On Jean Vanier and Being Abused by a 'Hero'
When the news about Jean Vanier popped up on my phone, I gasped out loud.
I honestly thought that no new revelations could surprise me at this point, but I was wrong. This news hit like a punch in the gut.
For those who aren’t aware, Jean Vanier was the founder of L’Arche, an international organization of communities for people with intellectual disabilities. These communities are often acclaimed as a revolutionary approach to honoring the gifts of every human person; they been life-changing for people from around the globe. Vanier himself was a Catholic philosopher and theologian, whose wisdom and spiritual guidance won the love and admiration of Catholics and non-Catholics alike. He was a recipient of numerous prestigious awards around the word and was even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Long before his death in 2019, people were already hailing him as a saint.
The recent announcement about Vanier took me by surprise. Until Friday night, I had heard nothing about the suspicions surrounding Vanier in recent years. Now I know that Vanier's mentor and spiritual father Father Thomas Philippe was known to have emotionally and sexually abused adult women and had been banned from ministry by the Catholic Church in 1956. I now know that Vanier was lying in 2015 when he publicly denied any knowledge of the reason for the sanctions against Philippe. I also know that Vanier allowed Philippe to continue to minister within the L’Arche community for decades after these sanctions, possibly enabling further abuse. And that’s only on the beginning.
One brave woman came forward in 2016 with a story about spiritual and sexual abuse by Vanier. At the time, Vanier admitted the relationship but said that he believed it had been “reciprocal.” When a second woman made similar allegations in March 2019, shortly before Vanier’s death, the L’Arche community decided to launch an investigation into their celebrated founder. The results, which were released on February 22, are devastating.
We now know that Vanier engaged in “coercive sexual relationships” with a series of young women throughout his years of ministry. The stories of abuse sound very similar to those of his mentor Fr. Philippe. Both men used mystical, spiritual language to describe the sexual encounters, convincing their victims that the abuse was somehow holy and willed by God. In the report released to the public (redacted to protect the identities of the victims), women describe Vanier’s manipulation under the guise of spiritual accompaniment, a disturbing pattern of gaining trust and grooming victims for sexual advances. The women tell stories of sexual touching intermingled with prayer and spiritual guidance. When one woman expressed confusion over these actions and a desire to seek Jesus, Vanier reassured her: “But Jesus and myself, this is not two, but we are one... It is Jesus who loves you through me.” To another woman, he proclaimed: “This is not us, this is Mary and Jesus. You are chosen, you are special, this is secret.” You can read the report yourself for more details, if you think you can stomach them.
Much has already been written on these revelations (I found this reflection particularly poignant), and I’m sure much more will be written in the coming days. Personally, I’m still in a bit of shock, and it’s hard to know what to say, beyond a plaintive cry of “Oh no, not him too.”
However, I have spent much of the last year listening to and learning from survivors, so my mind goes instantly to those women - people of faith who came to Vanier seeking spiritual guidance, trusting he would care for their souls. After their abuse, they had to endure years of watching people praise their abuser and laud him as a real-life hero.
Reading even a few excerpts from these women’s accounts is devastating, but there is one line that I just can’t get out of my head: “I realised that Jean Vanier was adored by hundreds of people, like a living Saint, that he talked about how he helped victims of sexual abuse, it appeared like a camouflage and I found it difficult to raise the issue.”
What must it be like to be abused by a hero, by a “living saint”? The report gives a small hint with these lines: “All of the women described how the behavior had a subsequent long-lasting, negative impact on their personal lives and inter-personal and/or spousal relationships. Most of the women have received psychosocial support for years to overcome the consequences of the abuse they described.” I’m sure that behind this matter-of-fact description lie messy, painful stories, made more complicated by the fact that the man who victimized them was being held up as a hero. I imagine that at least some of these women were conflicted about telling their stories, concerned that revealing the dark side of Vanier would tarnish the legitimate good done by today’s L’Arche communities.
And what is it like for these women today, now that their stories are public? The women are all anonymous in this report. Perhaps in the coming months, one or more of them will come forward publicly; perhaps not. But it’s likely that the survivors are reading the news reports and watching what people are saying and doing in response.
I hope that these brave women can understand those who admired Vanier and are simply devastated by the news. I hope these women don’t scroll through the comment threads to see people doubting their stories and questioning their motives. I hope these women have families and friends who are standing with them and offering support throughout this painful process. Most of all, I hope these women know that we believe them.
There is one small glimmer of light I see in this darkness:
The letters from both the international and United States offices of L’Arche take a tone that is refreshingly honest and survivor-centered, in comparison to the defensive statements we often hear in response to institutional scandal.
The letter from L’Arche’s international leaders includes these powerful lines: “Although the results of our research and this investigation affect us deeply, both individually and collectively, we have a duty to those who have been hurt by these events and a duty to ourselves; L’Arche will not have a future if we are not able to look at our past with clear eyes. What we learn today is a huge blow and a cause of great confusion but what we lose in certainty, we hope to gain in terms of maturity, and to step into the future of L’Arche with greater justice, insight and freedom. We want to pay tribute to the women who gave us their testimony. As leaders in L’Arche, our job is not to protect ourselves against painful truths, but to be faithful to the principles that guide us and to affirm ‘the unique value of each person.’ We recognize the courage and suffering of these women, and of those who may remain silent.”
L’Arche’s United States leader echoes this tone at the beginning of her letter: “It is with a mix of pain and resolve that I share with you the results of the independent inquiry that L’Arche International launched in the summer of 2019. Pain, because of the suffering of innocent lives. Pain, because of the hurt that it might create in you, members and friends. Resolve, because truth matters. Resolve, because the value of every person matters. Always. Unconditionally. Particularly when marginalized and silenced for many years.” This focus on the victims remains through the letter’s conclusion: “We acknowledge the incredible courage of the witnesses who testified during this investigation. The bravery of these women calls us to recognize the importance of truth-telling and its alignment with our core values. While many questions will yet be answered in the coming months and years, we stand today on the side of those who have been harmed.”
Let us pray today for the brave women who carry the scars of this abuse
but still had the courage to speak the truth.
Let us also beg God for the wisdom and strength
to always stand on the side of those who have been harmed.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, save your people.