A man venerated in Catholic circles and beyond is alleged to have sexually abused six women over the course of decades, according to an internal report commissioned by the charity that he founded.
Jean Vanier, a Canadian who founded the nonprofit L’Arche to serve adults with intellectual disabilities, and who died last year at age 90, engaged in “manipulative and emotionally abusive” sexual relationships with at least six women under the guise of providing spiritual guidance, according to a report conducted by L’Arche and released on its website Saturday.
Between 1970 and 2005, Vanier allegedly exerted a “psychological hold” over his alleged victims, all women living in France, and none of whom had disabilities themselves. The report does not conclude whether there were additional alleged victims beyond the six who came forward and detailed their abuse.
“The women each report that Jean Vanier initiated sexual behaviours with them, usually in the context of spiritual accompaniment. Some of these women have been deeply wounded by these experiences,” reads a summary of the report released by L’Arche International. The report found the allegations to be “credible.”
“Jean Vanier asked each of the women to keep the nature of these events secret,” the summary goes on to read. “They had no prior knowledge of each other’s experiences, but these women reported similar facts associated with highly unusual spiritual or mystical explanations used to justify these sexual behaviours.”
The investigation commenced in 2019, shortly before Vanier’s death. It was conducted by GCPS, a British consultancy focusing on abuse prevention.
The organization’s international leaders, Stephan Posner and Stacy Cates-Carney, condemned Vanier’s alleged actions in a statement on Saturday.
“We are shocked by these discoveries and unreservedly condemn these actions, which are in total contradiction with the values Jean Vanier claimed and are incompatible with the basic rules of respect and integrity of persons, and contrary to the fundamental principles on which L’Arche is based,” they wrote.
As of midday on Saturday, the L’Arche website was demonstrating an error notice. The website for the Jean Vanier Association, which was dedicated to upholding his memory, displayed a message that its “website will be closed until further notice.”
The allegations also include revelations about a cover up
Referred to as a “savior of people on the margins” in his New York Times obituary, Vanier founded L’Arche in 1963 to create group homes and communities for people with intellectual disabilities. Today, that Catholic organization operates 154 communities in 38 countries. A fellow organization, Faith and Light, which operates as an ecumenical Christian organization, operates 1,500 communities in 83 countries.
But the obituary makes no note of the man who Vanier identified as his “spiritual mentor,” Thomas Philippe, who was sanctioned by Church authorities and removed from ministry in the 1950s. According to America magazine, a Catholic outlet, Vanier’s alleged behavior “mirrored” that of Philippe, who died in 1993; Vanier had repeatedly denied that he knew of Philippe’s abuses, but the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, which promotes Church doctrine, directed that Vanier be informed of Philippe’s sanctioning in 1956.
“But the new investigation reveal that was not true,” writes America’s Michael J. O’Loughlin in a explainer of the men’s relationship and allegations against them. The L’Arche report states explicitly that Vanier “lied. He was aware of his mentor’s behaviors,” and even adopted code names to communicate with his disgraced mentor.
Philippe’s behavior is part of what sparked L’Arche’s investigation into its internal culture. But broader questions about how abuse can be institutionally fostered has been a painful source of reckoning within many Catholic organizations in light of ongoing investigations into sexual abuse by priests.
This reckoning extends beyond Catholicism and into other religious orders, wrote Vivienne Faul, the Bishop of Bristol — a position within the Church of England, not the Catholic church — on Twitter: “We need to learn what it is that produces and protects such abusers within the Christian church.”
Thinking of those who had the courage to disclose, all those who have been part of the L’Arche community and all those who have been betrayed. But we need to learn what it is that produces and protects such abusers within the Christian church— Bishopviv (@Bishopviv1) February 22, 2020
Vanier’s story overlaps somewhat with reports about clerical abuse: although he was not a priest, which meant that sexual activity was not forbidden to him, the report said that he did not take action when alleged victims of his mentor, Philippe, shared information about their experiences with him. In this way, he allegedly helped to cover up abuses taking place — even as he went on to commit similar abuses, of power and of people, himself.
Independent of his celebrity within religious circles, the narrative described in the report would seem to place Vanier in a position that is a familiar one in the age of #MeToo: a man of power who leveraged his authority to engage in coercive sexual experiences.
Now many who admired him are left to question how to reconcile the good works that he did with the person the report finds he was in his personal life.
“A terrible tragedy for those who were abused,” wrote James Martin, a priest and editor-at-large for America magazine. “A time of deep sorrow for L’Arche and all its many members. A grave disappointment for all who admired him, and considered him a saint, as I once did.”