Why Was the Child Victims Act Abandoned? A Voice for the Voiceless Fights Back
By Nancy Levine
First Published in Feminine.Collective, who we want to thank for graciously letting us re-publish so quickly
“She was 14 going on 35, and I never forced her.” I read the quote twice.
It chafed at me like a scratchy thread sticking out on a sweater. You pull the strand, keep yanking, and pretty soon, the whole garment starts to unravel.
I was sitting at my kitchen table on Christmas morning last year, with coffee and laptop, as I do every morning. This headline from The New York Times popped up in my Facebook news feed:
“A Spiritual Leader Gains Stature, Trailed by a Troubled Past,” with a photo of former rabbi turned spiritual guru, accused sexual predator Marc Gafni. “14 going on 35” was how Gafni described one of his accusers.
And this grabbed me:
“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.”
I have spent the better part of 30 years as an executive recruiter. I started out after college at American Express corporate headquarters in lower Manhattan. I was ghostwriting announcements for executives about company shakeups and reorgs. So I’ve been around CEOs for a long time.
I pretty much retired from recruiting after my own shakeup and re-org three years ago. My mother died suddenly, and I found out that my boyfriend, a renowned oncologist at a big university hospital, was cheating, seeing two other women. So when I read about Gafni, a brilliant, charismatic and seductive sexual predator, he sounded familiar. But when I read that the CEO of a $10 billion public company was supporting him, my eyeballs popped out of my head.
I figured Mackey would do what any CEO would do, when The New York Times reports you’re buddied up with a guy who admits to having sex with a 14-year old, you run the other way. Fast. So everyone sees just the trail of smoke behind you. I imagined the Whole Foods HR and PR people scurrying about like hamsters in a snake cage, writing a statement for Mackey: I didn’t really know him, only met him twice, don’t have anything to do with him. And so on. But that’s not what happened.
Mackey doubled down on Gafni. Whole Foods buried its corporate head in the sand. And I didn’t take the road most traveled either.
After I read The Times story, I emailed Whole Foods’ PR guy and chairman of the board, John Elstrott. I wrote:
“I trust that Whole Foods Market leadership and board of directors would agree that supporting a sexual predator is not aligned with nor representative of Whole Foods Market’s core values and integrity.”
The PR guy responded, “John Mackey’s involvement with Marc Gafni and the Center for Integral Wisdom is his personal business and does not represent an endorsement or support for either Mr. Gafni or the Center for Integral Wisdom by Whole Foods Market.”
I noticed what he didn’t say, something to this effect:
“Whole Foods disdains and disavows anyone who admits to having sex with a 14-year old girl.”
I was able to reach Whole Foods board member Gabrielle Greene Sulzberger on the phone (she’s married to New York Times publisher and chairman Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr.; more on the Sulzbergers in a moment). A powerful woman would be horrified by this story and take swift action, wouldn’t she? Mrs. Sulzberger thanked me for bringing the story to her attention. She said she was vacationing with her family in South Africa, and my call had interrupted their dinner. She gave me permission to email The Times story to her.
The Times’ expose about Gafni busted open a dam, giving way to a flood of stories, people sharing their nightmares. Sara Kabakov identified herself as the then-14-year old described by Gafni in the Times story as “going on 35.” She came forward publicly for the first time in an opinion piece in the Forward: “I Was 13 When Marc Gafni’s Abuse Began.”
New York Rabbi David Ingber, named one of the top 50 rabbis in the country by Newsweek, launched an online petition, signed by more than 100 rabbis and Jewish leaders. The petition was aimed at Whole Foods and the Esalen Institute, a new age teaching center, famous for its clothing-optional hot tubs, where Gafni was scheduled to teach. Comments on the petition told story upon story from women who had been duped by the charismatic rabbi, turned spiritual guru.
I started investigating and writing about Mackey’s and Whole Foods’ relationship with Gafni. For Wear Your Voice Magazine, an intersectional feminist media site, I wrote: “As Spotlight Wins Oscar, Silence Surrounds Ex-Rabbi Marc Gafni’s Alleged Misdeeds.”
I kept bothering Whole Foods executives, Mackey, and his colleagues at Conscious Capitalism, Inc., the nonprofit he co-founded. I helped organize and publicize coordinated protests at Whole Foods in New York and at the grand opening of their 365 store in LA, as reported by The Washington Post. I recruited leaders from nonprofits SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, as seen in the Spotlight movie), NAASCA (National Association of Adult Survivors of Abuse), and Peaceful Hearts Foundation — an advocacy nonprofit founded by Matthew Sandusky, adopted and abused son of reviled pedophile Jerry Sandusky.
A few friends asked me, “Why do you care so much about a guy who’s accused of having sex with a 13-year old girl?”
Because I was once a 13-year old girl fending off a relative making sexual advances. I didn’t have help, and I couldn’t speak up. So I’m making up for lost time. One-in-four girlshave been that girl. I’m speaking up for 43 million survivorswho didn’t have a voice and those who still don’t. There’s no shortage of material and stories about the devastating effectsof child sexual abuse. PTSD, depression, suicide, addiction, etc. Did you see the Spotlight movie? Suffice it to say, getting sexually abused as a child fucks you up. That’s why.
Mackey eventually succumbed to pressure and released a statement. He declared his loyalty to Gafni, which hinged on a presumption of innocence. Gafni has admitted to having sexual relations with a 14-year old, published in The New York Times, the paper of record. But Mackey presumes Gafni’s innocence. Gafni was most recently reported teaching a tantric sex training in New York. So why is this guy still on the loose?
Enter the Child Victims Act of New York state. To say it’s a lingering piece of proposed legislation would be like calling the Hindenburg a blimp. The bill is surrounded by a fiery, raging battle. First introduced in 2009, the proposed legislation would extend the statute of limitations for claims of child abuse. So if the bill is enacted, Gafni, and every guy who ever said, “She was 14 going on 35,” or thought the same while he was sexually abusing a girl, may be fair game for legal action.
The New York Daily News reported extensively on the Child Victims Act. Hundreds of survivors and supporters flooded the Brooklyn Bridge in June, marching in support of the bill. Activist Phil Saviano, real-life hero portrayed in the Spotlight movie, joined the marchers. The Daily News reported that the Catholic Church paid lobby groups more than $2 million to try to block the legislation.
Author Jason Berry said, “If the NY law changes, it will expose the church to the potential of heavy civil losses and another media firestorm. That is why they are fighting hard and spending large in efforts to kill the bill.” Berry has authored several books on this topic, including Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church, published by Penguin Random House, winner of an Investigative Reporters and Editors Best Book Award.
On the day before I hit the road to LA for the protest at 365 by Whole Foods in May, I noticed that The New York Times hadn’t covered any recent news about the Child Victims Act. Governor Andrew Cuomo had announced his support, called for by The Times’ Editorial Board in a 2014 opinion piece. So why wasn’t The Times reporting news about the governor’s announcement, or the Catholic Church’s payout to lobby groups?
I had noticed the connection between The Times and Whole Foods. The wife of The Times’ publisher and chairman Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., Gabrielle Greene Sulzberger, sits on the Whole Foods board of directors. I’ve recruited board members. Typically, they work 5–15 days a year and pull down a hefty salary. Mrs. Sulzberger’s Whole Foods 2014 cash comp was around $422,000. A 2015 SEC report showed she owned 64,666 shares of Whole Foods stock, worth about $2 million. Not a shabby payday.
It occurred to me that if the Child Victims Act is passed, and Gafni becomes a target of civil or criminal claims, things might not be so pleasant for Whole Foods, their CEO, their stock, and their board of directors — of which Mrs. Sulzberger is a member.
I debated whether to mention the connection in my email to Baquet. But since I had noticed it, I felt like I had to point out the relationship. In the email, I said presumably there’s no connection between the Sulzberger family financial interests in Whole Foods and The Times’ non-coverage of the Child Victims Act. I told him I was just curious about The Times’ decision not to cover related news.
Baquet responded: “Only someone quite paranoid would see such a connection.”
I felt stung, ashamed. I assumed he was right: I must be paranoid. Most survivors can be paranoid, and I’m no exception. And anyone who has suffered any kind of abuse is a ripe target for gaslighting. People in power can make us feel like we’re crazy. As an antidote, I’ve learned to seek reality checks.
I asked two A-list journalism professors, Sandra Davidson from the University of Missouri, and David S. Allen from the University of Wisconsin about the appearance of a conflict of interest at The Times. Independent of each other, the professors both called for The Times to be transparent, reveal corporate connections. I shared their opinions with Baquet. He responded, “I can’t edit the Times for you personally.” Ouch. Again ouch.
But I wasn’t asking Baquet to edit The Times for me personally. I was asking him why The Times wasn’t covering news that affects one-in-four girls and one-in-six boys who are victims of child sexual abuse, and 43 million survivors in the U.S. And even if Baquet was right — anyone who sees a connection and wonders about a conflict of interest is “quite paranoid” — he still didn’t answer the question about coverage.
The Child Victims Act was abandoned by New York state lawmakers. I can’t help but wonder if the bill might have passed, and survivors of child sexual abuse would have a better shot at justice had The Times covered news about the bill. So why didn’t they? I think there are only two possible reasons: Either the newspaper has some conflict of interest (presumably not), or the editors at The Times did not consider news about the Child Victims Act newsworthy. But who could address such a question? Fortunately, the Times has a public editor, an editorial ombudsperson who addresses such questions.
I wrote an open letter to The Times’ public editor Liz Spayd, signed by Matthew Sandusky, Saviano, and 39 other survivors and advocacy leaders, including CEOs and executive directors of national nonprofit organizations. I figured Spayd, a powerful woman, would be sympathetic to survivors of sexual abuse and address their concerns, wouldn’t she?
Spayd’s assistant replied to the open letter, saying she was aware of the situation and “monitoring,” but that the office of the public editor doesn’t address coverage decisions. The following day, Spayd (who reports to Sulzberger) called out The Times in her public editor’s blog for their shoddy coverage: “On Gulf Coast Flooding, the Times is Late to the Scene.” So it seems the public editor does sometimes address coverage decisions. But on the Child Victims Act, the Times was absent on the scene. So was the public editor.
Spayd was, until recently, publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review. Under her editorial direction, the CJR published a piece by Steve Buttry, Director of Student Media at LSU: “The voiceless have a voice. A journalist’s job is to amplify it.” So where were The Times’ journalists when asked by the community of survivors to amplify their voice?
Author and advocate, former model Nikki DuBose wrote a scathing piece in the Huffington Post about the legislative battle over the Child Victims Act, and the Times’ non-coverage: “Denial, More Than Anything Is Hindering Progress For Victims of Child Sexual Abuse.” Professor Marci A. Hamilton, Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at the Cardozo School of Law, tweeted: “Denial, ignorance, and powerful men protecting each other,” with a link to DuBose’s piece.
Some powerful women protect powerful men. I learned in a California state domestic violence training program that, historically, for thousands of years, women have allied with their male abusers in order to ensure their own safety. It’s a survival strategy. So maybe Mrs. Sulzberger and Spayd are the legacy bearers of an ancient cultural lineage. I don’t blame them for trying to ensure their own safety.
But let’s be level-headed and rule out any questions about overlaps and connections. Let’s assume the best and most noble journalistic intentions of The Times, its publisher, executive editor, and major shareholders. Here are the connections we can rule out:
1.The Sulzberger family financial interests in Whole Foods. Did Gabrielle mention The Times’ story about Gafni and Mackey to Arthur after she hung up the phone with me, and returned to their dinner table?
2.Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim is The Times’ largest individual owner. He doubled his investment in the newspaper in 2015 and now owns about a $260 million stake. In February, Jason Berry reported in the National Catholic Reporter about the Legionaries of Christ, “a religious order founded by the late Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, a notorious pedophile dismissed by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006 to ‘a life of prayer and penitence.’” And: “The Legion operates a network of elite private schools and a major university in Mexico, with another university and house of studies in Rome. Among their many super-wealthy backers in Mexico is Carlos Slim.”
I’m not saying there’s any connection to the Child Victims Act in New York. (FYI, here’s the Legionaries’ New York headquarters, in Westchester County, near where I grew up.)
3.Carlos Slim is also connected to Bill Clinton, as reported by The Washington Post. The Daily Beast ran an expose in May on billionaire pedophile Jeffrey Epstein and his connection to Bill Clinton (and to Donald Trump, among others), reporting, “evidence that shows Bill was one of the most famous and frequent passengers on Epstein’s “Lolita Express.” (Note: I’m a big Hillary fan; this story is not about her. I’m voting for her, and so should you!)
I’m not saying any of these connections are related in any way whatsoever to the Times’ absence of coverage of the Child Victims Act. But if the legislation is enacted, a bunch of powerful people might be sleeping fitfully.
Mark Thompson is president and CEO of The NY Times Company . He was previously director-general of the BBC. Thompson has been in the spotlight recently. The Jimmy Savile pedophilia scandal in the UK took place while Thompson headed BBC and Savile was a celebrity performer. A national inquiryinto child sexual abuse is currently taking place in the UK, spurred in part by the Savile story.
There’s no connection between the Thompson-BBC-Savile story and the Child Victims Act, but there is an interesting journalism point to be made: Former Times public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote in her blog in 2012, when Thompson was about to assume his role: “Times Must Aggressively Cover Mark Thompson’s Role in BBC’s Troubles.” Sullivan wrote, “One of the most difficult challenges for news organizations is reporting on what goes on inside their own corporate walls.” Apparently, the challenge persists.
Now that we’ve ruled out any questions about potential conflicts of interest, overlaps, connections, agendas, alliances and allegiances, let’s assume The Times is lily white, the pinnacle of journalistic objectivity and neutrality.
Rhonda Hammer, Ph.D., lecturer at UCLA and winner of the UCLA Women’s Studies Programs Award for Excellence in Teaching, 2007, emailed, “I doubt that there are any experts who would deem the press or news reporting to be objective and/or neutral.”
Hammer reflected on “why the Times has been ‘ignoring,’ this (which is especially questionable given how ‘newsworthy’ this matter and related issues, like the protests, would appear to be).” She added, “It appeared to me that Dean Baquet’s response seemed especially condescending and his comments about what constitutes excellence in journalism (and what he deems as your prejudice) is problematic, especially within the context of the realities of the importance of this issue.”
In talking to journalism professors, “gatekeeping” — what information is important and becomes news — is a gray area and depends on what is considered important, and by whom.
Andrea Press, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Media Studies & Sociology at the University of Virginia said, “It’s a matter of framing. You have to work to help [The Times] recognize the issue as important. It’s possible they just don’t see it as a problem.”
Professor Allen said: “News is a social construction — it is not a natural event. It is nothing more and nothing less than what someone or some group thinks is important at a given time.”
Is news about the Child Victims Act important? I asked attorney Mitchell Garabedian, played by Stanley Tucci in the Spotlight movie.
In a phone call, Garabedian said, “The laws [in New York] are woefully inadequate. They are revictimizing the victim. In order to prevent child sexual abuse, there needs to be a change. There is no reason why due process concerns would be any different from what they are for murder.”
When I asked him why he thought The Times didn’t mention the Child Victims Act or statute of limitations in a recent story about his client Michael Meenan, whose 1984 sex abuse claim was validated by Fordham Prep school, Garabedian said, “I guess they chose not to mention that. I don’t know why.”
The Times published a letter to the editor from New York state Senator Brad Hoylman (who is a co-sponsor of the Child Victims Act and was among the marchers on the Brooklyn Bridge in June): “Justice for Victims of Sexual Abuse” following up on the story about Meenan and Fordham Prep. Underscoring the importance of the proposed legislation.
So where does all this leave us?
Let’s look to next year’s legislative session in New York, when lawmakers will again consider the Child Victims Act. Activist Gary Greenberg has founded Protect NY Kids, seeding the PAC he launched with $100,000 of his retirement funds to support candidates who are running for office and back the Child Victims Act.
Hopefully, next year, The Times will consider news about the Child Victims Act of New York important enough to cover. Professor Press said The Times may have missed coverage of the bill because the U.S. presidential election is taking up so much editorial bandwidth. We’ll be able to rule out that explanation next year.
Survivors need to be seen and heard. We’ve spent generations being silenced, shunted into dark corners, and made invisible. Lives ruined. Ethics professor Michael A. Santoro, co-founder of the Business and Human Rights Journal, said:
“It is difficult for victims of sexual abuse to say ‘I want to be heard.’ So when this heretofore silenced community courageously steps out of the shadows and asks to be heard, we (and that includes The Times) have a special obligation to listen and to not dismiss their pleas.”
Let’s all keep pulling on the threads of this story and watch it unravel.
Nancy Levine is the author of the four-book series beginning with The Tao of Pug (Penguin) has just been released. She spent 30 years in corporate recruiting and human resources roles, starting at American Express Company. More recently, Nancy has devoted herself to advocacy efforts, working to eradicate child sexual abuse and amplifying the voices of survivors. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area