Gravity Board’s Summary of Third Party Inquiry Findings

This post is an update to our previous statement on June 14, 2020 in relation to allegations of misconduct made against Chris Heuertz. The Board of Directors of Gravity, a Center for Contemplative Activism (“Gravity”), requested an inquiry conducted by an independent third party. That inquiry has concluded and in the spirit of transparency we would like to present the findings.

On June 1, 2020, a letter was sent to Brené Brown’s team alleging Chris committed sexual misconduct, psychological and spiritual abuse, and other forms of inappropriate behavior during the final years of his tenure at Word Made Flesh (“WMF”). Brené and her team requested the removal of her foreword from Chris’ book, The Enneagram of Belonging, and removed an episode of her podcast recorded with Chris. Brené then issued a public statement on June 17, 2020 that seemed to affirm the vague and largely unsubstantiated allegations.

On June 10, 2020, these allegations were made public through a Medium blog post. The accusations in the blog post were both sweeping and vague.

In response, Chris published a statement on June 12, 2020 in which he acknowledged three specific incidents of inappropriate behavior during his tenure at WMF. Those incidents were known, investigated and responded to by the Board of Directors at WMF. They were also known to the Board of Directors of Gravity. The accusations in the Medium blog post did not accurately reflect the circumstances of those three incidents, which occurred from 8 to 13 years ago.

With the intent to remain transparent, to guarantee unbiased reporting, and to ensure the perspectives and accounts of all had the opportunity to be heard, we, as the Board of Directors of Gravity, determined the best way to get clarity on the allegations made was to commission an independent third party inquiry. After reaching out to three potential firms, we hired attorney Susan K. Sapp of Cline Williams on Friday, June 19, 2020 to begin the inquiry. Ms. Sapp has over 30 years of legal experience, including a civil trial practice, with a focus on, among other things, labor and employment issues. Ms. Sapp has no personal or financial ties to, or conflicts of interest with, Chris, Gravity or the staff. What follows is consistent with the findings shared with the Board of Directors of Gravity at the conclusion of Ms. Sapp’s inquiry.

The scope of Ms. Sapp’s inquiry was to determine the following:

  1. Whether or not evidence supports the occurrence of the complained about behaviors while Chris was employed at WMF;
  2. Whether Chris engaged in more inappropriate behaviors than those reported to the WMF Board;
  3. What actions the WMF Board took in response to the situations of which it was aware;
  4. Whether any of the behaviors were illegal; and
  5. Whether any of the same or similar complained about behaviors have occurred while Chris has been employed at Gravity.

Over the course of Ms. Sapp’s inquiry, she interviewed 15 people, including former employees of WMF, current employees of WMF, past Board members of WMF who were on the Board at relevant time periods, former employees of Gravity, and current employees of Gravity. Her interviews also included both Chris and Phileena Heuertz, separately, without the other present.

Ms. Sapp also attempted to interview as many people related specifically to the online allegations as she could. She reached out to more than a dozen people who were directly or indirectly identified in the various social media posts on Twitter and Facebook, the letter to Brené Brown, and the Medium blog post specifically. However, she encountered a surprising unwillingness to speak with her among the people determined to be part of the complainant group. 

None of these individuals would agree to meet with Ms. Sapp or provide any corroborating information, under any terms, including promises of confidentiality and anonymity. In addition to this outreach, Ms. Sapp attempted to research as much as possible online and in social media, but when she requested communication through these channels, she was blocked by people who were closely associated with the complainants. Ms. Sapp observed that the complainants had numerous posts on Twitter and other social media forums, making similar broad brush but unsubstantiated allegations against Chris and Phileena.

Ms. Sapp was also able to review a significant level of Chris’ personal and professional correspondence, various WMF Board communications with Chris, WMF Board Minutes, and correspondence among WMF Board members between 2007-2012. This includes material that has not been shared publicly. Additionally, Ms. Sapp was able to study and review in detail the Medium blog post, the notes and documentation of the nearly 100 co-signers, the letter to Brené Brown, Brené’s public response, Chris’ public response, the June 12, 2020 statement from current WMF Executive Director Clint Baldwin, the December 10, 2012 statement from then WMF Board Member Robert Mabrey upon the Heuertz’ departure from WMF, and hundreds of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram posts.

Ms. Sapp is confident that with these sources of information, she has been able to assess the veracity of the allegations in the blog post regarding Chris’ behavior at WMF; discern what, if anything, has taken place during Chris’ leadership of Gravity; and otherwise sort through the various allegations without assistance from the primary complainants.

Ms. Sapp did determine, as Chris has acknowledged, that three separate incidents of an inappropriate relationship occurred between 2007-2012, only one of which involved a subordinate employee. Ms. Sapp found that while there was merit to the contention of inappropriate behavior with three women while Chris was employed at WMF, there was no evidence of any complaints regarding spiritual or psychological abuse or sexually predatory behavior. There was a crossing of healthy boundaries, but it appears to have been consensual, it did not involve sexual intercourse, and does not appear to have any elements of quid pro quo.

Ms. Sapp further found that there is no truth to the contention that the Board failed to take action at WMF. The Board of WMF took steps to correct Chris’ behavior in response to all three events. Reasonable actions were taken and there is no basis to “re-litigate” events that occurred 8-13 years ago and were handled in the best judgment of the WMF board at that time.

Contrary to the allegations that Chris never apologized or acknowledged “this part of his story,” Ms. Sapp confirmed that there is documentation of apologies extended and forgiveness independently offered to Chris in two of the situations. In the third situation, an apology was sent through a trusted intermediary, who had initially reported the issue to the WMF Board. There is no evidence it was either accepted or rejected; however, after the apology, the intermediary communicated via email on May 19, 2010 to Sarah Baldwin, who was WMF Board Chair at the time (and wife of WMF’s current Executive Director, Clint Baldwin, neither of whom would respond to requests for interviews during the inquiry): “Thank you for faithfully working on this – for not trivializing it. I delight to watch Chris’ ministry blossom and grow.” Sarah, in communicating this message to Chris, emailed him on May 19, 2010, saying: “I hope that you experience this as closure.”

In her research for this inquiry, Ms. Sapp also found that various social media posts related to the Medium post have accused Chris of “sexual violence” and “sexual assault.” In this regard, Ms. Sapp determined that there was no evidence that sexual assault or sexual violence had ever occurred at WMF, Gravity, or elsewhere for that matter.

Further, in investigating the working conditions of WMF, she found that much of the complainants’ issues regarding “financial indebtedness” had to do with the financial system of raising their own support, and receiving low pay in an effort to reduce the disparity between WMF staff members and the poor communities they worked among. In describing this, Ms. Sapp concluded that none of this amounted to “spiritual or psychological abuse,” nor was this business model that led to so much discontent the responsibility of Chris and Phileena, but that it had existed prior to their arrival at WMF and was perpetuated by the WMF Board. The requirement that staff raise their own support and pay back the organization any shortfall in their support account, often resulted in a situation where paying the organization back was required, even after a departure. In fact, this was the business model Chris and Phileena functioned under during their tenure at WMF as well, and likewise were required to pay back an overdrawn amount on their support account.

The nature of the Medium post has made it unclear just how many alleged victims there are, but it is clear that many people in social media have assumed that the 33 men and women referenced in the Medium post are among them. In this regard, Ms. Sapp concluded that there is no support for the contention that there were “33 victims” of the behavior described in the Medium post or other social media posts.

Finally, contrary to allegations that “the board of directors finally asked Chris to leave,” and there was a “great deal of secrecy and misinformation [that] surrounded Chris’ dismissal so that even those who were in leadership remain confused about the details,” the inquiry revealed that the Board of Directors at WMF were fully aware of the circumstances of Chris’ departure. Chris officially tendered his resignation to the WMF Board of Directors, and in consultation with the Board of Directors, Chris transitioned into a different paid role for a period of almost nine months following his resignation, until Phileena later resigned as well. In WMF Board Member Robert Mabrey’s 2012 public letter upon their resignation, this was acknowledged, saying, “Though they will no longer serve as the International Co-Executive Directors of WMF, they will both remain part of the community in reimagined roles that are better aligned with their evolving vocational passions. By now you have probably heard of the new ministry venture they are starting, with Word Made Flesh’s financial support, which is Gravity, a Center for Contemplative Activism. Over the next year they will imagine what the Center can become and together we will discern the relationship the Center will have with Word Made Flesh as we all move forward on our journeys.”

Ms. Sapp further concluded that there is no evidence of any conduct consistent with the allegations while at Gravity. Ms. Sapp was able to speak with nearly all of the past and current employees and interns of Gravity and found that they speak very fondly of Phileena and Chris. None of them reported being manipulated, abused, subjected to unhealthy crossing of boundaries or grooming behaviors. They said there were no inappropriate jokes or flirtations and that there was no chaos, confusion, self-doubt, tokenism, manipulation, or bullying. They felt supported and encouraged by both Chris and Phileena and all except one were “shocked” by the allegations when they heard them.

It is clear that there remains much pain and hurt surrounding the final years of Chris’ nearly twenty-year tenure as an employee at WMF. We are hopeful that there may be an opportunity for healing to occur, and we affirm Marion Gilbert’s invitation in her post “A Call for Reconciliation”. Chris and Phileena have expressed their commitment to reconciliation with those willing, and we offer our full support for efforts made to that end.

In light of the findings of our inquiry, and as it pertains to our fiduciary obligation to Gravity, we consider this matter concluded and we look forward to continuing the important work of the organization going forward.

For questions, please contact inquiries@gravitycenter.com