What Now received the following update on the Lewis Silken independent investigation from someone who has been supporting the process of negotiation around the investigation. The writer is not one of the 8 letter writers and does not represent all those involved in negotiations, so the following should be taken only as one viewpoint.
Since the investigation commissioned by Rigpa from London law firm Lewis Silkin was announced, five months ago, not much has been said in public about its progress. The reason for this is that there has been a protracted period of negotiation back and forth via the Lead Investigator, Karen Baxter, between those who would like to participate and the Rigpa “Investigating Committee”. This committee consists of trustees Rich Snow and Liz Acosta in the US and Russell Blakely and Susan Burrows in the UK. Although in contact with the Rigpa leadership, to fulfil their obligations the Investigating Committee has to act with independence from them and their decisions in relation to the investigation are final.
The areas of negotiation have been around who participates and how, protection of confidentiality, protection from prosecution and the publication of the report.
WHO PARTICIPATES AND HOW
When Rigpa announced the investigation, they presented it as being centred around the eight letter writers and announced that these would be participating. However, there had been no discussion with these eight people about whether they wished to participate and, if so, on what terms. Furthermore, all of the issues raised in their letter had already been raised multiple times over past decades, so it seemed important that people with a historical perspective on these issues should also be included to give a more rounded and nuanced picture. Meanwhile there were other current and former students who wished to share their testimonies about experiencing or witnessing abuse or financial misconduct. So, it was agreed that the investigation could be broadened to include a greater diversity of contributors. It was also agreed that whilst the preference of Karen Baxter, the Lead Investigator, was to meet people face to face where possible, people could contribute in whatever way they felt comfortable with, including giving written submissions.
PROTECTION OF CONFIDENTIALITY
The kinds of information and stories that people wish to share are difficult and often traumatic. Victims feel a variety of emotions about discussing their experiences – including fear, shame and anxiety – and many would not wish to be identified as this would add to their trauma. For this reason, it was agreed that each person who participated could chose to what extent they were identifiable or anonymised in the final report. No information about the participants would be shared with Rigpa, unless permission was explicitly given. This means there is the possibility of sharing testimony to provide context, that would be useful in giving the Lead Investigator a clearer picture, with the proviso that none of it can be used directly in the final report, if that’s what people prefer.
PROTECTION FROM PROSECUTION
Another reason that people have felt inhibited about coming forward with their experiences is the concern that what they say may be used against them by Rigpa and they may be threatened with being sued for defamation, despite telling the truth – an intimidatingly costly process for most people to defend. The Investigating Committee offered guarantees that this will not happen. Immunity from prosecution by Rigpa was offered to the letter writers but, on request, the committee has extended that and has stated in recent days “We confirm that no legal action will be taken by or on behalf of Rigpa against any of the 8 letter writers or against any other victim of abuse who comes forward, as a result of their providing witness evidence to Karen [Baxter] as part of the investigation.”
PUBLICATION OF THE REPORT
The final, and initially insuperable, obstacle to many people’s participation in the investigation was that Rigpa would not agree to publish the full report once it was completed – and furthermore, neither the letter writers nor any other participants would be allowed to see it. They would only commit to publishing the “recommendations”. Understandably, many people felt this was totally inadequate and that after decades of failure to deal with these issues or even talk about them openly, this would constitute more of the same and sounded like a cover-up, so participation would be a pointless exercise in which victims were effectively being mistreated yet again. For this reason, many people who had initially offered to participate no longer wished to. Fortunately, there was a change of heart by the Investigating Committee and/or the Rigpa leadership and they recently released the following statement via Karen Baxter, the Lead Investigator at Lewis Silkin:
“The investigating committee has asked me to highlight to you that its members wholeheartedly share your desire to ensure that your concerns are investigated and addressed thoroughly. The committee has absolutely no desire to facilitate a whitewash and its members are clear that that cannot be allowed to happen. There is a need to balance a desire for an open and transparent process against the highly personal, sensitive and confidential nature of the information that might be provided; where witnesses come forward on condition of anonymity or confidentiality, that needs to be respected.
As a result, the investigating committee has agreed to commit to making a copy of the final report available to each of you and to the public. This is on the understanding that I will be asked to ensure that any highly personal or confidential information is redacted, anonymised or otherwise dealt with in a way which respects these sensitivities in the final report. It has been agreed that the way that this is done will be left to my discretion and not determined by the investigating committee or Ripga.”
So, the report will not only be available to participants but also to anyone else who is interested. As a result, the people who had withdrawn their cooperation are now participating and the process of the investigation has begun in earnest. The Rigpa “Vision Board” have stated that they hope the report will be ready “by the summer”. This seems quite a tight deadline, given the work that needs to be done. Although it is understandable that all parties would like to see it as soon as possible, it is more important it is done as well as possible.
Inevitably, some people will still feel wary of being involved in the investigation, given things that have happened in the past. Ultimately it is a question of trust – on both sides. But beyond that, given what the Investigating Committee and the Rigpa leadership have committed themselves to, any attempt to renege on these promises would leave the individual members of the committee, the Rigpa leadership and even Lewis Silkin open to damaging legal action – so it is unlikely.
The more people that come forward with compelling evidence and information, the more specific and thorough the final report can be. The investigators can only draw conclusions from the information they are given.
Hopefully this set of assurances will encourage others to come forward who may have felt reluctant until now. If you have experienced or witnessed anything that you feel would be relevant to the investigation, please contact Karen Baxter at Lewis Silkin, via this email: firstname.lastname@example.org
I have posted this article in good faith after being assured that the information is accurate, but it may not give a full picture of the situation because these assurances are probably not legally binding. I advise anyone participating to only give evidence that is completely accurate, such that you would feel comfortable testifying to its truth in court.
Details on other investigations of Rigpa that you may wish to participate in can be found on our Details of Investigations page.
Private discussion on this and other related topics can be had on our Secret Facebook Group. Is is only for current and previous students of Rigpa, however, and we do moderate it closely. If you’re interested in joining, please contact us via the contact page and ask for an invite.
Ex-Rigpa students and their Rigpa dharma friends who want to move on from the discussion of abuse in Rigpa can stay in touch through the Dharma Companions Facebook Group.
The What Now? Reference Material page has links to a wealth of articles in the topics related to abuse in Buddhist communities. For links to places to assist in healing from abuse see the sangha care resources page.
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