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As Spotlight Wins Oscar, Silence Surrounds Ex-Rabbi Marc Gafni’s Alleged Misdeeds

Photo from Marc Gafni. Creative commons license.

Photo from Marc Gafni. Creative commons license.

by Nancy Levine

The movie Spotlight won Oscar awards for best picture and best original screenplay at Sunday evening’s 82nd annual Academy Award presentation.

On the red carpet before the Oscar telecast, actor Mark Ruffalo, who played Boston Globe reporter Mike Rezendes in the movie, told ABC’s Robin Roberts:

“It’s still happening today. I was at a protest today in Los Angeles at the Cathedral with the SNAP group, with the survivors of priest sexual abuse. They were telling me that every day they have more and more people coming out of the darkness to tell their stories of sexual abuse by priests. And the more that happens, the closer we get to actually healing this wound, I think.”

Indeed, those stories continue to come forward. On December 25, 2015, The New York Times reported former rabbi Marc Gafni’s admission of sexual engagement with a minor, and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey’s position on Gafni’s nonprofit board of directors:

“He [Gafni] added, ‘She was 14 going on 35 … ‘”

“A co-founder of Whole Foods, John Mackey … is a chairman of the executive board of Mr. Gafni’s center … “

The Monterey County Weekly subsequently reported former NAACP Ben Jealous’s membership on Gafni’s board of directors:

“Another board member is Ben Jealous, a Seaside native and former president of the NAACP from 2008-12, is also listed as a member of the board of the Center for Integral Wisdom. (Jealous did not respond to earlier requests from the Weekly for this story.)”

Sara Kabakov was the 14-year old girl whom Gafni referred to in the Times story as “going on 35.” After the Times story broke, she came forward publicly for the first time. Her first-person essay appeared in the Forward, relating how she was abused while a teenager under Gafni’s tutelage.

A number of media outlets followed up on the Times story, but public outcry was mostly from the Jewish community, where Gafni has been a lightning rod for years. Rabbi David Ingber posted a petition authored by 100 rabbis on Change.org, urging Mackey and Whole Foods to cut ties with Gafni. Rabbi Ingber told The Jewish Week that as Gafni “rises in the New Age world, he continues to act with impunity. We in the Jewish community didn’t do enough years ago. We could have prevented many of the more recent victims.”

Gafni’s CIW website was soon scrubbed of all board members’ profiles. These screenshots of Mackey and Jealous on Gafni’s CIW Executive Board of Directors were taken on January 3, 2016:

df68b0ee-37f0-4912-80b1-7e3ea5deb9afBen Jealous Executive BOD CIW

Ben Jealous has been prominent in the news, stumping for Bernie Sanders, rallying African American voters. Ben Jealous’s father, Fred Jealous, has presented workshops with Gafni in the past.

Vice President Joe Biden appeared on the Oscar stage Sunday night, greeted by a standing ovation. He introduced Lady Gaga, who brought the audience to tears with “Till it Happens to You,” her Oscar-nominated song from the movie The Hunting Ground, about campus rape. After her performance, Gaga was joined onstage by survivors of sexual assault whose arms bore slogans in bold, black marker, including “Unbreakable” and “Not Your Fault.” 

Continuing his decades-long work to change the culture of sexual violence, Biden urged the millions of viewers to “take the pledge. A pledge that says, ‘I will intervene in situations where consent has not or can not be given.’ Let’s change the culture.”

Amplifying the need for cultural change, Michael Messner, a professor of sociology and gender studies at the University of Southern California, will be the featured presenter on Tuesday, March 1, at Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research as part of their 18-month program, “Breaking the Culture of Sexual Assault.” Professor Messner, who is co-author of Some Men: Feminist Allies and the Movement to End Violence Against Women, emailed:

“There is a growing chorus of younger men today who denounce sexual violence against women. But voiced opinions are one thing, and actions yet another. Too often still, when men’s vested interests are at stake — be they in the corporate board room, the frat house or the locker room — otherwise “good men” maintain a culture of silence that helps to perpetuate violence against women.”

Mackey’s only response is on his Whole Foods blog, characterizing his relationship with Gafni as “personal.” In my recent op-ed on EpicTimes.com, many experts voiced disagreement, including Brad Hecht, Vice President and Chief Research Officer of Reputation Institute who emailed:

“As the founder of, primary spokesman for, and emotional leader of Whole Foods Market, John Mackey has a responsibility to immediately and directly address this issue.”

Mackey is scheduled to be a keynote speaker at the Conscious Capitalism 2016 conference in Chicago in April. However, a press release for the event mentions two other speakers but does not mention Mackey. I emailed Raj Sisodia, co-founder and co-chairman of Conscious Capitalism, asking him to comment on Mackey’s involvement with Gafni as reported by the Times and Mackey’s omission from the press release. Sisodia emailed that he is not involved with speaker selection nor issuing press releases, but it’s his understanding that Mackey will be speaking. He did not comment Mackey’s relationship with Gafni, nor on his own connection to the former rabbi.

No one from the Whole Foods Market board of directors or public relations office has responded to follow-up emails.

Neither Ben Jealous nor anyone from Bernie Sanders’ campaign has responded to emails or phone calls. Likewise, there has been no response to emails from Kapor Capital, where Ben Jealous is listed as a partner of the firm.

David Clohessy, executive director of SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests), emailed:

“At first glance, the movie Spotlight is about clergy sex crimes and cover-ups in Boston. But a troubling and accurate sub-text throughout the film is that any number of people were alerted to the crisis but chose, for various reasons, not to pursue it. I hope Whole Foods co-founder and co-CEO John Mackey and civil rights leader Ben Jealous see the movie and recognize it as a call to action.”

Why are Mackey and Jealous actively maintaining silence about their professional affiliation with an admitted sex abuser? Hiding is not the answer to cultural change. Enabling an abuser damages efforts to change the culture. Mackey and Jealous need to recognize this story as a call to action and publicly take the pledge.


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