A third-party investigation into allegations of sexual abuse at Shambhala International has found that it was “more than likely” that the organization’s leader, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, committed sexual misconduct in two cases, according to a report released by Shambhala on February 3. The report, which was based on an investigation conducted by the law firm Wickwire Holm, also received “20 reports of sexual misconduct by other leaders”—and was made public shortly after Colorado authorities on February 1 arrested a former teacher at the Shambhala Mountain Center in Boulder on charges of sexually assaulting a child, the local Daily Camera reported.
Wickwire Holm’s investigator, Selina Bath, said she received “100 individual contacts,” 42 of which were related to alleged sexual misconduct. (The others ranged from complaints about alcohol use by the Sakyong to reports of misconduct being “swept under the rug.”) Ten of those people conveyed issues with the Sakyong—“two were from the late 1990s; six were from the period 2000–2005; and two were in the time period after 2005,” the report said. Bath determined that three of those claims warranted further investigation, and two of them were found to more than likely be true.
One woman claimed that the Sakyong sexually assaulted her while he was drunk during a party at the Sakyong’s home in Nova Scotia, Canada, near Shambhala’s headquarters in Halifax. Her allegations first appeared in a report by the advocacy group Buddhist Project Sunshine. She said in the Project Sunshine report that in 2011 the Sakyong pulled up her dress, “groped her breasts, kissed her, stuck his tongue into her mouth, and made a lewd suggestion . . . This was done without her consent and in full view of at least one other person.” In the Shambhala report, the Sakyong admitted to kissing the woman, but claimed that it was consensual and that he could not clearly remember the rest of the events. After speaking with the woman, Bath concluded that the Sakyong “violated her personal and sexual boundaries in a manner to which she did not consent. He did so without invitation and without permission.” Bath added, “I am concerned that there may have been some degree of collusion [in the Shambhala community] to set a particular narrative,” and said that she believed there may have been an “attempt to discredit” the claimant as “troubled.”
Correction (02/05): An earlier version of this article misattributed the claim that the kiss was consensual to the woman who made the allegation. It was the Sakyong who made that claim. The earlier version also stated that Bath was not able to determine if the encounter was consensual or not. While that was Bath’s initial position, an addendum to the report stated that she determined it was nonconsensual after speaking with the claimant. We regret the error.
Another woman claimed that the Sakyong “demanded that she have sex with him many times over the course of several years.” The Sakyong denied having any sexual contact with her “consensual or otherwise.” The Wickwire Holm investigation determined that it was “more likely than not” that the Sakyong did attempt to have sex with the woman. It also pointed out that in their first private meeting, she had believed that the only purpose was to discuss her spiritual practice, while the Sakyong’s intentions were for a sexual encounter. The report could not substantiate her other claims of abuse or the allegation that he forced himself on her.
The investigator also did not find evidence to support accusations that the Sakyong had sex with teenage girls at Shambhala Mountain Center.
“The ten individuals . . . each told a unique story,” the Shambhala report said. “However, there was enough consistency for the investigator to paint a picture that the Sakyong’s behavior in the 1990s and up to 2005 included frequent sexual contact with women who were his students and, thus, characterized by a power imbalance. Although some of the women reported feeling special or honored for being asked to see the Sakyong privately, some of these relationships left the women feeling abandoned. Often, they had little to no communication with the Sakyong after their encounter. This added to their confusion and feeling of being dismissed. No one reported criminal behavior.”
Wickwire Holm was hired in July 2018 after Buddhist Project Sunshine released a report of an independent investigation that contained allegations of sexual misconduct against the Sakyong. In June, the Sakyong apologized for any harm he might have done, but in August, his attorney, Michael Scott, clarified that the Sakyong’s statement “should not be misinterpreted as a validation of the accusations” in the Buddhist Project Sunshine report.
The Shambhala Interim Board writes that it “feels strongly that the Sakyong must take responsibility for the harm he has caused and be directly involved in the healing process. We, like the rest of the community, are awaiting his response and actions in this regard.”
Michael Scott did not immediately return a request for comment on the investigation.
The board continued to say that it would work with their newly appointed Process Team to “support community dialogue” around the report.
The 20 reports of sexual misconduct by other leaders included claims of “men standing too close and acting too familiar with women,” “making inappropriate comments,” “inappropriate relations with younger women,” “putting their hands on women inappropriately,” unwanted kissing and touching by men, especially men in positions of power or privilege,” and “misconduct by teachers at local centers,” including a case where a teacher tried to seduce a female student with “a promise of secret tantric teachings.”
Two days before the report was released, Boulder police arrested former Shambhala Mountain Center teacher William Lloyd Karelis, 71, on suspicion of “sexual assault on a child by a person in a position of trust,” according to a press release.
“The victim was allegedly sexually assaulted by Karelis multiple times, beginning in 2000, when she was 13 years old,” police said in the statement. “Karelis was introduced to his victim through his position at the Shambhala.”
The police said that they believe that “over a span of 30 years there are additional victims.”
Karelis was held on $10,000 bond at his arraignment on February 1. His attorney, Frederick Bibik, told reporters outside the courthouse, “Mr. Karelis strongly denies these allegations,” the Daily Camera reports.
In a statement, Shambhala said that Karelis’ teacher credentials were suspended in 2004 and permanently revoked in 2008 after two women complained in 2002 and 2008 about him behaving “inappropriately towards them” and for his “failure to comply with Shambhala’s Care and Conduct procedure.”
“Mr. Karelis resigned from the organization in 2009,” the statement said. “None of the complaints received by Shambhala involved minors or reports of criminal behavior.”
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