SAN FRANCISCO –When leaders of Come As You Are coven (CAYA) released a statement last month announcing that presiding high priestess Yeshe Rabbit had resigned her membership during an investigation into allegations of abuse at her hands, a storm of online discussion ensued. Several former members of CAYA affirmed their experiences, while other individuals staunchly defended Rabbit’s character.
This week, members of four other Pagan groups in the Bay Area (Solar Cross Temple, Strong Roots and Wide Branches, Coru Cathubodua, and Black Rose Witchcraft) released a joint statement of solidarity with the alleged victims. The statement reads in part, “We have watched with concern as word of this misconduct has spread.”
They go on to call the handling of the situation and the reported lack of public clarity or of accountability by “spiritual leaders” and Matthews as “dismissive” and “unacceptable.” The entire statement is available on Facebook. The group ends the statement:
We, the undersigned, believe and support those survivors who have come forward. We strongly encourage the larger community to do so as well.
Since the release of the original CAYA statement, Wild Hunt reporters have been investigating the allegations. Because Rabbit served in an administrative capacity at The Wild Hunt until October 2017, a process was developed to minimize any bias which might arise; the specifics of that process are addressed at the end.
The Come As You Are Pagan congregation, founded in 2007, is a “matriarchal, eclectic, interfaith, open, drop-in congregation in the San Francisco Bay Area,” according to information on the CAYA web site.
“Our mission is to create safe, loving, magic(k)al space for those who wish to participate in our community rituals, public service initiatives, and social events,” and the “community is based on mutual respect, personal responsibility, integrity, and honor for all spiritual paths.”
Yeshe Rabbit was among the founders of the tradition, who dubbed themselves the Elderflowers. Rabbit said that its members “developed a working protocol,” and established a governing council of elders once the community grew. Rabbit served on that council until her resignation from CAYA last autumn.
The group’s rules are documented in an extensive governing manual, in which standards of behavior and procedures for conflict resolution are both addressed in detail.
Allegations arise, details deferred
Rumors and allegations about Rabbit’s leadership surfaced publicly earlier this year, but within the organization the conversation reportedly began last autumn, according to various sources. Earlier still, members of the Pagan community had publicly accused Rabbit of transphobic behavior, an allegation she has denied.
Rabbit and another founding CAYA member who recently resigned, Molly Blue Dawn, have stated that in spite of efforts to have a clear conflict-resolution process, rumor and innuendo ruled.
CAYA council members “got the impression that people [among CAYA membership] were talking, but not to us,” said Blue Dawn, and the council resolved to ask direct questions to the membership to ascertain the problem.
Blue Dawn, who was one of council members tasked with conducting the investigation, found that an unnamed male elder had been conducting his own, private investigation and that the story of exactly what he discovered “changed several times, and didn’t make sense.” The specifics were contained in a document that was never shared with her or most of the other elders, she said.
According to Rabbit’s account, that elder “was censured and removed from a leadership post.”
Statements from CAYA
CAYA elders have reportedly met many times over the concerns raised, which resulted in the February statement. In it “allegations of abuse” against Rabbit were acknowledged, as was the fact that she had resigned during the investigation, resulting in the decision to give her the status of “not in good standing.”
TWH reached out to CAYA elders on Feb. 5. On March 16, the group responded, indicating that it had not yet decided which, if any, questions they would respond.
As of publication, that is still the case.
In a March 19 email to TWH, CAYA elders did respond, saying that, due to “concerns for safety and healing,” they have chosen to not make any further comments at this time, but may do so in the future.
Other groups respond
In April 2017, members of CAYA’s Divine Spiraling Rainbow Tribe, a tradition within the organization, released a statement supporting Rabbit against accusations of transphobia. However, on March 5 of this year, they retracted that statement, saying in part, “We have recently received information concerning multiple allegations of transphobic actions on [Rabbit’s] part that have caused us immeasurable concern. We believe those who have shared their experiences with us. We will protect their confidences and their safety.”
TWH sent several follow-up questions to members of Divine Spiraling Rainbow Tribe at their invitation. As of publication, no response has been received.
Another statement about Rabbit was released on March 17 by members of four Bay Area groups, as indicated above. The statement claims that a number of members “have come forward with substantiated allegations of abuse” which “have been corroborated and added to by many more former members of that community, and others who have past association with [Rabbit].”
On March 19, Pagan elder and blogger Cat Chapin-Bishop publicly asked Solar Cross members how the allegations were corroborated and substantiated, a spokesperson responded:
We did mean to use the word substantiated. Our open letter is not based on rumor and speculation, but on victim testimony. Though the statements are not a matter of public record, people who consulted with us on the letter writing process had access to testimonies and documentation from the victims themselves.
While the consulted individuals were not named in the posted response, page administrators later told TWH that they are among the accusers, and thus their identities were not disclosed.
Bishop responded to Solar Cross:
It’s good to know that you, the signatories, have more detail to go on than statements that say simply, ‘I was emotionally abused’ or ‘I was sexually abused.’ Those are conclusions rather than evidence, even in the mouth of someone who considers herself to be a victim. Of course, the conclusions, together with the fact that you agree with them, are still all we as outsiders have. And they are weighty conclusions—it’s difficult to have such serious allegations remain so vague.
Reporting on the investigation was made difficult by a lack of specific detail provided on record by interviewees, both alleged victims and supporters. A lack of specifics does not necessarily mean that an allegation is false, but can result in it not being substantiated by legal and journalistic standards, making it difficult, if not impossible, to report.
While most of those contacted for the TWH investigation did not supply detail, several former CAYA members did speak with TWH and provided comment.
Iris and Rowan are two former members of CAYA who agreed to speak on record. Iris was one of the founding Elderflowers, while Rowan was among the first initiates, dubbed Wildflowers. Rowan recalled that initially joining CAYA felt like “coming home.” To Iris, creating that sort of space was precisely what she was after in helping to found the group.
Rowan said that she “threw herself into the work” of CAYA, learning and serving, and that strengthened her friendship with Rabbit. “There were little flags which are easy to see in retrospect,” she said, signs which she might have taken as warnings, but did not at the time. These included “weird expectations of unquestioning loyalty” that “didn’t sit right” with her, but she dismissed those concerns.
“I should have trusted my instincts,” she said.
One guiding motto in CAYA, Rowan said, is “more than just work friends.” She admitted to TWH that CAYA was a group of people who not only worshiped together but also babysat, helped move, and generally formed a social sphere. That was exactly what she wanted.
However, both Rowan and Iris stated that Rabbit blurred the lines between friendship and being her subordinate. That made it difficult, by Rowan’s account, to “tease out the unhealthy parts” of the relationship.
What gradually unfolded, according to Rowan, was a transition from “we are all in this together with many leaders” to Rabbit being the only voice. She said that Rabbit had an influence “born of manipulation,” rather than actual authority.
They tended not to have friends outside the group simply because there was no time for other relationships, according to their accounts. When Iris did eventually leave, she said that she found herself cut off from all of her friends.
Rowan and Iris both agreed that the situation was not always problematic. Iris said that 2016 is the time frame when this type of targeting began to ramp up.
In 2017, Rowan and Iris, who were both on the council at the time, resigned from CAYA. According to both of their accounts, it was due to that “unhealthy” relationship. Iris was the first of the pair to resign, and Rowan said that she was then witness to what she called a smear campaign against Iris by Rabbit. This is one of points that led her to bring up her concerns to the elders council, she said.
Rowan and Iris also state that CAYA has no established protocols for addressing the type of abuse of which Rabbit has reportedly been accused. They said that they are skeptical that she has not been advised of the internal allegations. Rowan said that she gave specific permission for her emailed list of infractions to be shared with Rabbit.
Both Rowan and Iris have been speaking publicly about the situation, but they said that speaking publicly elicits strong feelings of guilt, and Iris explained that guilt is the reason it took her so long to leave.
Part of the guilt, they said, comes from the fact that the rituals and work done in CAYA did benefit people, and those individuals were getting the short end of the stick without having done anything to deserve it.
Rabbit has responded publicly to the accusations against her since February when the initial statement was release. She told TWH in a Feb. 4 interview, “To date, although I have asked for this information repeatedly, CAYA’s council has never provided me with a list of the ‘allegations’ against me.”
She claimed that she first heard about this via an email list. She said “I refuted it, and then recused myself from any follow-up on the issue.”
When asked why she resigned during the internal investigation, Rabbit said, “Once it became clear to me that CAYA’s actual governing protocols were not being followed, and I became aware of a growing campaign of gossip about me, I no longer felt safe in CAYA.”
Since the news of allegations became public, Rabbit has continued to deny wrongdoing.
On Feb. 26, Rabbit sent an invitation via email for conflict resolution or mediation to CAYA leaders. In that email, Rabbit proposed that the situation be mediated by four outside elders, two selected by each side according to certain specifications, and that those elders be provided a stipend for that work to be split between Rabbit and the CAYA coffers.
Rabbit said, “I was motivated to try again to seek mediation because I feel that personal agendas and egos are running this process, rather than cooler heads prevailing.” She asserts that no response was ever received to that request.
When TWH asked CAYA for comment on the mediation request, a spokesperson said that the matter had not yet been taken up because Rabbit’s proposal arrived while the group was holding a retreat.
Former CAYA member and founder weighs in
Molly Blue Dawn resigned March 7 and released a public statement of her own several weeks later.
Blue Dawn said that the reason the original February CAYA statement was released was due to rumor. “We were hearing rumors that ‘something’ would happen at PantheaCon,” she said.
According to Blue Dawn, her own decision to resign from the organization was led by people being attached to a story that she could not verify. “If I don’t agree with them, it seems I’m trying to silence someone, [but] I feel like I’m one of those being silenced.”
She expressed frustration with the process. “We weren’t hiding any information,” she said. “We had none.”
Blue Dawn published her personal Facebook statement March 20 in response to the March 17 group statement. “Others seem to think they have substantiation and corroboration, but I haven’t seen what it might be,” she said. “I don’t know if they have information, or if they’re just under the impression that they do.”
Because Blue Dawn has no Facebook account, a friend posted her statement on the social media platform. Some commenters have expressed skepticism.
At this year’s Paganicon, Rabbit was slated to participate on a panel discussing the creation of safe communities, but that did not occur. After someone reportedly posted information about the allegations on the conference’s Facebook page Feb. 2, organizers reached out to CAYA leaders seeking clarification.
According to Paganicon spokesperson Becky Munson, the CAYA board declined to respond.
In an interview with TWH on Feb. 6, Munson said that the only additional messages to the Paganicon board at that point had been ones of support for Rabbit.
Rabbit withdrew from the conference.
As of publication, there has been no mediation between parties. A CAYA spokesperson has told TWH that the elder council will be in touch when it is ready to share their story.
The Wild Hunt will continue to follow and report this story.
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Wild Hunt process in production of this article
Yeshe Rabbit was the business development director for The Wild Hunt for two years. She helped to establish back-end processes, to manage the fundraiser, and to establish essential corporate structure when TWH had none. She also created and managed writer contracts and helped word policy language. Rabbit did not have an editorial role or content supervisory role. However, her involvement with TWH has necessitated the creation of processes for covering stories in which current and former TWH personnel are central.
In accordance with the new process, editors gathered information for the investigation, with one taking the lead on writing the story. Three editors reviewed the piece, after which it was referred to and reviewed by an independent journalist and news editor completely unaffiliated with The Wild Hunt or any of the individuals involved in the story. This process will remain in place in order to ensure the most objective outcome in reporting on any subject, even when it involves a current or former TWH team member.