Dham. But the Swami was eventually convicted of abusing his follower’s children, though he ran back to India where he was protected. 

After that, the group’s attorneys suggested we attend this conference where ex members of cults talk about their experiences, so we could understand how to evaluate whether someone is a spiritual guru or a conman. That’s when I first understood the psychology and sociology behind these groups, and decided I’d use my experiences to take apart the structures of belief for other people who had gravitated towards cults. 

People join cults if they are dissatisfied with their family, or want to find their own individuality, and such groups make them believe they will help you realise your true potential. One of the most challenging cases I’ve worked on was with a group that encouraged channeling, which is the concept that there is a world of dispossessed spirits that can educate the people of this world, and give you knowledge to live a better life. 

But what they taught was that the use of drugs like ecstasy and LSD could help you gain this knowledge. Their approach was to gain more monetary benefit from the world, and they believed that through positive thinking and believing in prosperity, you can change your alignment with the universe, and it would bestow wealth upon you. It was led by a woman named Katherine Holt, who said she was channeling a spirit from the 17th century of a man named Father Andre, who was theoretically a mystic. She had about 30 followers, and would cause people to couple or decouple. She would ask them to do ecstasy, or have sex with people other than their spouses. I began working with a man named Mark, who had married a woman in the group. While in session, his wife was told to have sex with another man upstairs, while Mark could hear them. The leader told Mark that despite what he was hearing and feeling, he had to separate from that emotion. That he would only be free if he let go of the ego and ownership he felt for his wife, and refused to live by the norms of the society. He was tripping on drugs, but was told not to feel the emotions he was feeling. 

At that point Mark realised there was something very wrong there. He went to his parents, who contacted me through the Cult Awareness Network. His dilemma was that his wife and child were in the group, and that child was being breastfed by a mom using LSD and ecstasy. We developed a strategy to reach out to the wife. Her family had a wedding in New England, so we went there. The cult told her to stay away from her husband, who was “evil” because he’d left the group. I was supposed to make him feel calm and try to help his wife see how wrong the group was. But, unbeknownst to me, my mentor had organised for Mark to take his child and move to a safe house in Colorado. It culminated in a long legal battle for custody, but eventually the group’s leader was arrested and the wife left. 

Some of the most difficult cases for me are the ones that involve a family. Once there’s a romantic influence or friendship with other members of the cult, it becomes more difficult to break them out of it. 

Patrick Ryan

I saw Maharishi Mahesh Yogi on a TV show, and got involved with him when I was 17. I spent five years at his university, where we were told things like we could walk through walls to save the world. Since his followers were Nobel Prize winners in physics and governors, we believed these claims. We did 22-hour-long meditations [Inaccurate - I didn't say this.]  which pushed people to extreme points, ... [some] ...  of them even jumping out of windows. Maharishi would also send people into war zones in Iran and Mozambique, often putting them in danger. Over time, I realised that despite everything, I couldn’t in fact levitate or walk through walls. So, I sued him for fraud and negligence. 

After doing cult mediations for 38 years, I can tell you that while models are important tools to assess the approach of cult interventions, there is no one method to help someone. One of my most important learning experiences was in the early 2000s. I was in Australia to help a member of the Church of Scientology. The Church has a policy that they have to be against someone trying to “expose” them or telling their members to leave. So they had two private detectives follow me from my house in Philadelphia to Australia. 

On my last night in Australia, I was served a lawsuit which said I had verbally molested a 17-year-old woman, and that she had demanded a restraining order. I had never met the woman in my life, but what they wanted to achieve through this is to frame a media narrative to affect my credibility. Also, according to Australian law, if I was at a restaurant and this woman walked in, I could get arrested. I had to fight a long legal battle, and ultimately, the judge ruled that I wasn’t guilty. But the church did everything to stop me. 

Once, I was flying to Australia to attend my hearing and decided to carry a box of pancake mix when I was stopped at the airport. Turns out, the church had tipped them off saying I was a drug courier. When the authorities opened my bag, they saw white powder all over my stuff because the pancake mix had popped open. But after I told my story to the interrogating agent, he gave me a ten year visa to work in Australia, so even that backfired for the church. When dealing with the church, I’d have armed [I didn't say this] members parked in front of my house in Philadelphia, blankets covering  all my windows from the outside and even people pressing their hands on my door’s keyhole so I was cut off from the outside world. 

That’s also when I realised that instead of criticising a cult to its members, I needed to find a way to make them feel heard, especially by their family. If you can appreciate what I like, then you have a right to criticise it. So what I try to do is teach families why people find something beautiful in the cults they join. 

In some cases, the family themselves would push people to join cults. I was doing an intervention with a young woman who was part of a martial arts cult, where the leader was sexually abusive. But in the middle of the session with her mother and me, she screamed, “Oh you think he’s bad? Well, dad fucked me.” We had to stop the session right there, and that’s also where I learnt that I had to interview multiple family members before approaching the person who got influenced into a cult. 

Joseph Szimhart

I participated in a series of cult-like organisations based on theosophy, the main one being the Church Universal and Triumphant (which was later exposed as a doomsday cult), in the 70s. My first wife divorced me in 1979, since most of my mental time was going towards the cult. As a result, I grew disillusioned with the group. After I quit, my former group members would ask me why. When I told them, they quit based on my information, though they had been in it for longer. That’s when I realised how I could use my experience to help other cult members. 

I’ve been in the field for over decades, and worked with people across the world, from the Rajneesh Osho group in Oregon to the Brahmakumaris in Kerala. I have participated in cases where a cult member was kidnapped by their family and kept against their will for many years to make sure they break free of the cultic influence. Those cases are always a challenge because you could end up in jail.I stood trial for a case like this in 1993, but was acquitted of all charges. 

The people are also usually very angry and don’t want to talk, so I have to get them to trust me to talk. I had a few cases with a martial arts organisation called Chung Moo Quan, and got several of their instructors to leave. The leader, Master John C. Kim, came to the U.S. claiming he was an Asian martial arts champion and had a title that never existed. He was a middle-aged man with some skills in martial arts, so he set up professional looking schools. He’d recruit members from these schools to enrol in instructor courses, which were sometimes upto $100,000. He had a way of convincing these young people that he had special powers that could harm people without touching them, and he would have these secret meetings with the members, making them feel very special. He formed a cult of these instructors loyal to him in Boston, Houston and Chicago. These people would cut off communication from their families, would go to classes constantly, get just three or four hours of sleep, and put on a lot of weight because of a diet meant to make them “look strong”. They even got beards to look threatening. 

The cult leader had an initiation process to prove his followers’ loyalty by putting them in a chokehold and asking them if they’d die for their group. If people passed out in the chokehold, he’d accept them. The members thought he had magical powers so they wouldn’t threaten him. But when the group found out about me, they put out posters vilifying me. After I helped expose them on a television show, they were raided by the government. The group sued me and threatened me verbally several times. An IRS agent even told me they had a hit out on me. I don’t have bodyguards, a gun or even insurance, because most companies see you as a liability. 

I have also done interventions with leaders. One was a guy who called himself Paa, which was short for Padmasaaha. He thought he was the reincarnation of Satya Sai Baba, who was a big religious leader in India. But Paa was just a fake magician who claimed he was doing “miracles''. I did an intervention when he had only one member. I acted like I was interested in his religion and interviewed him on camera. But not all interventions help, and he ended up controlling about 30 people. 

Follow Shamani on Instagram and Twitter.

Mar 30, 2021

Lev Tahor Cult Leader Arrested By Guatemalan Police On 1st Day Of Pesach

Yeshiva World News
March 30, 2021

Yaakov Weingarten, one of the leaders of the Lev Tahor cult who is suspected of kidnapping and child abuse, was arrested by Guatemalan security forces on the first day of Pesach, YWN has confirmed.

Many of the other cult leaders have already been arrested for kidnapping and child abuse and are already serving prison sentences. The leaders’ cruel practice was to kidnap children from their parents on Shabbos to make it more difficult for them to be pursued.

Weingarten’s case will be heard in a Guatemalan court on Wednesday, according to local media reports.

Kikar Shabbos reports that due to the Guatemalan authorities’ pursuit of the cult leaders, they have decided that they have no other choice but to flee to Iran. “We already tried in the past to flee there,” one of the Lev Tahor members reportedly said. “This time we have no other choice and we’ll have to do everything we can to move to Iran.”

There are currently multiple Lev Tahor cult leaders in Federal prison awaiting trials. Among them are Nachman Helbrans, 36; Mayer Rosner, 42, and his son Jacob Rosner, 20; Aron Rosner, 45, of Brooklyn, Mayer Rosner’s brother. A fifth man, Lev Tahor member Matityau Malka, and Mordechai Yoel Malka.

YWN has been at the forefront for more than 10 years fighting the Lev Tahor cult – with dozens of articles over the years. Violent beatings, abuse, rampant pedophelia were and are still common in the cult that currently remains in Guatemala.

They were facing various charges including kidnapping, identity theft, (use of fake passports) conspiracy to defraud the United States and international parental kidnapping. Four are being held without bond (due to flight risks). Aron Rosner was released on a $10 million bond to home confinement and electronic monitoring.

Former members of Lev Tahor (who either escaped or were otherwise expelled) do not recall learning Mishnayos or Gemara, nor any Mitzvos Bein Adam LeChaveiro. They spend the majority of the day in deep prayer and are only allowed to study certain sections of the Chumash, with Lev Tahor commentary.

Lev Tahor practices include women and girls wearing black head-to-toe coverings day and night, arranged marriages between teenagers, and a violent form of Malkos. Lev Tahor only permits certain fruits and vegetables to be eaten, as well as whole wheat flour made into bread with a stone press.

Nachman Helbrantz (L.) who is currently in jail, Weingarten (C.), and askan Yanki Flitskein, who was asked by Rabbanim to attempt to rescue the children from the cult.

Reports indicate cult leaders have suggested death as better alternative than life outside the cult.

Lev Tahor was founded and led by Shlomo Helbrans, from the 1980s until his drowning death in Mexico in 2017. Since then, the leadership has moved into the hands of his son Nachman Helbrans, along with Mayer Rosner, Yankel and Yoel Weingarten, who are even more radical and aggressive than the late founder.

(YWN Israel Desk – Jerusalem)


Mar 28, 2021

Why Is Putin Afraid of Jehovah's Witnesses?

A group of Jehovah's Witnesses stand on a street corner in Lawrence, Massachusetts, on Aug. 16, 2019. SPENCER PLATT/GETTY IMAGES
Since they were labeled an extremist group in 2017, more than 400 have been charged or convicted.

Foreign Policy 
MARCH 26, 2021

On Wednesday, authorities in Russian-occupied Crimea announced that they had arrested a 30-year-old man suspected of promoting an organization that had been banned and deemed extremist in Russia. The day before that, prosecutors in the Russian city of Smolensk asked a court to sentence three adherents of the same group to up to nine years behind bars. On Monday, in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, prosecutors sought seven years for a man charged with “organizing the activities of an extremist group.”

So who are these scary extremists? Jehovah’s Witnesses, a Christian denomination with an estimated 175,000 followers in Russia. In 2017, Russia’s Supreme Court declared the group an extremist organization, lumping its non-violent adherents into the same category as neo-Nazis and members of al Qaeda.

Since then, Russian law enforcement has raided the homes of more than 1,300 worshippers and over 400 have been either charged or convicted of extremism in a brutal crackdown which has swept up followers aged 19 to 90. The European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses estimates that between 5,000 to 10,000 of its members have fled Russia since the ban came into force.
Why is this happening?

As is often the case with authoritarian states, it’s hard to tell exactly what has prompted the crackdown—and there’s likely more than one reason. Jehovah’s Witnesses themselves are bewildered.

“If it wasn’t so serious, it would be a joke. It’s absurd. Jehovah’s Witnesses have been anything but extremist, and we’re certainly not dangerous or violent,” said Jarrod Lopes, a spokesperson for the group’s headquarters in the United States. Jehovah’s Witnesses remain politically neutral for religious reasons and do not vote, run for office, or protest. That might have spared them the arrests and harassment levied against protesters and opposition politicians in Russia, but their apolitical stance might have singled them out in other ways. “That looks very suspicious to our authorities,” said Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the Moscow-based SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, which tracks discrimination and misuse of Russia’s extremism laws.

After Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency in 2012 amid mass street protests against allegedly rigged elections, the Kremlin made a conscious effort to foment nationalism—and support for Putin. This new wave of patriotism was built around support for the armed forces and the Russian Orthodox Church, which is closely interwoven with the Russian state. All of this made Jehovah’s Witnesses—who refuse military conscription based on their faith—all the more conspicuous.

“I think it makes states that want a lot of control uncomfortable, because they can’t really control this community,” said Emily Baran, a history professor at Middle Tennessee State University.

And then there’s the American element. Putin dialed up hostility to the West, and in particular the United States, which he accused of fomenting the protests against him. Civil society organizations and human rights groups which received foreign funding were subject to invasive and debilitating new rules under a law on foreign agents passed shortly after Putin returned to power in 2012. While religious groups were exempt from the law, Jehovah’s witnesses ties to the United States—where the group developed in the late 19th century and where its headquarters remain—likely drew further scrutiny from the Russian authorities. Still, Verkhovsky noted, Jehovah’s Witnesses are experiencing a much harsher crackdown than other U.S-tied religious groups, such as Seventh-Day Adventists and Pentacostals.
Isn’t this just part of Russia’s broader crackdown?

Yes and no. Russia has become increasingly authoritarian in recent years, and the country’s vague and expansive extremism laws are one of many tools that have been used to stifle dissenting voices. Journalists, activists, and social media users have been arrested and imprisoned for questioning the annexation of Crimea or Russia’s involvement in the conflict in Syria. “The Witnesses are just one piece of that larger picture in which Russia is not drawing a huge distinction between al Qaeda, a Jehovah’s Witness and a 20-something on the internet,” said Baran.

But what is distinct about the assault on the Jehovah’s Witnesses is its ferocity and persistence. The group’s Russian website is updated almost daily with news of new raids, arrests, and convictions. A remarkable amount of resources, including wiretapping and extensive surveillance, has been used in the hopes of catching someone in the act of discussing their faith or the Bible with another person, acts which are deemed extremist under the Russian law. “I think the state legitimately does see them as a threat,” said Baran.

Suspicion of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia dates back to the Soviet Union, when the group was outlawed and repeatedly maligned in the press, which portrayed them as fanatics and accused them of being criminals, con men, and Nazi collaborators. It created a stigma that was never undone. April 1 marks the 70th anniversary of the deportation of thousands of Soviet Jehovah’s Witnesses to Siberia during Stalin’s rule.

“I think that some conspiracy theory appeared somewhere inside the governmental structures regarding Jehovah’s Witnesses,” Verkhovsky said. “And we cannot even discuss it in public because these theories are not presented to the public.”
What’s the response?

Western governments and international institutions have condemned Russia’s crackdown. In February, U.S. Department of State spokesperson Ned Price described the two-year penal colony sentence for 69-year-old stroke victim Valentina Baranovskaya as “particularly cruel” and urged Russia to lift its ban on the religion. In July, EU member states and six other members of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe called on Russia to uphold its obligations to allow freedom of religion and expression, as guaranteed by the Russian constitution.

But while governments and human rights groups have kept close tabs on the targeting of Jehovah’s Witnesses, it has not received the same degree of public attention either in Russia or abroad as other political repressions.

“Because they are a bit of a unique religion, they’re not a group that engages in a lot of interdenominational activities, they don’t have as many natural allies who can help kind of provide a larger platform than themselves,” said Baran, who noted that the community had faced descrimination in almost every country where they have a presence.

“It’s easier to target them for a ban because you’re not going to get a lot of pushback about that, compared to other religious groups,” said Baran.

Correction, March 26, 2021: Jarrod Lopes is a spokesperson for the Jehovah’s Witness headquarters in the United States. A previous version of this article misstated Lopes’s first name.

Loaded language, Bion and QAnon

Joseph Szimhart
March 28, 2021

"Loaded language is common to human discourse but all encompassing terms can limit how we view reality and change our behavior. I look at George Will’s use of ‘woke’ and ‘postmodernism’ in a recent opinion about Trumpism being akin to postmodernism. I reference the work of WR Bion to help explain how an unfettered group will spontaneously choose the most “ill” or narcissistic pathological person in a group as its leader. This helps explain how QAnon formed and why Trump rose to Messiah status for the Qs and others."

ICSA Annual Conference Phoenix Project Call for Art!

Spiritual awakening

Shambhala, a branch of Tibetan Buddhism headquartered in Canada, has long taught the virtue of 'basic goodness.' But a Tapestry special reveals the organization's history is full of allegations of sexual misconduct

Brandie Weikle and Rosie Fernandez
March 26, 2021

Warning: This story and the accompanying audio deals with sexual abuse in spiritual settings.

When Patricia Ullman first stumbled upon the spiritual teachings of the organization now known as Shambhala more than 40 years ago, she was literally searching for the meaning of life.

Raised as "a strict southern Baptist" — albeit one with a Jewish father — Ullman said she was depressed and, like many people in their early 20s, looking for direction as she made her way in the world.

Having just moved to Washington state, she met a young man who had been studying meditation in Boulder, Colo., under a Tibetan Buddhist teacher named Chogyam Trungpa.

"He described the meditation practice to me in a very simple way, saying that the basis of these teachings is that you don't have to keep searching outside of yourself for other people or other traditions that have the answers, but you can just sit down and look at your own mind," Ullman recalled in an interview with Mary Hynes, host of CBC Radio's Tapestry.

"And to me, that was like a bolt of lightning. Why didn't I hear this before in my life?"

Ullman went to some seminars with the spiritual leader, Trungpa, "and I could see the energy around him. He was attracting a lot of very intellectual, very powerful people." They included the likes of poet Allen Ginsberg and author Ram Dass, who is credited with establishing yoga's popularity with the Boomer generation. Joni Mitchell even wrote a song, Refuge of the Roads, about Trungpa.

Based in Halifax since 1986, Shambhala is an international organization with roots in Tibetan Buddhism. One of its core tenets is that every human being has a fundamental nature of basic goodness.

Yet Shambhala has been mired in allegations of abuse and sexual misconduct since 2018, when an initiative known as the Buddhist Project Sunshine raised questions about how a religion associated with kindness and non-violence could allow abusive leaders to go unchecked.

Buddhist Project Sunshine was started in February 2017 by Andrea Winn, a sexual abuse survivor who had grown up within the Shambhala tradition, to bring light to "widespread sexualized violence in the community." Winn, who says she was forced out of the community around 2000 when she raised concerns about the abuse, teamed up with lawyer Carol Merchasin to investigate abuse allegations in the community, which by then was under the leadership of Trungpa's son, Mipham Rinpoche — known in the Shambhala community as the Sakyong.

Amid allegations of abuse in 2018 against the Sakyong, Trungpa and other teachers, the Sakyong stepped away from his duties.

CBC Radio has not independently verified these claims.

​LISTEN: In Tapestry's special, part one looks at sexual abuse allegations that surfaced in the Shambhala Buddhist community and explores the power imbalances in guru-student relationships. We ask why this keeps happening in spiritual communities around the world and hear from Shambhala's board of directors.

The organization says the Sakyong is now teaching only outside the Shambhala organization, but current and former members dispute that claim. They point out that the Sakyong is still prominently identified on the organization's website as their top-billed teacher and "temporal and spiritual director of Shambhala." They also say there are numerous arms and multiple legal entities that comprise Shambhala, and that the Sakyong was set to teach, for example, at a 2020 event planned prior to the pandemic at Dechen Chöling, a retreat centre in France that is clearly identified as part of Shambhala.

Phil Cass, a member of the board of directors for Shambhala, told Tapestry the organization has a whole new body of trustees in charge, and it has implemented extensive training as well as a new code of care and conduct.

But Ullman said the alleged abuse started decades ago, when the organization was much newer.

Shambhala became established in Canada following a journey that took its founder around the globe.

Trungpa was among a small group of Tibetan monks who spent nine perilous months crossing the Himalayas into India following China's 1950 invasion of Tibet. There, the Dalai Lama appointed him spiritual adviser to a group of young monks.

Trungpa studied at Oxford University and then moved to the United States in 1970, travelling around for a time before settling in Boulder. There, he became spiritual teacher to a group of artists, hippies and seekers, and established the teachings and organization that would come to be known as Shambhala.

Ullman said that from the early days, the organization was set up in a way that centralized — and deified — its leader.

"These kinds of teachings are established on what's called a mandala principle, which is basically something that has a centre, and then everything radiates out from that," said Ullman. "And [Trungpa] was the centre…. It was his mind at the centre of the mandala, which theoretically is supposed to permeate everything so that you have a most uplifted society."

Ullman said Trungpa set up his household as "a court."

"Students would do all of the roles of service as a way of being near the teacher and, you know, practising the teachings as a societal kind of structure."

Some would work in the organization full-time, but many others would study there part-time in a way that could be likened to belonging to a church, synagogue or other religious congregation.

Today, there are more than 100 Shambhala meditation centres around the world, including locations all across Canada.

Ullman said boundaries between Trungpa and his students were often non-existent. "I was one of the women who had an intimate relationship with him, although that's not saying a heck of a lot, because ... many, many people did," said Ullman.

"There [were] all these young, pretty women and that culture, that also seeped into the students, so that young women coming into the community were like prey."

When Ullman declined Trungpa's proposal of marriage, their sexual relationship began to peter out, but she remained part of his court. "I continued being one of the servers and I was one of the close ones who would be with him and help him get dressed and all that kind of thing."

Concerned that the U.S. was becoming too materialistic, Trungpa decided in the mid-1980s to move the headquarters to Nova Scotia. This was the result of a visit to the province, during which he determined that Nova Scotia had a positive energy that reminded him of Tibet. He built a monastery, called Gampo Abbey, near the northern tip of Cape Breton.

Trungpa asked a number of his students, including Ullman, to move to the Maritime province with him.

By now married to one of the Shambhala leaders and a mother of two, Ullman was able to move to Canada on a student visa. Having previously passed entrance exams for law school, she applied to the law school at Dalhousie University and got in. "It was almost like I was going to law school in order to get a student visa to live there."

But Trungpa died of liver failure in 1987, most likely due to his excessive drinking, which was well known in the community.

His son, Mipham Rinpoche, had been studying in India for a few years. In 1995, he was asked by a group of Tibetan lamas to become the Sakyong — which means Earth Protector — and lead the Shambhala organization.

When the Sakyong took over after a period of interim leadership, Ullman said she initially had reservations about him being a strong enough teacher. Ultimately, she said, "I felt like it was worthwhile to support him in order to carry on the organization and the teachings that his father had started."

Ullman said that "as the years went by … he became a better teacher, and I became close to him. I was one of his secretaries for a while. I travelled with him."

She said he also had multiple sexual relationships with women in the organization. "And then at some point he met his future wife," said Ullman. "Many people thought, well, that was it. You know, he proclaimed his faithfulness and love for her and he was going to be a family man.'"

In 2006, the Sakyong married Tseyang Palmo, a Tibetan princess whose father is the leader of another Buddhist movement. The union was celebrated as a Buddhist "royal wedding," with 1,300 guests gathering in Halifax for the three-day event.

Ullman said that because the alleged behaviour was hidden, the Sakyong's sexual misconduct didn't fit his public persona as a married Buddhist dignitary. This contributed to the general disbelief when people started to come forward with allegations.

"Some of these things that have come out ... aren't believed by a lot of people — that he was messing around with other people, and also that he had a serious drinking issue," said Ullman.

"A lot of people just said, 'Well, I never saw him that way.'"

In an open letter to the Shambhala community after the allegations surfaced in 2018, the Sakyong acknowledged he'd had relationships with women in the community. It read, "I have recently learned that some of these women have shared experiences of feeling harmed as a result of these relationships. I am now making a public apology." 

Andrea Winn's allegations of abuse in the Shambhala community emerged with the first of three Buddhist Project Sunshine reports, which was published in February 2018.

That's when Carol Merchasin, a retired Philadelphia employment lawyer who specialized in workplace misconduct investigations, got in touch with her.

"I suggested that she ask Shambhala to do an investigation, that that's really what the next step needed to be," said Merchasin, who is now living in New Jersey. When Winn told her that Shambhala leadership were no longer speaking to her, Merchasin offered to work pro bono with her as an independent investigator for Buddhist Project Sunshine.

Merchasin began to investigate the claims that were considered current, meaning the alleged abuse had taken place within the last 25 years, in order to determine whether there was definitive evidence of hidden sexual misconduct in the Shambhala community.

Within the first 10 days of her investigation, a woman came forward to ask if Merchasin would be investigating sexual misconduct of the Sakyong himself. Merchasin said it was the first time either she or Winn knew of allegations linked not just to instructors and senior members of the organization but to Shambhala's leader.

While Merchasin was investigating those allegations, two other women came forward. Those findings were published in June 2018, in the first of the two investigative reports Merchasin helped Winn produce.

"It involved those first three women, all three of them with credible corroborated allegations against the Sakyong," Merchasin said.

This was not just about the Sakyong and sexual misconduct, but there was also institutional betrayal.Carol Merchasin
The lawyer said she'd sometimes spend three months communicating with the women just to build trust before they'd agree to answer questions about their experiences.

"There were probably eight or nine that I interviewed in terms of misconduct allegations against the Sakyong," Merchasin said. "As more women came forward, it weighed on us that we were carrying the stories of these people who had been silenced. Because what became clear was that this was not just about the Sakyong and sexual misconduct, but there was also institutional betrayal."

Merchasin said that "in one way or another, the power structure has turned [these women] away. The power structure has said, 'We don't want to hear this. We don't believe you. We're not going to do anything about it.'"

In cases like these, victims are then prompted to look for other kinds of power, she said.

"It's often media that really try to shine a light on what is happening in some of these communities and the kind of reform and accountability that needs to be there."

It's been said that when abuse takes place within a spiritual community — where people specifically go to find meaning and understanding of their place in the world — it affects victims in a particularly damaging way.

Ullman said she worries about others just joining a spiritual community being taken advantage of in this way. "You have to open your whole heart and mind and you're so grateful because it's all amazing and good and you feel part of something. And having that collapse is very devastating."

When her own marriage to a senior Shambhala teacher was in crisis, Ullman said she felt the community abandoned her.

"I loved the work. I loved the people, but I was also kind of in hell a lot of the time," she said. "It got so bad that I finally left the marriage."

Ullman still wanted to do the next retreat at the centre in Tatamagouche. She asked her husband — from whom she was by then separated — not to attend, so she could take part in the retreat without the stress of their marital breakdown. He refused.

I was losing my marriage, I was losing my community. I was fairly prominent. It just didn't dawn on me that nobody would care.Patricia Ullman

"So I started asking within Shambhala to help me. And that went up from the local care and conduct group to the international care and conduct group, to the president of Shambhala, who was a friend. None of them felt they could help me … They gathered their wagons around him."

In retrospect, she thinks she had a psychological breakdown. "I was losing my marriage, I was losing my community. I was fairly prominent. It just didn't dawn on me that nobody would care.

"Ullman wrote a few letters to the Sakyong, who she had once been close to, but he never replied. And so, after 40 years with the community, she left.

"I still thought somebody would help me figure out how to continue on, but nobody has ever contacted me to this day."

When the allegations against Shambala came to light in 2018, it wasn't the first time a Buddhist organization had been tied to alleged abuse.

Academics Amy Langenberg and Ann Gleig are collaborating on a book called Sex, Abuse and the Sangha, which explores alleged sex abuse within Buddhist organizations, like the kind that led to the shuttering of the Against the Stream Meditation Society in 2018.

Although Shambhala is not one of their case studies, Langenberg and Gleig have interviewed a number of former Shambhala members as part of their research.

"One of the things that we have been paying a lot of attention to is the way that Buddhist doctrines get kind of brought into the process of justifying the abuse or somehow making it OK in the community, or somehow making it disappear in the community," said Langenberg, an associate professor of religious studies at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla. "Doctrine often is sort of brought in and, you could say, weaponized."

Langenberg cites the example of the Buddhist concept of "beginner's mind" — "an idea that has to do with emptiness and has to do with you not kind of spending a lot of your mental energies making judgments, but kind of holding a place of unknowing."

In interviews she and Gleig did for the book, Langenberg said, "we've heard people bring that in as a way to not come down and take a position when there have been allegations of sexual abuse. So we'll hear something like, 'Well, I don't know what the facts are and therefore I choose not to judge.' And sometimes it's legitimate … but a lot of times, there's a lot of information upon which you could kind of take a stand — for instance, to support victims."

There's some kind of recognition that abuse happened, and then it's like, let's move on quickly to forgiveness. You know, that's another violence to survivors.Ann Gleig

Community cohesion is often prioritized at the expense of survivors, said Gleig, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

"We realized that there has been, in some cases, a tremendous pressure on survivors to forgive, you know. There's some kind of recognition that abuse happened, and then it's like, let's move on quickly to forgiveness. You know, that's another violence to survivors."

Fear also gets in the way of people coming forward, she said.

She said there's "cosmic fear" of speaking up against the guru because "it's going to have consequences for your spiritual unfolding over many lifetimes." Then there's "the fear of retribution from the community … especially when the teacher is so beloved."

She said there are plenty of examples of senior teachers attacking women who have spoken up against abuse. "Often we find this tremendous naiveté amongst some Buddhist practitioners, of like, 'Why didn't they speak up earlier?' or 'Why didn't they say no?' I mean, it's such a naive and limited understanding of the power contexts — [there's] conventional earthly power that we all know, but then there's also the kind of spiritual layers to it."

Toronto author Matthew Remski has studied abuse within a number of spiritual communities, including Buddhist centres and the Ashtanga yoga movement, some of which is described in his book Practice and All Is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics and Healing in Yoga and Beyond.

"There's a kind of deceptive way in which the sexual abuse is rationalized or spiritualized by a culture that believes that it's beyond it, and that believes that somehow the intrusiveness of the teacher, the demands that the teacher makes of the student's person and their body, is somehow part of a spiritual process," Remski said.

"Very often, the survivor of abuse in these circumstances spends a lot of time trying to figure out what exactly happened, why it felt so terrible, why they were told that it was part of their awakening, why no one came to their aid."

Victims may also try to ignore alarm bells that go off when the abuse is happening because of the central idea that ego and the critical mind are obstacles on the road to enlightenment, he said.

"There is a very beautiful and haunting part of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy that deals with the absence of essential reality, of what we know as being the self," said Remski.

"You know, that the ego's structure that I carry around and that I interrelate with the world through is largely illusory, that it's passing, that I've constructed it out of habits and circumstances … This kind of mask that I wear in the world."

Remski said that's a very powerful idea.

"And it can also be really weaponized against the person who is suddenly thrown into an environment in which their basic feelings, their basic responses to stimulus are being labelled as signs of their delusion rather than, you know, reasonable responses to stress or to stimulus."

Carol Penner, assistant professor of theological studies at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ont., said that while abuse in the Catholic Church is most widely talked about, "there's sexual misconduct in every religious organization."

"I think whenever people have power over other people, they can take advantage of them and abuse them. That's just the reality."

Penner told Tapestry that spiritual groups have fallen behind other organizations, such as the professional bodies that regulate medicine and teaching, in putting safeguards in place to prevent abuse.

Abuse looks particularly bad on religious organizations because of the strong moral teachings they espouse, she said. "So if there is any place that should be safe in our society, it is a religious organization. And so when misconduct happens there, it's such a shock and a betrayal."

LISTEN: In Tapestry's special, part two looks at sexual abuse in spiritual communities from the perspective of survivors. It explores what tends to happen to survivors who speak out against their spiritual leaders and groundbreaking ways we can listen to abuse survivors who choose to remain silent.

Philip Cass, who joined Shambhala's board of directors in May 2020, told Tapestry's Mary Hynes that the organization's original board of trustees stepped down in 2018 and asked the Sakyong to do the same.

After the Sakyong stepped away from his leadership role in July 2018, the organization's governing council appointed the Halifax law firm Wickwire Holm to conduct an independent investigation into the matter.

In February 2019, the firm determined the Sakyong had made inappropriate sexual advances against two female students.

"There were numerous investigations," said Cass. "We looked at the issue of harm. And since then, a lot of work has been done to create policies and procedures for the care and conduct of people in our community."

A new care and conduct policy just came into effect in February. As a result, Cass said anyone who comes forward with an issue of harm will now have clear pathways for accessing designated people for support and for the resources they need to file a complaint if they choose to do so.

The new policy requires the development of a regional and international council of counsellors "to basically intervene and investigate and, if necessary, adjudicate claims of harm."

He said that "those people are just being recruited now and being trained."

Cass said the organization has also provided training for all Shambhala leaders, raising awareness of power, sexual harm, trauma and healing, and is now conducting training on gender dynamics.

He said the Sakyong is currently teaching outside of the Shambhala organization, but his photo and bio were still on the organization's website as this story was being completed. Cass said that regardless of the Sakyong's rarified lineage, if he ever returned to teach with Shambhala, "he would be required to work under these care and conduct policies and procedures as well."

He also said he would "take a look at" why the Sakyong's photo remains on the website.

Cass said there are some members who believe that without the Sakyong, there is no Shambhala. "There are people who are his students, and who continue to be his students, and want to be able to continue to learn from him."

However, Cass added that "the majority of the feedback we got was that he should not come back and teach. So we're in that discussion and in that assessment as you and I talk right now."

Yet prior to the pandemic, the Sakyong was scheduled to teach at a June 2020 Shambala retreat in France, at a centre called Dechen Chöling that is identified as part of Shambhala. Its website says "Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, lineage holder of Shambhala, was very excited about the selection of this site over other spaces considered in Europe."

Tapestry asked the Sakyong for an interview as part of this special report; he declined. His office sent a statement that reads, in part:

"The Sakyong will not be offering further comment on these issues. He has repeatedly apologized for his behavior, both publicly and privately, and has acknowledged the harm he caused. The Sakyong believes, and has taught, that like all human beings, teachers have faults and virtues, and that he is no different."

There is this tendency to think the spiritual framework has all of the answers.Ann Gleig

Langenberg and Gleig say there are things people can do to protect themselves from being taken advantage of — in any capacity — within a spiritual community.

"There is this tendency to think the spiritual framework has all of the answers," said Gleig. "And I've yet to meet a community, religious or secular, that has a complete map of life. So I just say [to potential participants] remain open to other sources of knowledge and expertise, especially related to power and psychodynamics and also gender dynamics."

Langenberg also suggests that anyone interested in joining such a community should research it using outside sources.

"Find out what their history is. It doesn't mean that, you know, you can't go to a Zen community [where] a past teacher was involved in some abuse. It may be that the community has changed or the community is different and has a different leadership. But no, don't be naive."


Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868

Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-833-900-1010

First Nations and Inuit Hope for Wellness Help Line: 1‑855‑242-3310

Crisis Services Canada: 1-833-456-4566, or text 45645

CBC Radio Tapestry's Basic Goodness show producers: Rosie Fernandez, Mary Hynes, Mary-Catherine McIntosh, Erin Noel and Arman Aghbali

Copy editor: Andre Mayer | Lead digital producer: Sinisa Jolic | Digital producer: Ruby Buiza

Pagan sues Panera Bread Company alleging religious discrimination

A former baker for the chain said she was told that she “needed to find God," according to a court filing.

Heather Greene
March 27, 2021

(RNS) — A Pennsylvania woman filed a lawsuit Wednesday (March 24) against Panera Bread Company, alleging that she was discriminated against and fired due to her Pagan beliefs. 

Tammy McCoy of Clairton, Pennsylvania, was hired as a baker at the Panera location in nearby Pleasant Hills, a Pittsburgh suburb, in October 2019. According to the filing, she “never discussed her religion or religious beliefs at work” because she felt the subject was private. 

Paganism is an umbrella term used for a number of different growing religious and spiritual practices centered on nature and magic.

According to the lawsuit, the subject of McCoy’s religion came up in late May of 2020, when  McCoy was on break with the store’s assistant manager, Lori Show, and the manager, Kerri Ann Dubs. Show asked McCoy what her religion was, and Tammy responded, “I am Pagan.”

Show reportedly responded by telling McCoy that that she was going to hell and Dubs “vigorously nodded her head in agreement.”

The lawsuit then goes on the describe a series of other discriminatory actions. Among the complaints are that McCoy’s hours were cut, and when she asked why, she was told that she “needed to find God” before returning to her “previous schedule.”  She was reportedly docked pay for breaks that she did not take.

McCoy alleged that she asked to be transferred to a different store, to which the district manager reportedly said “No,” and “We’re probably going to rid of you anyways.”

A call to Panera’s corporate human resources went unanswered. 

According to the lawsuit, the threats continued and turned violent, at times, creating a “hostile work environment.”

On July 27, McCoy said she was told to give notice that she was leaving her job.  Both she and her husband, who also worked at Panera and was not otherwise mentioned in the case, were fired, according to the suit. 

The lawsuit, which was filed in a Pennsylvania federal court, states that McCoy’s civil rights were violated under the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prevents discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. 

McCoy declined an interview.  Panera did not answer a request for comment.

The Rev. Selena Fox, executive director of the Pagan civil rights organization Lady Liberty League and senior minister of Circle Sanctuary, has reached out to both McCoy and Panera Bread Company. 

“Pagans are continuing the quest for full equality, liberty, and justice in the U.S.A. and other parts of the world,” Fox said.

“Although there have been a variety of Pagan rights legal victories, unfortunately, anti-Pagan prejudice, harassment, discrimination, and defamation still happen.”

Lady Liberty League (LLL) was founded in 1985 during the “Satanic Panic,” when Pagans were regularly confronted with similar situations at work and in their communities. “It is essential to stand up to anti-Pagan hate and attacks whenever and wherever they occur, ” Fox said.

Most typically, Lady Liberty League fields complaints related to “child custody, business, zoning, housing, and job discrimination.”  

Fox added that there has been a noticeable uptick discrimination over the past four years

The LLL team is “in the early stages of looking into the case” and that they are concerned for McCoy and for the great community.  “Discrimination against Pagans not only harms the individuals directly impacted in a case, but Pagan People and society as a whole,” Fox said.

As of Friday, the organization has not spoken to McCoy or received a response from Panera’s corporate headquarters.

LLL is chiefly interested in speaking with the company’s Diversity officers, said Fox, who added that she “understands an unwillingness for a company to discuss particulars of a lawsuit that is process.”

“It is our hope to be able to have direct dialogue with Panera Bread at the corporate level about the importance of stopping and preventing discrimination against Pagan workers.  We have had positive experiences with such conversations with other corporations and institutions we have contacted over the years.”

McCoy’s lawsuit claims that she was fully qualified to do her job and that the harassment and firing were solely due to her Pagan religious beliefs. 

The series of actions taken by the store’s managers, and later by the district manager, as stated in the filing, were “committed with intentional and reckless disregard for [McCoy’s] protected rights.” 

McCoy’s lawyer, Michael J. Bruzzese, is asking the federal court for a jury trial.

Mar 27, 2021

Mount Eliza ashram guru Russell Kruckman accused of sexually abusing multiple women

Background Briefing
Dan Oakes
ABC Investigations
February 26, 2021

For decades people have flocked to a bucolic ashram in one of Melbourne's most exclusive suburbs to hear the guru spin his folksy brand of Eastern mysticism.

To his loyal followers, 78-year-old Russell Kruckman is Shankarananda: a spiritual master, an authority on meditation, and even a conduit to divinity.

But there is something rotten in his Shangri La.

Content warning: This story contains descriptions of alleged sexual assault.

Over months, Background Briefing has spoken to more than 20 of Kruckman's former devotees.

They have alleged mind control and sexual abuse at the hands of the guru.

They describe him as an abusive narcissist, who has preyed on vulnerable women for decades.

"He believes that he is healing these women with his penis," said Nigel Denning, a psychologist who used to attend the ashram and now provides support to people who have left the community.

Other former devotees say he believes he does not answer to any of the laws of the land in which he lives.

One devotee, Naomi, tells us: "When all of the abuse came to light and there was a hint that it would turn legal and go to court, I said to him, 'What are you going to say if you have to go to court? and he said, 'I'll lie'.

"I said, 'You can't lie in a court of law'. And he said, 'My word's higher than the court of law. I'm God'."

Naomi's story
When Naomi was 14, she and her sisters were introduced by their father to Kruckman, just before he opened the sprawling ashram on a large, leafy block in Mount Eliza in 1996.

Naomi's first impressions of Kruckman's group were not favourable.

"There were people chanting, swaying, doing what I thought were really weird practices, and I saw Russell and he was in monochrome robes," she said.

"My immediate thought was, 'This is a cult'."

Over the years, though, her father and ashram members drew her into Kruckman's group.

She attended sessions, hoping that the guru's teachings would help her overcome the trauma of her past.

"My dad, prior to leaving the family home, was an alcoholic. My mother was extremely violent," she said.

A woman is photographed from behind standing at a window with her hand on the window frame.
Naomi was a teenager when she met Russell Kruckman for the first time.(ABC News: Simon Winter)
People came and went from the ashram, attending classes and sessions, but a core group of Kruckman's devotees lived on site. They were known as the 'ashramites'.

Although she was initially repulsed by the "happy, zealous" acolytes, one day Naomi decided to make the leap and ask if she could move into the ashram. There was a long waiting list, but Kruckman told her she could move to the front of the queue because she was "the professor's daughter".

Naomi packed up her belongings and headed down the freeway from Melbourne to the idyllic surrounds of the ashram, excited about this new chapter in her life.

She received a rude shock. She was put to work chopping vegetables in the ashram kitchen, unpaid, and was told she would have to pay $350 a week to live there.

She was given a schedule accounting for almost every hour from morning to evening.

"I looked at it and I thought, 'How am I going to live my life within that?'" Naomi said.

PODCASTBackground Briefing Logo

From the start, there were things that made Naomi uneasy about ashram life, that did not quite gel with the egalitarian, enlightened image Kruckman liked to portray.

"When you sat at the meal table, no-one was allowed to talk," she said.

"Everyone had to be silent and, you know, in reverence of Russell. If Russell was conducting a conversation or if you were not his chosen kind of person that he wanted to talk to, then you weren't allowed to talk back.

"There was a really strong hierarchical system in the ashram and I very soon realised that I was right at the bottom of that hierarchy. And it was a pretty awful place to be because you were given all the shit jobs."

Over the years, Naomi was burdened with ever-increasing amounts of work.

She says she was ordered to drop out of her postgraduate university course. She complied.

"For me, that was a shock. I had never considered not studying. My life plan was I was going to go from school to university, do my PhD and then get a job," Naomi said.

"I was shocked … I knew that I couldn't say no … so I said, OK"

"After that semester, I stopped university and then quite soon took on some big responsibilities in the ashram. I took over running the kitchen."

She said her relationships, her finances, her friendships, her work, her study, were all eventually controlled by Kruckman.

She and the other ashramites were encouraged by Kruckman to cut themselves off from the outside world.

"Everyone that was not a part of the ashram community, as far as they were concerned, were unconscious and unawakened people and that was a very big put-down," she said.

For most of the decade Naomi lived at the ashram, there were around 40 ashramites living there permanently, with up to 100 people staying there at any given time in dormitories. Hundreds more people flowed through the ashram every week for yoga and meditation classes and other courses.

Kruckman teaches an esoteric strand of Hinduism called Kashmir Shaivism, but according to Naomi, the ashramites were being indoctrinated with one key lesson.

"It was about your relationship with the guru and about surrender," she said.

"And that was a big part of being a yogi or a good disciple. That was what everyone wanted to be. So how much could you surrender to your guru?"

One day, Naomi served Kruckman a salad sandwich for lunch.

"When I went to collect the tray, he pulled my arm and just started kissing me," Naomi said.

"He used to love raw red onion, and all I can remember was the acrid taste of the red onion in my mouth. And I just kind of stood frozen there, just not understanding what had happened. Then he kind of released me and after a certain amount of time, he said 'interesting'."

Naomi was shocked because, like many of the ashramites, she had assumed Kruckman was celibate and asexual.

"He'd already spent 16 years laying the foundations for what he was to do to me when he came on to me and from that point forward," she said.

"This doesn't happen in a vacuum. He has spent all those years indoctrinating me and everyone else, with surrendering, doing what the guru says, not questioning. Everything the guru does is ordained by God. Every single part of his teaching was part of the grooming process. So all he had to do was turn the tap."

Kruckman instructed Naomi to come to his room later that night. Naomi did not want to go down. The thought of it filled her with dread, but she felt she could not say no.

"He text messaged me at 10:30 and said, 'The coast is clear, you can come down,' and I went down. I didn't really know what was going to happen," Naomi said.

"And when I got there, he ushered me into his room, being very clever at making sure no-one was around, no-one could hear us, and he just started kissing me and told me to take my clothes off.

Naomi said Kruckman then forced himself on her.

"I've never experienced anything so repulsive in my whole life. He was an old, fat, bald man and I was a young woman. And I just couldn't understand what was happening. And after that night, I realised that that was something that he was wanting from me and expected from me," she said.

"He said, 'You know, this is a secret between you and me. You can't tell anybody. That's the way Tantra works. It's a secret.'"

Naomi said that after the initial incident, she tried to avoid Kruckman's demand for sex but felt she had no choice but to eventually acquiesce.

"I did everything I could to avoid getting into that situation with him, from pretending I had a headache to saying I had my period to saying I'd just taken a sleeping tablet to saying there's people there," she said.

"Sometimes, in the end, I just knew that I had to go and see him and let him do what he wanted and do just to get it over with, and those were the worst nights of my life.

"I didn't consider myself an overly religious person, but those nights I got down on my hands and knees and did something I'd never do before. I made a deal with God, I said, if you can get me through the night and if you can get me to do those acts with him, then I will be enlightened."

Naomi said over the next few years, she would go to Kruckman for help with her childhood trauma and associated insomnia. Instead, he repeatedly forced himself on her.

"I would go to him, desperate for him to give me a teaching that would help me to kind of get to the source of my trauma. There's something I'm not doing right. There's some teaching that I don't understand," she said.

"I kept seeing it as a shortcoming in me and I would beg him. And his answer was he'd unzip his pants and make me give him a head job. That was his answer to my issues of insomnia and my suffering and my pain."

Naomi wasn't the only one
Tanya-Lee Davies was not pleading for enlightenment when she began attending Russell Kruckman's classes, but she was certainly searching for answers to some of life's bigger questions.

She began following Kruckman when he was still operating in Melbourne's inner city and followed him to Mount Eliza when he opened the ashram.

Like Naomi, Tanya-Lee said she was slowly indoctrinated over the years with the belief that the guru was the guiding light she should follow.

"You believe this person is a direct conduit to God, and I know that that sounds bizarre," she said.

"You trust them, you allow yourself to be vulnerable. You love them in a different way than say you'd love your boyfriend or your mum or your brother or your friends.

"It's a different sort of feeling because you believe that this person has your best interests at heart and that they want to help you become the best person you can become."

Despite the reverence and love she held for Kruckman, Tanya-Lee did have misgivings about some of the things she saw at the ashram as the years rolled by.

"I worried about the lack of privacy. I worried about the lack of boundaries," she said.

"I just started to see these behaviours that didn't seem congruent with somebody that was supposed to be as spiritually evolved as he was."

Despite her doubts, 12 years passed since she began following Kruckman.

Excited about what was a significant milestone in Kashmir Shaivism, Tanya-Lee went to Kruckman to tell him about the anniversary of their meeting.

"I went to hug him, which was pretty normal, and he kissed me on the lips. And I got a real surprise because it was so unusual," she said.

Shocked, Tanya-Lee said she told the guru that she could not have that kind of relationship with him and he replied, "Think of it as an initiation".

"All my safety was immediately just gone, it evaporated, you know," Tanya-Lee said.

Tanya-Lee stayed for another nine years, during which time she says the abuse by Kruckman continued.

"It would range from him wanting to kiss me to doing these things like kissing your neck and putting his tongue in your ear," Tanya-Lee said.

"He had this bathroom where it was sort of out of view and sometimes he'd take me into the bathroom. So if anyone came into the room, they wouldn't be able to see what was happening.

"People would say, why didn't you leave? You've got to understand, I was always entrenched."

For nine years, Tanya-Lee kept the persistent abuse secret from everybody except one other woman at the ashram, who was also suffering her own ordeal at Kruckman's hands.

Background Briefing has spoken to that woman, who alleges an escalating pattern of sexual abuse by Kruckman against her starting in 2007 and including what she describes as a sexual assault in 2013.

Background Briefing has also seen a police statement made by a third woman, who alleges that Kruckman violently raped her in 2010 in his bedroom at the ashram.

She had gone to his bedroom to refill his cookie jar when he pushed her onto the bed and allegedly assaulted her. She said after she made her statement Kruckman was arrested and questioned but not ultimately charged.

Background Briefing has spoken to a number of other women who have alleged behaviour on Kruckman's part ranging from indecent assault to predatory, manipulative sexual practices dating back at least 15 years.

All of the women speak of either feeling powerless to tell Kruckman to stop due to the guru-disciple relationship, or of Kruckman continuing his behaviour even when being told that it was not welcome.

The men's story
It was not only women who fell under the spell of Russell Kruckman at Mount Eliza, and sex was not the only way in which the guru exerted his control over his flock.

Men also flocked to the ashram, lured sometimes by the happy-seeming, attractive young women in Indian-inspired clothing that Kruckman seemed to accumulate there.

Like the women, many of the men who found their way to the ashram were intelligent and well-educated but had something in their lives that made them vulnerable.

Alex Buxton was 22 years old and profoundly depressed when his brother "dragged" him to the ashram for meditation classes.

"I was seeing these kind of bright-eyed, sycophantic devotees, kind of like adoring Russell, chanting and smiling," Alex said.

"I kind of looked at them and went, I'm just not into this. But every time he would do a talk, I found his talks interesting, I found them funny and whatever state I was in, I'd walk away from satsang [the weekly sacred gatherings at the ashram] and something would be going off in my mind that would stimulate a different thought for me."

Soon Alex decided to move into the ashram, alongside Naomi and the other ashramites.

"All of a sudden you were just in this instant community and this instant family and it was interesting and exciting and stimulating. It was quite a sort of liberal scene," he said.

"Russell was into stuff that I was into: he loves sport, American sport, which I was right into. He loved music, especially blues music, which I was right into, he was really funny and quirky and [was] just so quick-witted. I found him sort of riveting to listen to."

Alex's friend Simon Hart was also living at the ashram. He had started yoga classes with Kruckman in the mid-1990s to deal with a back injury. Within two years he had been enticed to live in the ashram as well.

"I thought he was a kindly old grandfather figure. I really loved him when I first met him," Simon said.

"It was only after the five-year period, I started to have friction with him and kind of see cracks in this facade of who he is."

Like Alex, Simon was puzzled to find that Kruckman interfered with his relationships. But he later discovered it was worse than that.

"It turns out that Russell was sexually abusing my partner, and then the next day offering me relationship advice when I went to him to say, 'I think there's something wrong with my relationship and I don't know what it is'. He'd abuse her and then drop her off at my house," Simon said.

"One thing that I feel strongly about now is that the focus of this whole episode has been on the women and what they went through, and it should be because they copped the worst of it. But as men, like we were victims, too. But we're the silent victims. We never had a voice, really."

The big blow-up
By 2014, the ashram had been operating for 18 years and there were dozens of ashramites living on the grounds.

Over the years, Kruckman's predations against female devotees had caused some small ripples, but his secret had remained largely hidden.

But that changed before Christmas of that year. Over a couple of weeks, stories began to emerge of Kruckman having sex with female devotees. It culminated at the Christmas satsang, one of the biggest nights of the year.

In front of a large crowd, Kruckman was accused by some of the devotees of having sex with female followers. Kruckman admitted that he had sex with a handful of women, but he claimed the sex was part of "tantric practices" and was totally consensual.

Behind the scenes, though, the number of women kept growing, and many of them were not necessarily happy with what had happened.

Two devotees wrote a letter to the ashram's board describing Kruckman's behaviour as "institutional sex abuse", and a "horrendous abuse of power".

"It was like one minute it was bubbling underground and the next minute it was on the surface," Tanya-Lee Davies said.

"It was like this tidal wave."

The management committee of the ashram released an open letter, admitting that Kruckman had had "secret sexual relations" with a number of women and saying he was "sincerely apologetic and deeply regretful if his practices have caused hurt or confusion".

The guru himself vowed in a letter that he would stop the behaviour that had caused so much angst amongst his devotees.

"I know people are disappointed and upset. I apologise to them and ask their forgiveness. I want to meet you all and make appropriate amends if you will let me. I am open to talking about a way through, back to love," he wrote.

But according to some of those who stayed, the public display of contrition and remorse was a facade.

Matt* had lived at the ashram for a number of years but was already suspicious about some of what he saw there.

"What I observed at the time was that he didn't seem to have any remorse. He seemed to have hatred, actually, towards the people that had spoken out against him," Matt said.

"It was very much framed as lies and as a power struggle, that they were trying to destroy him."

When Naomi found out that Kruckman had been sexually abusing women other than her, she was shocked.

But she was convinced by Kruckman and his second-in-command, Valerie Angell, known as Devi Ma, to stay at the ashram, even though her sister, Leila, had fled in the wake of the revelations.

"Every time another woman spoke up about being abused, I went to Russell and Valerie, I asked them what happened," Naomi said.

"In every case, they said that the women were lying or they were jealous or it wasn't as bad as they had made out.

"I was so loyal to Russell and Valerie and this is what part of being indoctrinated and being part of a cult is, is that you have to have unwavering loyalty to the leaders."

After it emerged that Kruckman had been abusing other women, Naomi confronted him, telling him that she no longer wanted him to touch her.

"The next time he did it, I said, 'That's it. I'm telling Valerie, I'm telling Devi Ma'," she said.

"We were in Russell's room, me and Valerie and Russell. And I said, 'Devi Ma, Russell has tried to come on to me again and he would stick his tongue in my ear' and stuff like that.

"And he looked at me like he wanted to kill me … and he goes, 'You're a f***ing liar'. And I said, 'No, I'm not lying'.

"And I actually ran and I kind of sheltered behind Valerie and at the same time he's going 'It's not true, it's not true,' to Valerie. And Valerie said, 'I believe her. I believe her, Swamiji. I believe her.'"

'An authoritarian, destructive cult'

Naomi and many other former devotees say they were brainwashed and that the Mount Eliza ashram was a cult with Russell Kruckman as its figurehead.

Nigel Denning, the psychologist who was also an ashram member, treated around 70 former devotees who left the ashram in the wake of the revelations.

He said that many of the features of life at the Mount Eliza ashram correspond with recognised characteristics of cults.

"One of the techniques that Mount Eliza used is something called 'shiva process', which was a way of something called the cult of confession, where you get people to open up and to express all their fears and all their concerns," Denning said.

"What they don't realise is all the disclosures, all the information is being run to the leadership."

Former devotees have told Background Briefing that Kruckman liked his followers to believe that he had some kind of supernatural ability to read peoples' minds when in actual fact he was using information gathered through these shiva process sessions.

"Another aspect of cult life is putting people through lots and lots of menial work, manual work, because you wear people down, you reduce their sleep, you enrich yourself through their labour," Denning said.

Denning ended up speaking with an American called Steve Hassan, one of the world's foremost experts on cults and mind control.

Background Briefing asked Hassan whether he believed the Mount Eliza ashram was a cult, based on publicly available material about what went on there.

"There is ample evidence of behaviour control in this organisation, that is very much in the paradigm of an authoritarian, destructive cult," Hassan said.

Hassan told Background Briefing that he defines such cults as having a pyramid structure, with one person or a group of people at the top, that uses deceptive recruitment and specific mind control techniques that incorporate behaviour control, information control, thought control and emotional control to make people dependent and obedient.

"There is regulation of people's environments. People are discouraged to stay at work or education. They were encouraged to cut off contact, significant time demands, regulated diet, regulated sleep, change of clothing, needing to ask permission for major decisions, rewards and punishment, imposition of rigid rules and regulations, punishment of people who disobey, threats of harm to them or their family," he said.

"[Kruckman] was abusing, in my professional opinion, his authority with the devotees and the followers to the point where he was taking advantage of the women sexually and members financially and basically trafficking them in terms of their labour in order to aggrandise himself and glorify himself."

Former ashramite Matt read a lot about cults and mind control as he tried to extricate himself from the ashram. He describes a series of "aha!" moments as he read the various definitions of cults.

"The most important of all of them in my eyes is this: You can never leave," he said.

"I think the people who are still loyal to Russell have so much been embedded with this phobia of leaving, that if you ever leave, everything will be bad, that they are literally trapped in a kind of cage of the mind."

From within his inner circle, Naomi saw the hold Kruckman had over his devotees.

"He absolutely sees himself as infallible, transcendent, above the mortal realm," she said.

"He sees himself as God. He sees himself as having the qualities of God, omniscient, omnipresent. He really thinks that he is not a mere mortal like the rest of us. And that's how we were encouraged to see him as well."

The search for justice
After the revelations of 2014, half a dozen women came together and sued Russell Kruckman for sexual abuse. They also sued the Mount Eliza ashram for breach of duty of care.

Naomi and her sister Leila were among them. The two sisters and at least one other woman claimed that Kruckman sexually abused them.

At the end of a four-and-a-half-year legal battle, Kruckman settled with the women.

A number of former ashramites also made complaints to the police about Kruckman, including some of the women who were part of the civil action. Kruckman was arrested and questioned, but not charged.

Some women told us the police said they could not proceed with the matter because it would be too hard to gain a conviction. In Leila's case, she said the police were supportive but she was unable to continue with the process due to ill-health.

Psychologist Nigel Denning said part of the problem is the police do not grasp the psychological control Kruckman has over his devotees.

"I worked with an advocate who works in the institutional abuse space and we met with some senior members of the CIB and rape squad up at the Frankston area," Denning said.

"But because the women that were reporting were over 18, they were seen as adults and there was a general lack of interest on the part of the police in really drilling down into the stories.

"There's a recognition in America that people in positions of authority can misuse that for sexual gain and sexual gratification against members of their community. That doesn't exist in Australia, to my knowledge. And certainly, the police had no interest in picking that kind of information up or running with that kind of idea."

Naomi has not gone to the police yet but said that when she was being stalked by members of the ashram after she left, she spoke to a detective and told him her entire story. She said he told her if she wanted to pursue sexual assault charges against Kruckman he would reopen the criminal case. When asked what she is going to do next, she replies: "That's the million-dollar question."

'He should be shut down'
Despite all the trauma and torment allegedly caused by Kruckman, the ashram continues to accumulate new devotees, and the guru has retained some of his most loyal and fierce followers.

Background Briefing has spoken to at least one woman with whom Kruckman continued having a sexual relationship even after he publicly said he would "stop this behaviour", and we have been told there are others.

Background Briefing sent requests for an interview and detailed questions for Russell Kruckman to the ashram but received no response.

To those who left the ashram, it is inconceivable that Kruckman should still be operating as if nothing has happened.

Alex Buxton wants to know why the laws and rules that govern other professions don't seem to apply to spiritual leaders such as Kruckman.

"My biggest concern now is that there's vulnerable people, especially women that could go to the ashram and be exposed to this guy and have a detrimental effect on their whole life," he said.

"There's a real huge loophole in that if you're a doctor, you're a psychiatrist, you're a university lecturer, you're a primary school teacher, there's a code of ethics that you have to abide by in order to be able to practise what you're doing.

"He's a teacher. He's a confidant. In some ways, he's almost like a surrogate parent for people. He's supposed to uphold the highest ideal, and yet he's essentially abusing people and he's allowed to practise. He should be shut down."

Psychologist Nigel Denning believes Kruckman would have been unlikely to stop his behaviour, even after being confronted with the consequences of his actions.

"[If] there's been no severe consequences for his behaviour then, you know, his behaviour will probably have accelerated," Denning said.

"He would have had a smaller pool of victims, but there would be no diminution until he's physically unable because he truly believes, and this is the, you know, the disturbing part of it, he believes his banter."

"He believes that there's something magical and mystical about him and that this is a healing process. You know, this is where these people are dangerous. He's essentially living in a delusional state."

It has taken six years for Naomi to find the strength to speak out about what happened to her at the ashram.

She has one message for anybody who is still at the ashram.

"Leave. Leave as quickly as you can, run," she said.

"Get out of there. Don't waste your life like I did. The quicker you leave, the quicker you can heal and it's going to be hard, but you'll feel a sense of deep relief, knowing when you leave that you've done the best thing that you can do for yourself."

*Name has been changed.

Mar 26, 2021

False Memories Can Be Planted and Then Reversed, Researchers Find

German study points to possible techniques for recognizing and correcting erroneous recollections

The new study confirms previous research on the malleability of memory. Some earlier findings suggest true memories tend to be stronger than false ones.
The new study confirms previous research on the malleability of memory. Some earlier findings suggest true memories tend to be stronger than false ones.

Brianna Abbott
March 22, 2021

Researchers in Germany and the U.K. said they were able to plant false memories and then help study volunteers root them out, work that suggests potential remedies to ease the problem of erroneous recollections.

The scientists used interviews to convince some study subjects they had undergone childhood events that didn’t happen to them, such as getting lost or being in a car accident, according to a report published Monday in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Then the researchers said they used other interview techniques that prompted the volunteers to reassess the memories and help realize they might be false or misremembered.

The work confirms previous research on the malleability of memories while pointing to potential techniques for recognizing and rooting them out.

“What we can show in principle is that it’s possible to empower people to really identify what might be a false memory,” said Aileen Oeberst, the study’s lead author who now heads the Department of Media Psychology at the University of Hagen in Germany.

Scientists have long studied the fallibility of human memory. The findings confirm previous research, psychologists and cognitive scientists said, though they cautioned about its real-world potential since the study was conducted among a relatively small number of subjects in a lab over a few weeks, and its findings might be hard to apply to an individual person.

Some research suggests that true memories tend to be stronger for people than false ones, Nancy Dennis, a memory researcher and an associate professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University. Yet people can also have vivid false memories or weaker true memories, making them difficult to tease apart on an individual basis.

“The hard part is when you want to take someone on that witness stand or therapists’ office and want to figure out if that particular memory is true or false,” said Dr. Dennis, who wasn’t involved in the study.

False-memory research has been controversial. Cognitive scientists and psychologists often disagree on how easy it is to develop false memories and how often that occurs. It has also been controversial partly because police investigations and court proceedings rely on the quality of memories.

Some psychologists express concerns that people can be cajoled into confessing crimes they didn’t commit or into making incorrect accusations. Meantime, others say the bigger problem is that defendants often point to false memory research to discredit testimony from real victims or eyewitnesses and get allegations dismissed.

In the new study, researchers sought to prove what they said was a relatively unexplored area of research: how to undo false memories.

The study involved 52 people, averaging 22 years of age, at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, Germany, who were told they were enrolling in research on childhood memories, as well as their parents. Researchers asked both the subjects and their parents not to talk with each other about the study.

The study had two parts. In the first part, the researchers sought to plant false memories in the subjects. First, researchers sent a questionnaire to the parents of volunteers, asking them whether their child had undergone negative experiences like getting stung by a wasp or running away from home.

The investigators also asked the parents to suggest two events that definitely didn’t happen but could have taken place, as research suggests that false memories are more likely to be picked up if they are plausible to that person.

Interviewers spoke with study subjects over the course of three interviews to plant false memories. The interviewers didn’t know whether or not a recollection was real, and they weren’t aware they were being used to plant false memories.

In their conversations, the interviewers told the subjects that their parents had provided details about events in their childhoods. Then the interviewers introduced four “memories” that the interviewers said the parents had told them about—two real and two fabricated.

The interviewers pushed the participants to recall the events to varying degrees. For one true and one false event, the interviewers only lightly suggested that the event occurred over the course of three interviews. For the other two incidents, the interviewers pushed the subjects to recall the events and encouraged the subjects to think about the incidents between interviews.

Volunteers faced both more aggressive and less aggressive interview styles. At the end of the three interviews, volunteers said that they had some level of memory about the fake events 27% of the time after the interviewers mildly suggested an event. When interviewers were more aggressive, participants subscribed to the made-up events 56% of the time, the study said.

Volunteers described full or robust memories for 20% of the minimally suggested events and just under 45% of those aggressively suggested. Some people still outright rejected the fake events or said they had no memory of them.

In the second part of the study, researchers tried to see whether they could reverse the false memories over two additional interviews.

First, one interviewer told the volunteers that memories might not be based on their own experiences but rather on sources such as family stories or photographs, and they asked for the origin of each recollection. Then during a second session, a new interviewer said that repeatedly being asked to remember events could lead to the creation of false memories and asked the volunteers to think back and reflect on whether that applied to any of the incidents.

After those interviews, fewer study subjects subscribed to the fake memories, though a few people still described the false memories in detail, the study found.

Overall, volunteers had more confidence in their true memories and described them in fuller detail than the memories that were false, the study found. And while belief in the fake incidents decreased after the final two interviews, faith in the real memories remained relatively intact.

Write to Brianna Abbott at