An Open Letter Regarding Spiritual Violence: To Silence-Keepers & Institutional Power-Bearers

Ahn Nguyen image via Unsplash.

“I will have my serpent’s tongue — my woman’s voice, my sexual voice, my poet’s voice. I will overcome the tradition of silence.”
Gloria E. Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza

WHY DO WE DISCLOSE? THE RATIONALE FOR SHARING NARRATIVES OF HARM IN THE “PUBLIC SQUARE”:

I never wanted to have to tell this story. I am tired. I am exhausted. I had always hoped I wouldn’t have to get here, now.

When folx write open letters the first point of contention is, “but why couldn’t they have privately mediated this issue first?”

I get that question and I would like to address this first. The following are the reasons, after a period of mediation on what my choice would be on how and when I would disclose this story/facts/narrative, towards the reasons why I would not do it “privately” and “socially appropriately” first. This is why.

You can only ask so clearly, so surely, so certainly, for change for so long before you need to realize the truth…if no one will listen to you when you say the truth out loud (over years) that maybe you are a fool to believe that they would be capable of hearing you now, without pressure.

The truth is, I want them to listen to me now. I do. I don’t hate them. I don’t resent them. I do have anger at the lack of listening and I do have immense disappointment at the incapacity of the institutions that I believed, for so long, to be the antithesis to the rigid and violent spiritual spaces I had known before, to be better.

Sweet Fancy Moses and all things aspirational, I wanted to believe that this space could be and would be better. I have known I needed to write this for two, no, three weeks, and I have sat on it because it breaks my heart that final way to have to do it.

Also, this is a story of silence-keeping and so it seemed in the least redundant to do this process in secret. I think for the traditions of spirituality and the lineages of the future spiritual abundance we all owe it to and into transparency to tell these truths out loud and offer a space for rectification of harm. But to do this process in secret seems like just a perpetuation of the same problem that got us here.

I write this as a broken-hearted person. I write this as someone who has loved the work of the institution I write about, has loved, at some point, the work of its founder, and has cared for many people that still work for the organization. And yet, all the same, I have to write this, because, as John Lewis so declaratively stated with his life’s work and his closing statement, “When you see something wrong, you say something.”

The truth was, myself, along with many other women, many other women of color in the most recent of situations, saw something and felt too invisible to be heard even when we said something.

So, this is why I tell this story now. Not because I hate any one person that is part of this story — I actually don’t. Which is a lot to say. But I say it now, publicly, because I said it in a whisper, in a loud voice and in a shout in so many places before now that weren’t listened to. And because when I realized, (again and for the first time — women and survivors will know what I mean here) that no one would hear my scream unless it was in the public square I had to make it clear. My story. The story of the women who came before and after me, the burden I carry for all I said and didn’t say.

I say it now for everyone that was never heard enough — even me. And I say it anyway, even though I know as quickly as I write these words I will be villanized by the many that want to believe in the institution, in the idolatry of its leadership, over the truth of the story, and over the facts of my life.

I will not lie here. I am, myself, a survivor of sexual violence, and so I have known, already, from an early age, the transparent and repetitive harm from the dominant paradigm and the narrative of disbelief of victims and survivors of violence and perpetrators. I also know the rageful responses that come from a place of fear — in disbelief — and I would posit even more from those that believe the story is true but can’t abide its truth.

But, because and despite that I will tell you everything here that is true. And despite my personal opinions of individuals and the intentions of their hearts in the story I tell, it makes the facts of the story no less true. And despite repeated attempts to address this harm internally — by telling the truth time and again — and seeing the resultant continuation of silencing and harm towards women today — I find myself without additional recourse besides this public narrative and the call for this, and other spiritual organizations like it, to articulate their transgressions, do their due diligence to rectify harm (structurally, in reparations monetarily, and through public disclosure), and disband their current structures of power to mediate future harm-doing.

THE STORY:

We can call this moment the start of a story or the end. In some ways it was both. I had just completed my book Sacred Wounds: A Path to Healing from Spiritual Trauma. This book was the result of two years of research and my own extrapolation of decades long, and traditions-wide, explications of spiritual, emotional, physical and sexual harm done by perpetrators within the spiritual landscape — specifically those who were predatory on the power dynamics of religions institutions, who used that positionality to predate upon people (often women and queer folx) to violate and then alienate them.

I had been so glad and grateful that Richard Rohr, someone I had leaned into the work and teachings of in my own recovery from sexual violence and spiritual alienation, was willing to lend his voice towards the foreword of my book. By the time we were close to the book’s publication and his addition of the foreword, we were on a tight timeline. I had, at that time, spent the last couple of years in The Living School at the Center for Action and Contemplation — both a place of flourishing for my mystic intentions and a place of despair as I realized how isolated and alienated I was as a queer person of color. Often I found myself being told by both staff and fellow students that other BIPOC weren’t present in this spiritual context because they just didn’t care to be there — even when I knew the whiteness of the space was the alienation keeping them away.

All the same, I was so grateful that one of my “master” teachers would be willing to write the foreword for my book. On the evening it was due I was sent a frantic email from my marketing contact for the publishing house (it was a small company and we all knew each other personally) saying that Richard had “forgotten” to write the foreword for the book and was in the midst of setting sail (if that’s what you do) on a cruise and wouldn’t possibly be able to get it done in time.

The marketing coordinator at the time, also a friend of a friend, insisted that his friend, who we will call “MM” for this story, would be the best candidate to attempt to ghost write this foreword. He insisted it was the only way to possibly still get a foreword with the name of “Richard Rohr” on the cover and so I should just let him give it a go. I didn’t really know this “MM” at the time but figured what do I know about publishing and if this is how its done then I should probably just take this shot.

What I didn’t know, and wouldn’t realize until much later, is that this was “MM’s” way into building rapport with Richard Rohr and the Center for Action and Contemplation, towards a contract of a book yet to be written. Ironically, what I would learn shortly thereafter, was that the snake in the garden was the guy who used the premise of my foreword as a way to get into the CAC network.

Ultimately, and to my great nausea, the book I have out there today, my second book, the one written about sexual and spiritual violation, would have a foreword people would praise for being written by Richard Rohr, but was actually just okayed by Richard Rohr and really written by the perpetrator of both sexual and spiritual harm — “MM.” Apparently, this is the spiritual “biz” and we aren’t supposed to tell folks about such things. This was the first time I would learn we weren’t supposed to tell folks the truth out loud.

Cause in the spiritual “biz” we just don’t tell people such things. I just didn’t know that the world of spirituality was a business until that moment. This all happened between 2014 and 2015, prior to my book coming out in October of 2015.

It was the summer of 2016 (and if anyone has read my third book they know that whole time was hella messy in my own life). I was at the Wildgoose Festival which we can loosely call a primarily white Post/Progressive Evangelical festival in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. This was the final year I would be running programming for this event, which included a mystical pre-festival gathering of all white, but really wonderful teachers across the anglo-continuum of western spirituality. The CAC was a sponsoring organization and as such myself and a number of staff, contractors and event facilitators shared housing just off-site of the festival grounds that year.

In many ways it was a beautiful time. I shared space visioning and dreaming with many folks there about the future of spirituality and mysticism. And all that being true, one conversation stood out. A female friend and colleague, also working on the event with me and staying in the house came to me during our time there. We had begun conversations prior to this festival about “MM” and how he had been inappropriate with ourselves and other women we knew — violating boundaries, utilizing spiritual frameworks to try to manipulate womens’ agency, and every marker of a spiritual and sexual perpetrator I had written about in my book, published that year. A book which would be forevermore tarnished by the fact that that the person who actually wrote the foreword wasn’t in fact Richard Rohr, but this perpetrator.

She came to me sad, disappointed, hurt and traumatized. She told me that she had spoken to the ED of the Center for Action & Contemplation and asked him to listen to her about this man, this perpetrator “MM”, and she had even shown the evidence of emails he had written with his attempted spiritual and sexual manipulations. I, too, had seen those emails and they were pretty unequivocal in their indictment of this perpetrator — not to mention the fact that I had spent over ten years in the field of trauma specialization, and two years writing a book specific to this kind of violence to see it when it was front and center.

Also, by this point, “MM” had also crossed lines of appropriate conduct multiple times with myself and in my presence with other women. Shortly after this encounter I would send him the equivalent of a cease and desist email when he crossed a line with me that necessitating my requesting no further contact with me.

I, actually, at that moment, couldn’t believe that an ED of an organization that espoused both in its title and its intention “contemplation and action” wouldn’t listen to genuine plea regarding a known (within the community of women) predator. The colleague and friend had come to me because CAC was about to sign onto a contract with this perpetrator to write a book with Richard Rohr. In retrospect only I realized that my male marketing director, at the time, “saving” my book’s foreword by getting “MM” to ghostwrite it wasn’t really about me or the book it was about the audition tape for “MM” to get the book deal with Richard Rohr.

I can still remember that evening’s conversation. I spent more than an hour, possibly two, on the porch of that house in the North Carolina mountains, trying to convince him not to hire this already known perpetrator of sexual harassment and violations against women. It was like a “Mad Men” moment where I would lay out the violations to only be given returning statements of “Well, I’m sure he didn’t really mean it,” and “He seems like such a well intentioned guy,” as well as, “He’s always so funny.” Womxn will understand when I say it was both shocking and took me years to fully absorb how offensive it was and also so expected that I finally gave up — two hours in. My last reflection was something to the effect of, “If nothing else, if you don’t listen to me now and you let this guy in, you will regret it. If not for the women, for your organization.” Whether I said those words verbatim, my final plea was something to the effect of — if you won’t believe for us, understand for you this will have a bad outcome.

I was summarily ignored.

Let me be really, really clear. Because it has taken years for this to sink in for me, personally. I told the director of one of, if not the, largest and most profitable spiritual organizations in the Western world that they were hiring on a known sexual predator into their organization and into a book writing contract with their leader, Richard Rohr. And they did it anyway. I believe at the time the book might have been partially written, but the truth was they had the ability to get out of the contract before its completion and not platform this person — who would certainly be catapulted into a category of fame being the co-author of this book no matter what came after.

The Richard Rohr & “MM” book was written very quickly and came out by October of 2016 (the same month my book had come out the year prior). In all honesty, I was fairly exhausted with my interactions with the organization of CAC after the encounter in the summer by that time. Along with all the beautiful visioning of that time in the woods with some folx (and the origin seedlings of my future organization Mystic Soul would be founded), was also the reminder of who was heard, who was listened to and how the systems would inherently function — on a lineage of silencing the social margins for the benefit of the economic “margins”, or so it appeared.

I remember getting the call that fall while living in my first apartment in Chicago after moving from Florida to the Midwest. I can still remember standing outside on my “balcony” at the time. Let’s be honest, if you are poor-ish and living on the Southside of Chicago what I call a “balcony” is really just a jutting out of the landing before the stairwell where we would get some fresh air and squeeze in a chair.

It was the ED of the CAC calling me with a single message — “You were right.” What that meant was that I was right about “MM” being a perpetrator. The cost: multiple women within the organization of CAC had been sexually harassed because they let this person in the door. This person I told them, and a victim had told them, as well as evidence was shown to that end, was already a known perpetrator. But now they believed it was real. I am still burdened with the knowledge that the price of me being right, and of me not being listened to, was the cost of those women’s sovereignty and safety.

I never wanted to be wrong so badly.

I got the call because not only was I right but I was needed for a favor. Apparently, in the midst of the things that were dismissed prior to this moment, what was remembered from my previous disclosure was the fact that I had told them, at one point, about the cease and desist letter I had written to the perpetrator, when I set my final boundary with him. It had actually worked, by the way. He hadn’t contacted me since I had sent it, nearly around the same time I had the summer conversation on the porch at the Wildgoose Festival with the ED.

The ED asked me 1) to send him that email so that it could assist with their internal process of trying to extricate themselves from this person and their publicity contract with him (related to the book coming out he had just written with Richard Rohr) 2) not speak of any of this to anyone else. What I would learn later is that folks working for CAC had signed blanket NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) in their hiring contracts and the victims were told, also, to stay quiet about the proceedings and outcomes of this process.

The funny loophole that no one intended, that I would reflect on with a mentor down the road, was because I was never staff and I was an addendum to the process, I never signed anyone’s agreements. I never had a legal silence clause.

I did send the ED the email from the perpetrator. I forwarded it to him right after my conversation with him that night, because regardless of being livid at the cost of not being listened to the first time I wasn’t going to hold evidence that could help these other women if I had it.

Immediately after I sent the ED the email he called me right back and said, “I forgot to tell you, sorry, my bad! I meant for you to copy and paste the email.” Reason being, it turned out, was that the perpetrator “MM” had a tracking software on his emails. Simply put it was equivalent to virtual stalking — it meant that any email sent by him would give him an alert if it was sent along to an outside party.

So, I found myself livid, again. Not only did no one listen to me the first time I said — this guy is a perpetrator — but then when they came back to me for help with “evidence” that he was after he had violated multiple women at on the CAC staff I was again exposed to him through this stalking software which put me back on his radar.

Of course, by the next day the perpetrator had emailed me telling me (not knowing I knew about the software) that he had a “feeling” I was talking to the CAC about this “situation” and he would like to talk to me to tell me about all the “work” he was doing to help himself be a better human. I told him I didn’t want him to contact me again — and in the smallest of blessings in a sh*it-sandwich situation, he actually didn’t. As compensation for their most recent error I was offered legal and/or mental health support costs and services by the CAC for the blunder in case I required either from being put in a perpetrator’s cross hairs.

Everything, of course, was meant to stay in house. That was both implicitly and explicitly expressed.

Finally, CAC was able to extricate themselves from the book tour and speaking appearances contract with “MM” but everyone involved became secret keepers — for the benefit of the whole, of course. Me, by request. Staff including the victims by contract and request. And leadership within CAC, by intention. It would be a huge embarrassment to have anyone know that Richard Rohr wrote a book with a sexual perpetrator, so unlike organizations like the Trauma Center in Brookline, MA who got rid of both their ED for sexual misconduct and their founder, Bessel van der Kolk for emotional abuse, and the public nature of it acting as forewarning to further possible victims, they said nothing and so no one knew anything. Which means not only the impact of that silencing on their internal victims, but also any future victims impacted by that silence.

You might ask why, if all this concluded in the end of 2016, why am I making a big fuss today? Well, first of all, let me just say, it is never to late to disclose sexual misconduct or, additionally, organizational misconduct related to sexual misconduct. That said, I was fairly done with the contemplative world following all of this — and increasingly so in the years after.

Let’s also be clear, there are no perfect organizations or perfect leadership — but we must aspire better than this. In the wake my experience with the CAC I co-founded an organization called The Mystic Soul Project — intentionally centering BIPOC/QTPOC at the intersections of spirituality, activism and healing. Not to perfect organized spirituality, but just to do better for the communities I represented and served. Often folks that knew me through my work and time engaged with the CAC would ask me (usually white folx) if my time there is what “inspired” my work to create Mystic Soul. The answer is yes, but not the way they meant it. I was inspired by sadness, by heartbreak, by finding no place for myself as a womxn, queer person and person of color in that space. And, due to that extreme “inside” experience of the organization (among others) I found myself heartbroken at a very visceral level.

And, truth be told, I would have been fine to walk away and just work my hardest to do better elsewhere for those I wanted to serve. But, in the last couple of months I saw the rustling of the same old monsters in that old universe I inhabited showing up again.

First, the disclosure of many (30+) victims of “CH” (co-founder of the Gravity Center) as a perpetrator. The rumblings of which, let’s be honest, through the grapevine of women and margins folx was already there in the warnings and watch outs that we all give each other when the systems and institutions won’t. It is part of the secret underground railroad of the unheard, and due to that strong network the violations of “CH” was already common knowledge in a wide community (of women) that I was connected to.

They were the same kind of warnings I gave anyone I could when needed about “MM” — because we want to protect each other when the systems won’t take on the risk to protect us.

Second, when I saw the weak lack of response to this second perpetrator to be platformed by the Center for Action and Contemplation — after I knew the first was still being kept secret, I felt overwhelmed by a need to force a transparency that it was clear the organization wasn’t going to be accountable to on its own. This second perpetrator, “CH,” was in the process of launching a podcast with them and had been platformed even beyond what “MM” had in his short tenure of fame with them. I was angry, and galvanized towards that anger from the clear injustice I saw playing out, yet again, from the same institution that I thought at the very least would have learned its lesson from the first time. Especially when people (ahem, women) like Brené Brown were able to so quickly and declaratively stand up for the victims.

Third, was when I heard that a colleague of mine, a respected Sister and activist nun had reached out to their publicity department asking for stronger action and public statement towards this (only known as the second in the past 5 years to me, internal leadership and victims at the CAC) perpetrator they had spent years platforming. Their response to her, from their lead in publicity/marketing: they told her that her response to their statement must have been due to her own sexual trauma and they offered her resources towards mental healthcare. The implications of that writing-off are astounding in their offensiveness.

Fourth, was when, in the sequence of all of this I received an email from a leader in the contemplative movement of the “next generation” of contemplative leaders to be part of a podcast discussion on the “end of the guru” where we would, as a community, discuss a new path to healthy leadership. Included in that invitation email were 1) the spouse of the second perpetrator “CH” 2) the primary leadership of CAC who had made the decisions regarding the first perpetrator and that secret-keeping 3) the first perpetrator “MM.”

The toxicity of the system, the institutions, and the leadership, now threatening to perpetuate itself into a new generation of “leaders” was my final straw. And, let’s be honest, the camel’s poor back was actually broken in 2016, but I was too tired and sad myself to know what to do with the predicament.

But, I can’t any longer. I don’t tell this tale to point fingers. On the tail of this final layer of unfolding, a few months ago, I wrote a treatise called “The End of the White-Led Contemplative Experiment of the 20th & 21st Century: A Call to the Existing Power-Bearers.”

You know what was the most profound? This treatise spoke to people across traditions — because this issue is emblematic of an issue related to power dynamics and spiritual institutions that transcends tradition. And also, the particular explicates the universal. So, it also felt necessary to tell my truth, to lay it bare, to give freedom to the truths that transcend this one story, this one institution, these couple of perpetrators, and this lineage of contemplation. It is, sadly, too universal.

And also, I am responsible, as a story-bearer, to hold the truth of what I know to the light, and to call for truth-telling from the power-bearers to who hold so dear the lineage over the people, without even realizing they are doing it.

IN CLOSING:

What I want you to understand is that I don’t actually hate any of the participants of this process I just described.

I will say actual perpetrators I find hard to stomach, often because they spend a good bit of time hiding behind power and building on a foundation of narcissism.

However, I hold no hatred towards Richard Rohr, the leadership of the Center for Action and Contemplation, or the CAC as an organization. That said, when those that wield power intentionally (or subconsciously) prioritize the system over the victims and shield perpetrators to that end, there needs to be an account of that. And when those systems and individuals inside those systems that hold power are unable or unwilling to do that themselves, there needs to be a point at which the wider community holds them to account. That is what I am asking for today.

From them. For them. From us. For us.

From and for individuals, systems and community. And, in truth, more than anything else, I am asking community to make the systems accountable when they appear unable to do it themselves.

As I said in the beginning I will say in the end. I don’t want to do this. Don’t you think I would have hoped, aspired, and dreamed anywhere along the way for anyone but me to take this particular torch? I tried to pass it to the organization. I tried to pass it to the leadership. And, I tried to just walk away when they broke my own heart with how little they were able to live up to my own aspirations of justice, integrity and inclusivity that I had hoped they were capable of embodying.

But we all have our last straw. And many of you may have seen the beginnings of mine a couple of months ago on social media when I disclosed the email I got with the podcast invitation, followed by my letter calling power-bearers in the spiritual landscape to relinquish power and resources and to give it to those who are capable of living into the vision of equity, integrity, inclusivity and justice for the next generation. The womxn, the Black, the Indigenous, and other People of Color, the Queer and the Trans wisdom keepers for the next era of spirituality are who light the way.

Some folks said (a phrase I love so well and is often true), when I began to explore what it would mean not just to set a vision in generalities, but to tell my story of the particular, through my experience, that it was “not my circus, not my monkeys.” I didn’t have to do this. I could just be tired. I could just take a nap. These wise womxn of color were right — and they knew, all to well, how exhausting having to always be the ones to say things out loud (when no one else will) really is. It is practically in the womxn of color job description — especially true for Black womxn.

What I said in response was that I couldn’t ignore it, not this time, because the continual violations always ended up at my door in the shape of victims.

Victims of the institutions, victims of the silencing, victims of the constant manifestation and perpetuation (only explicated in this story) by unregulated and highly profitable spiritual organizations across traditions — led dominantly by men, often white men, out of the same dysfunctional paradigm of secrecy over justice, avoidance over equity, profit (whether you all ever want to admit it or not) over any of the other principles the organization espouses.

All mediated, legislated, and litigated by white supremacy in the way in which they perpetuated harm through procedure — inexplicably, near invisibly, often unknowingly.

I couldn’t. Anymore. And I get it. This may mean a great many things. I may be a bad guy. I may be “blackballed.” I may be hated. I may be disbelieved. I get it. I am calling all the worst of it to my doorstep, but I can’t not say it any longer.

I feel bad enough that I waited so long, I also sat with it for weeks more, beyond my first impulse to say the quiet thing out loud, to make sure I was doing it all for the right reasons. I am so very grateful to the insight of trusted mentors and colleagues who held space with me, in reflection and contemplation, through my process to get to the point to press “publish” here.

I am sorry to everyone for whom it matters for my delay. For my hesitation. ‘Cause the truth is I know who will hate me today, but I feel so much worse for who might have been victimized, unseen, unheard or unbelieved yesterday because I didn’t say all the quiet things out loud before now.

Turns out I am just as able as anyone else, any womxn, any marginalized person, even after writing, LITERALLY, the book on this kind of violence, to being bullied by consensus into silence for too long.

*I hope that, beyond this organization, this might be a template for the response of other organizations and the accountability others can feel empowered to ask for in their own spiritual traditions, institutional paradigms, and social contexts.*

  1. Publicly disclose the perpetrator you fired, after said person violated women on your own staff, that you kept secret. There are many, many organizational templates for how other organizations and nonprofits were able to disclose the letting go of a perpetrator without disclosing the names or information of victims. The only reason to continue to keep this perpetrator’s name private is for the protection of the organization and its resources. The byproduct is keeping the perpetrator’s secret.
  2. Eradicate the NDAs (or at least this portion of their non-disclosure) holding the internal victims within CAC from being able to disclose their personal experience of this perpetrator so that they can address their own traumas as they need — among friends or even publicly if they choose — without the barriers holding back their voice if and how they choose to use it.
  3. Transfer oversight of sexual, racial or other areas of marginalization harm investigation from the internal process to an external committee of advisors. This would, ideally, be the prelude to a larger model for oversight for independent spiritual “institutions” that have functioned internally and responded to harm ineffectually. This would begin a template for response to harm in spiritual institutions by an outside council of mediators — ones not affiliated with current context of power, across spiritual paradigms. Ideally made up of the most marginalized persons in the spiritual context, each of whom who are paid for their time towards governance by substantive dues paid by these fiscally robust organizations.
  4. Agreement to and approval for the removal of Richard Rohr’s foreword — actually written by “MM” — from my book Sacred Wounds: A Path to Healing from Spiritual Trauma.

In the hopes of a better tomorrow & in solidarity with every victim ever silenced, unheard or unbelieved,

Teresa Mateus, Indo-Latinx Queer Mystic Womxn

TRANSPARENCY DISCLOSURE: The Mystic Soul Project, Inc has previously received funding from The Center for Action and Contemplation including a COVID fund dispersment in 2020. The CAC sent an email through a consultant offering TRACC4Movements (my other organizational project), on the recommendation of another organization (not a request from TRACC4Movements), a sum of $7500.00 from their “equity dispursement” project which we will not be taking. In the past, I briefly served as a consultant for CAC (related to equity, race and social justice issues) and at one point in time I had been an applicant for a staff position which did not result in an offer. None of these have a bearing on the story above but it felt essential to be transparent regarding past and present interactions both individually and organizationally related to my work and this specific organization.

Co-founder/Co-Director @MysticSoulProj, Co-Creator/Project Director @TRACC4Movements. Healer, Integrative Care Practitioner, Author + Mystic.

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