Jean Vanier, a fall from grace

Vanier was a giant of a man, physically and spiritually; or at least he appeared to be. Perhaps you have read his books, and know the L’Arche story.

He was a man who spoke eloquently about human dignity, especially the dignity of the disabled. Where others saw troublesome people with no place in the world, he saw wonder and beauty…and did something about it.

He was an inspiring figure, the winner of many awards – and, he was a fraud.

Over the weekend, L’Arche announced credible allegations that Vanier sexually abused at least six adult women between 1970 and 2005. (None of them, L’Arche insists, were disabled.)

The leaders of L’Arche International, admitted in a letter to their members:

“For many of us, Jean was one of the people we loved and respected the most. Jean inspired and comforted many people around the world … and we are aware that this information will cause many of us, both inside and outside L’Arche, deep confusion and pain. While the considerable good he did throughout his life is not in question, we will nevertheless have to mourn a certain image we may have had of Jean and of the origins of L’Arche.”

As with all these stories, there may be worse to come.After all, his mentor was the sexual predator Father Thomas Phillippe – crucial in his spiritual formation and never disowned by Vanier.

‘Unfortunately,’ says Michael Cook, editor of Mercatornet newsletter, which I use in this piece, ‘this man was, to be blunt, a sexual monster masquerading as saint. “When one arrives at perfect love, everything is lawful, for there is no more sin,” he would tell his victims.

Some women complained about him in the early 1950s, around the time that Vanier was exploring his vocation.

Remarkably, (excuse my surprise) the Vatican reacted swiftly. The priest was tried within the Church and forbidden to carry out any public or private ministry: no celebration of the sacraments, no spiritual direction, and no preaching.

Vanier was fully informed about the Vatican’s decision – but ignored it. Notwithstanding strict instructions, Father Philippe kept up a clandestine correspondence with Vanier. In one letter cited by the investigators he even instructed him on how to groom a particular woman. The report concludes:

‘Because Jean Vanier did not denounce the theories and practices of Father Thomas Philippe of which Jean Vanier was personally aware as early as the 1950s, it was possible, for Father Thomas Philippe to continue his sexual abuse of women in L’Arche and it allowed Father Thomas Philippe to expand his spiritual influence on founders and members of other communities.’

Not only did he abuse women; but by his silence Vanier enabled others’ abuse as well. So what Vanier did for the disabled was brilliant; and the way he treated women was appalling.

Many who trusted Jean Vanier will now be confused – cynical, even. ‘Who or what is there to believe in now?’

I celebrate the fact that the women have been able to speak of it at last, for they are the most important people in this story. They no longer have to bow to the mistaken public image of their abuser; but can name this abuse of power for what it was – self-gratification at the expense of others.

It is the beginning of freedom.

And the rest of us? Amid the rubble of a reputation now in ruins, we will pick our way carefully. This being human is a cracked and speckled business; we know that better than anyone.

And goodness itself is not in ruins – just a reputation.

Pulling back from the particular to the general, I’m for honouring those we meet; but not trusting them. The psychological fractures are just too deep. 

Trust is an unfair burden to lay on anyone; particularly those with power, which very few can handle.

In the end, this is not a ‘sex’ story – but a ‘power’ story. So keep your eyes open, your heart free from adulation – and remember the victims.

They are the ones who matter here; and they will help us back to goodness.


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