Whole Foods CEO declares loyalty to spiritual guru, accused sex abuser

Is Whole Foods co-founder and co-CEO John Mackey an accomplice to child sexual abuse? Mackey released a statement this week, declaring his loyalty to spiritual leader, a former rabbi accused of sexual abuse, Marc Gafni.

Politico reported this past week on Vice President Joe Biden’s speech at the United State of Women Summit in Washington, D.C. He “insisted that men who stay quiet about rape culture and sexual assaults are accomplices.”

I previously blogged about the importance of Mackey speaking up about his relationship with Gafni, as reported by The New York Times in December. I am an activist, working to change the culture of silence surrounding child sexual abuse. I have been writing about this matter since I read Mark Oppenheimer’s expose in The Times, detailing Gafni’s background and his association with Mackey.

Mackey is also a co-founder and board member of Conscious Capitalism, Inc. On June 9, I sent the email below to speakers at the upcoming Conscious Capitalism CEO SummitBrené Brown, founder and CEO of COURAGEworks, and to media contacts for Denise Morrison, President and CEO of Campbell Soup Company, and Jostein Solheim, CEO of Ben & Jerry’s Homemade:

“I am a writer and publicist working with nonprofits SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, featured in the movie Spotlight), and Peaceful Hearts Foundation, founded by Matthew Sandusky, adopted son of former Penn State football coach and convicted sex offender Jerry Sandusky.

I see Ben & Jerry’s Homemade CEO Jostein Solheim is scheduled to be a speaker at the Tenth Annual Conscious Capitalism CEO Summit, October 18-20.

As you may know, Whole Foods co-CEO John Mackey is a founding board member of Conscious Capitalism.

Is Mr. Solheim aware of Mr. Mackey’s relationship with accused sex offender, former rabbi Marc Gafni, as reported by The New York Times and The Washington Post?

The New York Times, 12/25/15:

‘A Spiritual Leader Gains Stature, Trailed by a Troubled Past’

‘A co-founder of Whole Foods, John Mackey, a proponent of conscious capitalism, calls Mr. Gafni ‘a bold visionary.’ He is a chairman of the executive board of Mr. Gafni’s center, and he hosts board meetings at his Texas ranch.’

Mr. Gafni said of one of his accusers, ‘She was 14 going on 35, and I never forced her.’

The Washington Post, 5/25/16:

‘Protesters’ problem with new Whole Foods concept: An ex-rabbi’s alleged sex scandal’

‘The protesters are targeting Whole Foods CEO John Mackey’s links to Marc Gafni, a former rabbi who allegedly had sex with a number of his followers, including two teenage girls, as the New York Times reported last year.’

Would Mr. Solheim like to make a statement about the matter above?”

I received this email from Julie van Amerongan, Director of Programs and Events of Conscious Capitalism, Inc.:

“By way of introduction, I’m Julie van Amerongen, longtime director at Conscious Capitalism, Inc. and producer of our annual conferences.

I am aware of your efforts to raise awareness about issues with Marc Gafni and again want to reiterate to you that Conscious Capitalism has no professional association with Marc.  As longtime producer of our events I can assure you that Marc has neither spoken at nor attended any of our events.  As you know, our organization does not condone or support or ignore issues of sexual assault, harassment or abuse and are unequivocal that it is absolutely unacceptable.  We have created and support a culture of love and care here – words not often used in business environments, but words I don’t hesitate to use here.

As you also know, John Mackey is the co-founder of our organization and sits on the board.  I have known John for many years and he has spoken numerous times at the events I have produced and has always been a strong proponent of elevating the role of women in the workplace.  I want to make sure you have seen the statement he has released which also makes clear his alignment with our organization’s stated values:

‘I want to make it crystal clear that I do not condone sexual assault, harassment, or abuse in any form.  I have known Marc Gafni for several years, and he has continued to tell me that he is innocent of the allegations being made about him.  Loyalty and the presumption of innocence are important values to me, so I will not join those who are condemning him.  At the same time, I understand the devastating effects of abuse, and my heart goes out to any and all victims of sexual abuse everywhere.  I am, at once, presuming Marc’s innocence and firmly standing against what he’s accused of.’

I understand that you like and even admire the work of Conscious Capitalism. Yet when I see and hear about your outreach to our event speakers, sponsors and attendees I have to ask what your intentions are here.  My staff and I feel like we are innocent bystanders in the crossfire of your attack against Marc.  We don’t support Marc, we’ve done nothing wrong, our work is noble and we work so hard, yet day after day we have another mess to clean up because you are choosing to attack us and our amazing community to get to Marc.  In my mind there has just got to be another way.

Since John has stepped off Marc’s board and has released a statement against sexual abuse–cutting whatever imagined ties there were between Conscious Capitalism and Marc, I’d respectfully request that you look for an alternative avenue for your crusade against Marc so that our team can continue our focus on elevating humanity through business.”

I responded to van Amerongen:

“Thank you, Julie, I do appreciate your note. I had not previously seen John’s statement. Do you know where his statement was released prior to your emailing it to me?

My motivation is this: I’m working as a volunteer with nonprofit advocacy groups SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, featured in the movie Spotlight), Peaceful Hearts Foundation, founded by Matthew Sandusky, son of Jerry Sandusky, and NAASCA (National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse).

The leaders of these groups are unequivocal about the importance of breaking the culture of silence that underlies all sexual violence. John’s silence was hurtful to all survivors of child sexual abuse, and served to reinforce the culture of silence underlying child sexual abuse.

I’m all for elevating humanity through conscious business practices and awareness. My point has been that in order to elevate humanity we must elevate for all — and break the culture of silence surrounding sexual abuse. Otherwise, we are only selectively conscious.”

As to the provenance of Mackey’s statement, van Amerongan emailed:

“I’m not sure where the statement was released. I’m not privy to Whole Foods press releases. John shared this with me last month and said it could be shared with others.”

I have emailed Whole Foods’ executive spokesperson Robin Rehfield Kelley to inquire about the release of Mackey’s statement. Previously, Rehfield Kelley had emailed, when asked if Mackey wanted to make a statement about the protests at Whole Foods in New York and at the company’s 365 launch in Los Angeles:

“John no longer serves on Mr. Gafni’s  board and has no connection to the Center for Integral Wisdom. That being said, there’s nothing else to say on this matter.” Leaders of advocacy organizations and protesters objected to Mackey’s and Whole Foods’ silence.

I will update this blog if/when Rehfield Kelley or a spokesperson from Whole Foods replies. The Forward has subsequently reported on the release of Mackey’s statement.

As for Mackey’s statement regarding Gafni’s “presumption of innocence,” I have blogged about embattled legislation, the Child Victims Act in New York State and related media coverage. Gafni’s accusers are prevented from pursuing legal action because of statute of limitations restrictions. The proposed legislation would extend or eliminate statutes of limitations for child sexual abuse.

One of Gafni’s accusers, Sara Kabakov is working to help champion the legislation. After The Times story was published in December, Kabakov came forward publicly for the first time in an opinion piece in the Forward: “I Was 13 When Marc Gafni’s Abuse Began.”

As for the “imagined ties” between Conscious Capitalism and Gafni, The Washington Post reported, “He [Mackey] quotes Gafni liberally in his 2013 book ‘Conscious Capitalism,’ and appeared with Gafni in videos discussing the book that, until recently, appeared on Whole Foods’ website.”

Mother Jones published a scathing review of Mackey’s book Conscious Capitalism: “Libertarian Propaganda with Your Organic Arugula?” Another CEO of a public company who was in contact with Mackey messaged me about his allegiance to Gafni: “it’s more of his libertarian ideology as I understand.” At last summer’s FreedomFest, the annual Libertarian conference in Las Vegas (where Donald Trump headlined), Mackey and Gafni joined forces as a debate team. Later in the program, Gafni presented solo, “The Erotic and the Ethical: Next Steps in Libertarian Awakening.”

As for Gafni having “neither spoken at nor attended any” Conscious Capitalism events, from the conference summary for the 2nd Invitational Conclave on Conscious Business, presented by the Esalen Institute and Conscious Capitalism Institute in 2012: “On Monday morning, the Director of the Center for World Spirituality, Marc Gafni, launched the week’s conversations…”

As for my creating “another mess to clean up because [I am] choosing to attack” Conscious Capitalism, I would posit that I am neither attacking nor creating a mess. Rather, I am shining a spotlight on the “Whole Mess at Whole Foods,” as reported by Nonprofit Quarterly: “Just like the hypocrisy of Bill Cosby’s moralizing about black respectability and Jared Fogle’s trying to help childhood obesity, Marc Gafni’s views and new age spirituality look very much like an attempt to overshadow the pain he has caused by letting the world know what a ‘profoundly good person he is.’ John Mackey is compounding this hypocrisy and bringing Whole Foods with him.”

So is Mackey an accomplice?

Myka Held, staff attorney with SurvJustice, previously emailed this comment for a piece I wrote for Epic Times. Her statement is included here, in its entirety:

“Given the dismal rates of prosecution of rapists, and the fact that even rapists who are prosecuted are not always convicted or appropriately punished, we cannot use the wide-spread failure of the criminal justice system as an excuse to let offenders off the hook. Marc Gafni has publicly admitted to having sex with a 13 year old girl while he was an adult. Regardless of his arguments about consent, it is a crime in this country to have sex with a minor and his defenders cannot hide behind the argument that sex was consensual. His attempts to shift blame to his young victim, stating that she was ’14 going on 35′ are despicable and show both his lack of remorse for his crime and his inability to recognize the seriousness of his crime.

For these reasons alone it is important for us as a society to hold him accountable, and part of the mechanisms for doing so require us to demand that his powerful friends end their support. It is comments like Marc Gafni’s, that his victim was ’14 going on 35′, that silence victims in the first place and make them afraid to come forward and report to police. I commend the bravery of the two women who have come forward publicly to warn others about the abuse Marc Gafni perpetuated against them and hope that we as a society can rally around these women rather than allow Marc Gafni to attack his victims, both of whom were not old enough to consent, and by their own words, did not consent to sexual relations with Marc Gafni.”

In response to Mackey’s statement, New York Rabbi David Ingber, who has spearheaded the criticism of Gafni and his supporters, posted this on his Facebook page:

“Shame on you John Mackey. Shame on you for your ‘loyalty’ and for your abhorrent callousness towards real victims, real women, real abuse, real stories that are not only from some mythic past but are still happening, right here and right now. Shame on you Mackey for trusting a sociopath instead of reaching out to those whom he has abused. Shame on you for calling your complicity with sexual exploitation anything [other] than what it is….accomplice to a very disturbed and sick man.”

What about accountability? Cary Krosinsky, lecturer at Yale University previously emailed for my Epic Times piece, “I think in a case like this, it should be the obligation of all investors to hold the companies they own to a minimum standard behavior.”

The largest individual investors in Whole Foods Market are members of the board of directors. Kip Tindell, Chairman and CEO of The Container Store sits on the boards of both Whole Foods Market and Conscious Capitalism, Inc. Business Ethics magazine reported: “If WFM’s board accepts that there is a firewall protecting the company from adverse attention in Mackey’s relationship with Gafni, as well as that the relationship is ‘in the company’s best interests,’ they shoulder accountability to stakeholders if they are wrong.”

Whole Foods has posted this statement about Marc Gafni on their website: “John is no longer on the board of directors of the Center for Integral Wisdom and we’ve made that position very clear. John Mackey chose not to renew his role on the Board of Directors of the Center for Integral Wisdom. This decision was personal and independent of Whole Foods Market.” The statement serves to legally indemnify the company. But what about ethical responsibility?

As 18th century Irish statesman Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” And as 20th century Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Indifference to evil is worse than evil itself.”

Whole Foods CEO declares loyalty to spiritual guru, accused sex abuser

Spotlight 2.0: Child Sexual Abuse and The New York Times

Updated June 12, 2016

If silence is the jet fuel of child sexual abuse, why would any media outlet keep mum on reporting related news? Why hasn’t The New York Times reported on developments related to the Child Victims Act in New York State? Does the newspaper have a conflict of interest?

The proposed legislation, authored and long-championed by Assemblywoman Margaret Markey, would eliminate civil and criminal statutes of limitations for child sexual abuse.

In related news, the Forward reported that child sexual abuse survivor Sara Kabakov is working with Assemblywoman Markey to help champion the Child Victims Act. Ms. Kabakov came forward publicly for the first time in an opinion piece in the Forward, identifying herself as the then-14-year old alleged victim of former rabbi Marc Gafni, as reported by The Times in December:

“Mr. Gafni was quoted saying they had been in love. He added, ‘She was 14 going on 35, and I never forced her.'”

And this:

“A co-founder of Whole Foods, John Mackey, a proponent of conscious capitalism, calls Mr. Gafni ‘a bold visionary.’ He is a chairman of the executive board of Mr. Gafni’s center, and he hosts board meetings at his Texas ranch.”

As it happens, the wife of New York Times Publisher and Chairman Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr.Gabrielle Greene Sulzberger sits on the Whole Foods Market board of directors. According to 7/20/15 proxy statement, Mrs. Sulzberger’s 2014 Whole Foods Market annual cash compensation was $422,049. According to 6/18/15 SEC reporting, Mrs. Sulzberger held 64,666 shares of Whole Foods Market stock.

Presumably there is no causal relationship between The Times‘ absence of reporting on the Child Victims Act and the Sulzberger family financial interests in Whole Foods Market. But to quell any concern about conflict of interest or appearance of a conflict, given Ms. Kabakov’s involvement with Assemblywoman Markey to champion the legislation, wouldn’t The Times want to pay extra attention to reporting on the Child Victims Act?

The Times has also not followed up on its December story about Whole Foods’ connection to Marc Gafni. The newspaper did not report on protests at Whole Foods in New York and at the the supermarket company’s widely heralded first 365 store launch in Los Angeles.

The Washington Post covered the story: “Protesters’ problem with new Whole Foods concept: An ex-rabbi’s alleged sex scandal.” The Post reported that Matthew Sandusky, founder of Peaceful Hearts Foundation, and adopted son of convicted Penn State pedophile Jerry Sandusky, joined protesters in Manhattan, decrying Whole Foods’ silence about its CEO’s relationship with Mr. Gafni.

The Times wasn’t shy, however, about covering Whole Foods’ new 365 store launch. Neither was any other media outlet. Bloomberg reported Messrs. Mackey and Sulzberger fêting Whole Foods’ 365 inaugural opening:

“At a recent party to celebrate 365 in New York, guests included Whole Foods co-founder John Mackey, who is also co-chief executive officer, and New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. They chatted with celebrity chef David Chang over Fuku sliders and noshed on vegan chocolate cookies from By Chloe with Samantha Wasser, one of the founders of the trendy vegan eatery in the West Village.”

The New York Daily News, among other media outletshas been reporting news related to the Child Victims Act. Governor Andrew Cuomo announced he is backing the bill. The Catholic Church paid lobby firms $2 million to block the legislation. Hundreds of survivors and supporters, including New York State Senator Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan), marched across the Brooklyn Bridge on June 5. (photo courtesy of Tamara Schoor)

Brooklyn Bridge photo:courtesy Tamara Schoor

The Times has published items related to the Child Victims Act in the past, including a 2014 opinion piece authored by the Editorial Board: “Justice Denied for Abused Children.” In it, the Board noted that the bill “will continue to languish until Mr. Cuomo, who has been missing in action on the matter and is now seeking re-election, confronts intense lobbying by leaders of the Roman Catholic Church and other opponents of reform.” So why didn’t The Times report news of Governor Cuomo’s announcement and the Catholic Church’s $2 million payout to lobby firms?

Given the spate of news items about sexual violence, e.g., the Stanford swimmerSandusky, Cosby, HastertBaylor University, etc., why isn’t news about the Child Victims Act the focus of a “coverage cluster,” as part of The Times‘ new editorial strategy?

On May 22, I emailed The Times executive editor Dean Baquet and asked him why the newspaper was not covering news related to the Child Victims Act, making this mention:

“I am not saying there is a causal relationship between The Times absence of reporting on the Child Victims Act and the Sulzberger family financial interests in Whole Foods Market. But to assuage any remote concern about conflict of interest, I would like to invite The Times to closely consider what it deems newsworthy.”

Mr. Baquet responded:

“Only someone quite paranoid would see such a connection.”

Survivors of child sexual abuse are painfully familiar with Mr. Baquet’s response. Rule No. 1 in the Gaslighter’s Playbook: Respond to survivor’s concern with “you’re paranoid.” Survivors of child sexual abuse have every good reason to be paranoid. Did you see the movie Spotlight about the systemic coverup of child sexual abuse by the Catholic Church?

In the film, then-Boston Globe editor Marty Baron, portrayed by Liev Schreiber, was the driving force behind the Spotlight team’s investigation of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Mr. Baron is now executive editor of The Washington Post and still shining a spotlight on the topic of child sexual abuse. Mr. Baquet, meanwhile, chose to shut the door, keeping child sexual abuse in the dark closet.

Fortunately, the culture of silence surrounding child sexual abuse is shifting. When a survivor voices a concern, and is met with “you’re paranoid,” he or she can now turn to a growing community of other survivors, supporters, and advocates for a reality check.

In this case, I asked professors of journalism for a reality check on The Times‘ reporting.

David S. Allen, Professor and Director of Graduate Studies, Department of Journalism, Advertising, and Media Studies, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee emailed:

“I would argue the [Times] needs to be open and transparent about connections. If there was no conflict of interest, it should tell people why and what it is doing to make sure corporate connections do not interfere with news coverage.”

Sandra Davidson, Professor, Curators’ Teaching Professor, Missouri School of Journalism, University of Missouri, Adjunct Professor, School of Law emailed:

“How about full disclosure–transparency?  Then let the readers decide how to weigh the various factors in formulating their opinions.”

I emailed this blog post to Mr. Baquet. Our dialogue followed:

DB: Dear Nancy, Can I be frank? I get tons of reader notes, and I try to respond. But I can’t quite keep up with your various agendas. And I can’t edit The Times for you personally. So forgive me if I don’t actually check out every note you send. It is starting to feel just a tad like you are on a crusade. Best, Dean

NL: Thank you, Dean, I appreciate your candor and your response. I can assure you my only agendas are social justice and excellence in journalism, so we’re on the same side. Best, Nancy

DB: Yes, but I think you’re [sic] definition of excellence in journalism is coverage of issues you want covered as an advocate of particular causes. Mine is a little bit broader. My only point is forgive me if I don’t respond to everything. Best, Dean

I am not asking Mr. Baquet to edit The Times for me personally. Rather, I am asking him to consider covering news that affects the one-in-four girls and one-in-six boys who are victims of child sexual abuse. I am asking on behalf of adult survivors, those who support them, and everyone who is interested in eradicating the pandemic. I am asking him to pay extra attention to breaking the culture of silence that allows child sexual abuse to continue, and prevents long-festering wounds from healing.

The Stanford swimmer’s father reduced his son’s rape of an unconscious woman to “20 minutes of action,” a statement that has become a rallying call, emblematic of rape culture. Doesn’t “She was 14 going on 35” warrant equal outrage — and related news coverage?

Questions remain: Why isn’t The Times covering news related to the Child Victims Act? By what criteria does The Times calibrate newsworthiness — and in what ways is news about the proposed legislation falling short of the hurdle, not qualifying for coverage? Does The Times have a conflict of interest or the appearance of one?

According to their statement of Standards and Ethics, “The core purpose of The New York Times is to enhance society by creating, collecting and distributing high-quality news and information.” Is The Times’ decision not to cover the Child Victims Act enhancing society — or harming it by material omission?

Former public editor Margaret Sullivan, now media columnist at The Washington Postexcoriated The Times in January for its scant reporting on the drinking water emergency in Flint, Michigan. Ms. Sullivan wrote:

“If The Times had kept the pressure on the Flint story, the resulting journalism might not have made the ‘trending’ list — but it would have made a real difference to the people of Flint, who were in serious need of a powerful ally.”

In the midst of our boiling-over outrage about sexual violence, wouldn’t The Times want to be a powerful ally to survivors and victims of child sexual abuse? Doesn’t this matter call for discourse rather than dismissal?

I encourage survivors, their supporters, and anyone who cares about the crusade to eradicate child sexual abuse and the culture of silence that fuels it, to inquire about The Times‘ coverage of matters relating to child sex abuse, and appearance of a conflict of interest. Contact incoming public editor Elizabeth Spayd at public@nytimes.com. (Please note: several people have told me they received a message from the office of the public editor, saying they don’t address coverage issues. So if you’d like the public editor to address this matter, you will need to ask about the appearance of a conflict of interest.)


Spotlight 2.0: Child Sexual Abuse and The New York Times