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Michael J. O’LoughlinFebruary 22, 2020
Jean Vanier, founder of the L'Arche communities, appears in the documentary "Summer in the Forest." (CNS photo/Abramorama)Jean Vanier, founder of the L'Arche communities, appears in the documentary "Summer in the Forest." (CNS photo/Abramorama)

When Jean Vanier, the charismatic founder of a global network of institutions serving adults with physical and intellectual disabilities, died last May, tributes poured in from around the world, with The New York Times describing him in an obituary as a “savior of people on the margins.” Less than a year later, one of the communities he founded, L’Arche, finds itself confronting troubling details of Mr. Vanier’s past, including his participation in a shadowy group with ties to a priest accused of sexual and spiritual abuse, lies related to what Mr. Vanier knew about that priest and allegations from women who say Mr. Vanier engaged in similar behavior over several decades.

In a report that will soon be released conducted by L’Arche, Mr. Vanier is accused of sexual misconduct with six adult, non-disabled women who sought spiritual direction from the late activist, author and philosopher. According to a press release from L’Arche USA, the investigation “reveals that Jean Vanier himself has been accused of manipulative sexual relationships and emotional abuse between 1970 and 2005, usually within a relational context where he exercised significant power and a psychological hold over the alleged victims.”

According to the release, the inquiry “has found the allegations to be credible.”

According to L’Arche USA, an investigation “reveals that Jean Vanier himself has been accused of manipulative sexual relationships and emotional abuse between 1970 and 2005.”

“Independently from one another, the witnesses describe similar occurrences, which had a long-lasting and negative impact on their personal lives and subsequent relationships.”

The investigation, commissioned by L’Arche International in 2019 shortly before Mr. Vanier’s death, found that Mr. Vanier engaged in unethical and abusive behavior with the women that mirrored the abusive behavior committed by his spiritual mentor and an early advisor to his organizations, the Rev. Thomas Philippe, who died in 1993.

While the report found no instances of abuse of those served by Mr. Vanier’s ministries, those who admire him must now grapple with how the founder of L’Arche, a man praised by popes and politicians for his humanitarian work, could for decades lie about his connection to an abusive priest while engaging in similar behavior himself. “I can’t wrap my head around it,” Tina Bovermann, the national leader for L’Arche USA, said in an interview with America. She is not alone in trying to make sense of this seeming paradox.

Mr. Vanier wrote publicly in 2015 about the revelations of abuse committed by his spiritual mentor, whose wisdom and dedication to the disabled he said had inspired his own life of service. He put his feelings this way: “I am unable to peacefully reconcile these two realities.”

Officials with L'Arche USA report that they are unaware of similar allegations within L'Arche in the United States, adding that “we encourage anyone who has experienced or witnessed abusive behavior of any kind within L'Arche to report their concern.”

L’Arche USA officials add: “It goes without saying that these revelations are shocking and saddening. We strongly condemn any behavior that violates the emotional and physical integrity of others.

“At L’Arche, dignity matters: we believe in the inherent value of every human being. We are determined to reflect on what we believed to be true about L’Arche’s founder and L’Arche’s founding story.” The officials add: “We remain committed, as always, to safeguarding all of our members, with and without intellectual disabilities, here in the U.S. today. A comprehensive safeguarding initiative is currently being implemented as part of our continuing commitment to these core values.”

A 2008 article in America described Mr. Vanier as a “celibate spiritual leader who is not a priest,” though he led retreats, authored many books about faith and spirituality and engaged in spiritual counseling. It was through that spiritual direction, the report says, that Mr. Vanier met young women with whom he engaged in years-long sexual relationships. Mr. Vanier maintained that the relationships were consensual, but the women say they were vulnerable and that Mr. Vanier abused his position and authority.

The L’Arche founder’s behavior seemed to repeat the pattern of abuse initiated by his mentor, according to the investigation. Father Philippe had been Mr. Vanier’s “spiritual father,” who inspired him to begin his ministry with disabled people. The pair met in 1950, when Mr. Vanier, then in his 20s, joined L’Eau Vive, a community for theology students in France founded by Father Philippe. Two years later, Father Philippe was called to Rome and removed from ministry, ostensibly for unspecified health reasons.

Some scholars suggest that Father Philippe was removed from ministry then because “for his unorthodoxy and exaggerated Marian mysticism, which was based on an experience he had in prayer in 1937.” That theology appears to have been used in Father Philippe’s promotion of sexual practices in his spiritual counseling.

According to L’Arche: “At least a decade before the founding of L’Arche, Jean Vanier was made aware of the fact that Father Thomas Philippe, his spiritual director, had emotionally and sexually abused adult women without disabilities. This abuse happened in the context of Philippe's spiritual direction in 1951/1952.”

Mr. Vanier had maintained for years that he did not know why Father Philippe had been removed from ministry in 1952. In 2015, he wrote in a letter that he was “overwhelmed and shocked” upon learning about the accusations made against his former spiritual mentor. He wrote that “a few years ago” he was made aware of certain allegations but added that he had “remained totally in the dark as to the depth of their gravity” until 2015. But the new investigation reveal that was not true.

According to the report: “It is common knowledge that Philippe was banned from exercising any public or private ministry in a trial conducted by the Catholic Church in 1956. Jean Vanier repeatedly and publicly stated that he did not know why Philippe was convicted. We now know that Jean Vanier lied. He was aware of his mentor’s behaviors.”

Father Philippe continued to serve as a mentor to Mr. Vanier, and by 1963, he had been restored to ministry. He served as the chaplain at a home for men with intellectual disabilities in the French town of Trosly-Breuil. Mr. Vanier visited and Father Philippe urged him to respond to the feelings that he was meant to engage in similar work.

This encouragement led Mr. Vanier to establish what would become the first L’Arche community, a small home he shared with two developmentally disabled men. Father Philippe served as the chaplain of this community until his death in 1993. (Father Philippe’s brother, the Rev. Marie-Dominique Philippe, founded a religious movement in France in 1975. In 2013, the community announced it had been made aware that Father Marie-Dominique had sexually abused several adult women and helped hide the abuse of his brother, Father Thomas.)

The investigation by L’Arche found that Mr. Vanier knew about Father Philippe’s behavior. In fact, Mr. Vanier had been named in the report about Father Philiippe. The priest was told not to communicate with Mr. Vanier and a number of other young adults who studied with him at L’Eau Vive.

To get around these restrictions, the new report found, Mr. Vanier and the others adopted code names when sending letters to one another and met discreetly to learn from Father Philippe. Mr. Vanier, according to the press release, “shared sexual practices, similar to those of Philippe, with several women.”

In a letter written in 2015 to the Paris-based L’Arche network, the organization acknowledged that Father Philippe had been placed under canonical sanctions limiting his ministry in 1956, before L’Arche was founded.

A later investigation determined the sanctions were “related to inappropriate behaviour by Père Thomas during spiritual accompaniment; behaviour which would have led to several women pressing charges against him.” Then in 2014, the organization learned that a number of adult women without disabilities reported “seriously inappropriate sexual gestures during spiritual accompaniment.”

A church-led investigation reported in 2015 concluded that Father Philippe was the “perpetrator of abusive sexual behaviour towards adult women.” The priest had defended his actions, saying “he sought to uncover and communicate a mystical experience.”

“No matter how much good Père Thomas has done, for which many are grateful, these acts and their justification are proof of a distorted conscience that claimed many known, and no doubt unknown, victims for whom justice must be done,” the report said.

In the years following that report, leaders at L’Arche initiated an internal investigation into the culture at the organization. In June 2019, the organization wrote in a letter that it was undertaking an external audit of its history in order to understand “how Father Thomas was able to commit these abuses.”

As part of the review, the L’Arche sought answers to “questions about the environment around Father Thomas at that time, including Jean Vanier’s role in that environment.” In a message last October, the organization wrote that the inquiry was taking longer than expected and said its findings would likely “leave us with a less idealized and a more critical picture” about the history of L’Arche.

The press release reports that Mr. Vanier had been contacted by some of Father Philippe’s victims, but he did not act on the information he received. “Jean Vanier had heard from some of the survivors, but dismissed the pain and suffering of the women who confided in him. He did not pursue or report these allegations of sexual abuse. Jean Vanier was thus complicit in covering up Philippe’s abuse,” the press release says.

Mr. Vanier, born in Geneva and a Canadian citizen, was the recipient of many prestigious awards and honors, including the Templeton Prize, the Legion of Honor, France’s highest prize, and the Paul VI International Prize, which Pope John Paul II awarded him in 1997. His two organizations, L’Arche and Faith and Light, have more than 1,500 communities operating in dozens of countries. They bring together disabled and non-disabled adults to live and work alongside one another and are widely praised for their efforts.

In the press release, L’Arche USA officials conclude: “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.”

Updates to follow.

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