Conscious Capitalism® Issues Statement on Whole Foods CEO Link to Alleged Sex Abuser

Business ethics organization founded by Whole Foods CEO John Mackey releases statement on his ties to former Rabbi Marc Gafni.

Conscious Capitalism, Inc., a nonprofit business ethics organization co-founded by Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, has issued a statement about Mackey’s association with Marc Gafni, a spiritual leader and former rabbi accused of sexual abuse. Mackey’s involvement with Gafni was first reported by The New York Times in December 2015.

The Times reported Gafni describing one of his accusers:

“Mr. Gafni was quoted saying they had been in love. He added, ‘She was 14 going on 35, and I never forced her.’”

The Times also reported:

“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.”

Gafni is the leader of San Francisco Bay Area-based think tank the Center for Integral Wisdom (CIW).

Advocacy leaders from organizations including, Peaceful Hearts Foundation, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), Faculty Against Rape (FAR), the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence (NAESV), and Bay Area Women Against Rape (BAWAR) have been calling for “sexual violence accountability,” urging Mackey to disavow Gafni.

(Peaceful Hearts Foundation, founded by Matthew Sandusky, one of six adopted children of convicted pedophile Jerry Sandusky, former Penn State, football coach. SNAP, featured in the Oscar®-winning movie Spotlight, was instrumental in The Boston Globe’s investigation into widespread child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Founded in 1971, BAWAR was the country’s first rape crisis center.)

Conscious Capitalism’s statement, framed as a letter from co-CEOs Alexander McCobin and Doug Rauch (former president of Trader Joe’s) to their community members, defended Mackey, the organization’s founding board member, saying that criticism of his ties to Gafni has often included “inaccurate and misleading information.

I have been working with advocacy groups to change the culture of sexual violence, and writing about this matter for several online publications. I emailed McCobin and Rauch, asking them to specify what information has been inaccurate or misleading. As of this writing, I have not received a response.

Timeline of items that prompted Conscious Capitalism’s statement:

December 2015:

The New York Times reported Mackey’s involvement with Gafni, as noted above.

January 2016:

The New York Daily News reported Gafni denying allegations. According to the News, Gafni stated his underage accusers in the 1980s, then 13 and 16, were willing partners.

More than 100 rabbis and Jewish leaders, led by New York Rabbi David Ingber, undersigned a petition to Whole Foods: “Stop Marc Gafni from Abusing Again,” citing “many, repeated and serious allegations, both public and private, former and recent.”

Sara Kabakov identified herself as the then-girl whom Gafni described as “14 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.”

March 2016:

I received an email from Rauch, asking if we could talk on the phone.

(I had been following up on The Times story, first writing a guest post in January 2016, “John Mackey and Whole Foods in Spotlight,” for, the site of shareholder activist James McRitchie.)

I interviewed Rauch for an article I was working on for Epic Times; he furnished a statement from Conscious Capitalism, which I included in the article, and subsequently, in a piece for Feminine Collective.

April 2016:

Mackey vacated his position as board chair of Gafni’s center. The Forward reported:

“The Center for Integral Wisdom, writing about its annual conclave, noted that Mackey had left as chairman of the board. A spokesman for Gafni said that Mackey had also left the board, ‘as all previous board chair members do.’”

He added that

‘There was no break between Mackey and Gafni.’”

Rauch emailed me:

“Gafni [sic] seems to be saying that this sexual relationship with this 14-year-old was when he was 19, she was his girlfriend, and it was completely consensual. It wasn’t when he was a Rabbi, he says.”

(According to information furnished by BAWAR, a 14-year-old in this country can not grant consent to having sexual relations with an adult.)

I emailed Whole Foods board members, telling them that advocacy groups were planning a protest, and asked if Mackey wanted to comment.

A Whole Foods spokesperson responded, saying:

“John no longer serves on Mr. Gafni’s board and has no connection to the Center for Integral Wisdom. That being said, there’s nothing else to say on this matter.”

SNAP released a statement, saying:

“We hope it’s true that Mackey’s distancing himself from Gafni. If so, however, we disagree with the public relations staffer who claims ‘there’s nothing else to say on this matter.’”

May 2016:

The Washington Post reported on coordinated protests at Whole Foods stores in New York City and Los Angeles, calling for Mackey to break his silence about his relationship with Gafni.

Matthew Sandusky, who joined protesters in Manhattan, said, as reported by The Post,

“There’s a culture of silence around [child sexual abuse]. I believe Whole Foods has an opportunity to shape that conversation.”

(Coincidentally, Marty Baron is now executive editor at The Washington Post. Baron was previously the editor at The Boston Globe, driving the Spotlight investigation into child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, and was played by Liev Schreiber in the movie Spotlight.)

June 2016:

Mackey’s Whole Foods Market Blog was updated to remove his video interviews with Gafni. Mackey’s blog post states that his involvement with Gafni is “strictly a personal relationship.”

(The latest Conscious Capitalism statement says Mackey “had previously” maintained a personal relationship with Gafni. But Mackey’s blog post indicates he currently maintains a personal relationship with Gafni. I emailed Whole Foods press contacts, as well as McCobin and Rauch, asking which statement is correct. I have not received a response.)

Mackey issued a statement, as reported by the Forward. In it, he said:

“I have known Marc Gafni for several years, and he has continued to tell me that he is innocent of the allegations being made about him. Loyalty and the presumption of innocence are important values to me, so I will not join those who are condemning him.”

November 2016:

35 days after The Washington Post released a video of Donald Trump’s vulgar brag of sexual assault, “Grab them by the p***y,”

Gafni tweeted:

“Donald Trump is an Outrageous Lover”

(In 2015, Donald Trump was a featured speaker at the annual libertarian-themed FreedomFest in Las Vegas, where Mackey and Gafni teamed up as debate partners, and Gafni presented solo: “The Erotic and the Ethical: Next Steps in Libertarian Awakening.”)

December 2016:

An open letter from 130 advocates to board members of Whole Foods and Conscious Capitalism was published by Feminine Collective. Signed by leaders from organizations including Faculty Against Rape (FAR), the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence (NAESV), and Sayfty, founded by Dr. Shruti Kapoor, the letter stated:

“Overlooking Gafni’s public admission minimizes and normalizes sexual violence, and impedes efforts to change the culture. If conscious leadership allows for adjustments to be made when new information becomes available, would Mackey be willing to update his statement about Gafni, and disavow his friend?”

February 2017:

A consortium of advocacy groups organized a protest at Mackey’s keynote speech at Conscious Capitalism Bay Area Chapter in San Francisco. Protesters urged Mackey to disavow Gafni and implored Mackey’s business associates to hold him accountable.

Speakers at the protest included Nikki DuBose, board member of Peaceful Hearts Foundation, as well as survivors/advocates from SNAP, BAWAR, and RAINN Speakers Bureau, a division of the country’s largest anti-sexual violence organization.

A press release for the protest issued by Peaceful Hearts Foundation included comments from industry experts, business and ethics professors who have criticized Mackey’s association with Gafni.

Sandra J. Sucher, Professor of Management Practice, Joseph L. Rice, III Faculty Fellow, Harvard Business School, and author of  The Moral Leader: Challenges, Tools, and Insights said:

“Mackey’s fellow board members of Whole Foods and Conscious Capitalism have a legal duty of care to act in and protect the best interests of their organizations. They need to ask how Mackey’s association with Gafni may affect the reputation of the entities.”

Edward L. Queen  Director, Ethics and Servant Leadership Program, Center for Ethics, Emory University , said:

“The CEO of Whole Foods has managed this horribly. While his latest statement is an improvement in that he finally acknowledges the pain and suffering caused by sexual abuse, he continues to fail to demonstrate the deep thoughtfulness of response these allegations warrant.”

Gafni has never been charged with a crime.

In January, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled a plan for the Child Victims Act, proposed legislation to eliminate the statute of limitations for claims of child sexual abuse.

Sara Kabakov has been lobbying New York lawmakers for an enactment of the bill in the state where she claims Gafni abused her. Advocacy organization the Stop Abuse Campaign and PAC Protect NY Kids have authored a petition to state lawmakers, urging passage of the Child Victims Act; the petition has garnered more than 69,000 signatures.

Andrew Willis, CEO of the Stop Abuse Campaign said:

“New York state’s statute of limitations laws, some of the strictest in the nation, protect sexual predators and not the children they prey on. Whole Foods CEO Mackey’s statement of loyalty to Gafni, who is protected by statutes of limitations, perpetuates the culture of enabling. Mackey should disavow his friend.”

In a blog post titled “Justifying Institutional Enabling,” Bill Murray, founder, and CEO of the National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse (NAASCA) wrote:

“I can only surmise that Mackey has chosen to be in denial…. There is no ‘presumption of innocence’ here. There’s an escape from justice. And it’s an escape that’s available and all too well known by clever predators in New York State.”

Why does this matter?

After Trump’s “locker-room talk” video was released, author Kelly Oxford tweeted:

“Women: tweet me your first assaults.”

Over the course of a weekend, there were nearly 27 million responses, birthing the hashtag #notokay.

As The New York Times reported,

“she was getting as many as 50 responses per minute: often-explicit, first-person accounts of molestation.”

Julie Anderson, creator, and publisher of Feminine Collective wrote in an essay “Why I Won’t Spend $1 at Whole Foods”:

“The facts tell a different story: 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys are victims of child sexual abuse each year. Possibly the most gut-wrenching facts are these: A child who is a victim sexual abuse develops low self-esteem, they feel self-hate and have a distorted view of sex behavior. Children who are victims of sexual assault can and do become suicidal.”

If we have learned anything from the Jerry Sandusky/Penn State and Spotlight stories, it is this: As attorney Mitchell Garabedian — played by Stanley Tucci in Spotlight — said,

“If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”

Advocacy leaders are asking the villagers of Conscious Capitalism to act with conscience and decency, to hold their leaders accountable for changing the culture of sexual violence. From the open letter to board members of Conscious Capitalism:

“Changing the culture of sexual violence is on all of us — we must all hold each other accountable.”

Photo Credit: mdanys Flickr via Compfight cc

  1. Give it a rest. You guys are really beating a dead horse on this one. Just because Mackey knows the guy, and might even be friends with him, does not mean he’s condoning sexual abuse by any stretch of the imagination. You guys are doing more harm than good.

  2. Please don’t ever stop your tireless advocacy. You are the collective memory of a world gone so terribly wrong in addressing child abuse. #Someday


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