1995-06-06 - Star Tribune - Scandals Erode Followers' Trust
Scandals erode followers' trust By Pythla Peay Religion Neius Service For centuries, neophytes on the spiritual path have sought guidance guidance from those wiser than themselves. themselves. But scandals of sexual misconduct misconduct have eroded the trust in the time-honored time-honored time-honored relationship between between teacher and student. Episcopalians in Massachusetts were shocked recently by the suicide suicide of a bishop and the disclosure that he had been involved in numerous numerous extramarital affairs. In Maryland, four Roman Catholic priests stand accused of child sexual sexual abuse. Buddhists and New Age believers believers also have been disillusioned by instances or charges of sexual misconduct misconduct by their spiritual guides. Yogi Amrit Desai, spiritual leader leader of the Kripalu Center, an ashram ashram in Massachusetts, recently admitted admitted to sexual misconduct with several female students. In California, California, Buddhist leader Sogyal Rin-poche, Rin-poche, Rin-poche, who gained fame as an authority authority on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, is being sued by a former student who accused him of sexual sexual misconduct while she was grieving grieving over the death of her father. The faithful suffer Regardless of their religious tradition, tradition, the faithful are suffering disillusionment at the behavior of their spiritual guides. As a result of such abuses of power, new questions are being raised about the student -teacher -teacher relationship. What are the proper boundaries of a teacher's authority? authority? When is it more appropriate to trust your instincts rather than blindly follow the directions of a spiritual authority? Such questioning is healthy, says Anne Cushman, editor of Yoga Journal. Cushman says the magazine regularly receives letters from disaffected students who have discovered their spiritual leaders are not paragons of virtue. But from their disillusionment, Cushman says, new forms of spiritual spiritual leadership may emerge. For the practitioners of many Eastern religions, the guidance of a spiritual teacher is essential, for only a teacher intimately acquaint- acquaint- "Rather than come forward their behaviorgoes underground and gets worse. They keep trying to present a holy view of themselves, when what is really going on is further removed from their public presentation." Anne Cushman, editor of Yoga Journal ed with the student's spiritual evolution evolution can ascertain whether the necessary discipline and understanding understanding has been achieved. Yet for individualistic Westerners, Westerners, the idea that spiritual progress can be attained by subjugating oneself to the teacher creates confusion confusion especially if the possibility possibility exists that the teacher might exploit exploit a student's weaknesses. Ask tough questions Rather than throw out a model of spiritual transmission thousands of years old, Cushman suggests that students surrender their naivete naivete and ask tough questions of the teacher What is his or her lifestyle? lifestyle? What is the teacher's effect upon the students and the community community as a whole? But many spiritual leaders demand demand immediate devotion from students. Their disregard for students' students' doubts signals a potentially abusive situatioa And though there are many ways for a spiritual leader to abuse his or her power greed, authoritarianism or cruelty sexual misconduct is most destructive destructive to the integrity of the student -teacher -teacher relationship. The causes of sexual abuse in religious organizations are complex. complex. J. Wesley Boyd, lecturer in religion religion and psychology at Harvard Divinity School, says some religious religious leaders come to believe in the power and omnipotence projected projected onto them by their followers. followers. They expect gratification of all their needs, including their sexual desires. Religious leaders of all faiths must assume greater accountability accountability for their actions. Yet it is also important for both Western and Eastern spiritual traditions to examine examine beliefs that have placed god-like god-like god-like expectations on religious leaders who are merely human. Many congregants, says Boyd, "want their officials to be otherworldly otherworldly and nonbodily." Cushman agrees, pointing to the tendency in some spiritual systems to make sex "wrong and bad." This sets up a rigid system that makes it difficult difficult for teachers to admit their mistakes. "Rather than come forward," says Cushman, "their behavior goes underground and gets worse. They keep trying to present a holy view of themselves, when what is really going on is further removed from their public presentation." He faced the truth Cushman points to Yogi Desai as an example of a teacher who was able to break the pattern. Rather than continue to deny charges of sexual impropriety, Desai Desai acknowledged his guilt, then resigned his position. Desai's acknowledgment of his transgressions made it possible for his students to begin the healing process. While members experienced experienced grief at Desai's departure, the community continues to practice practice spiritual discipline. The yogic teachings themselves, rather than the teacher, are now the focus of their devotion. Separating the teacher from the teachings may be one key to the continuity of a healthy spiritual relationship. relationship. Another emerging paradigm paradigm is the idea of engaging a spiritual counselor as a friend or companion on the path to enlightenment enlightenment but not as the only source of wisdom.