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Christopher ParkerFebruary 01, 2023
Jean Vanier, founder of the L'Arche communities, appears in the documentary "Summer in the Forest." (CNS photo/Abramorama) 

After two years, the independent commission appointed by L’Arche International has confirmed claims of sexual exploitation and abuse against L’Arche’s founder, Jean Vanier, and unearthed evidence that sexual exploitation was Mr. Vanier’s primary motivation for founding the organization.

A nearly 900-page report released Monday found that Mr. Vanier, who in 1964 founded the international network of homes to support adults with intellectual disabilities, sexually exploited at least 25 nondisabled women until his death in 2019, 19 more cases than originally known.

The report further stated that Mr. Vanier created L’Arche as a “screen” to reunite a religious sect called L’Eau Vive, which had been disbanded for their exploitive “mystical-sexual” beliefs and practices that included “sexual abuse, collective delirium…[and] incestuous representations of relationships between Jesus and Mary.” These practices did not spread beyond the first L’Arche community where Mr. Vanier in Trosly-Breuil, France, according to the report.

An independent commission has confirmed claims of sexual abuse Jean Vanier and unearthed evidence that sexual exploitation was his primary motivation for founding L’Arche.

“The primary intention, which from December 1963, pushed J. Vanier and the former members of L’Eau Vive to plan to settle in Trosly-Breuil, was to gather around [Thomas] Philippe,” the French Dominican priest who founded L’Eau Vive and served as Mr. Vanier’s spiritual father, the report states.

The executive director of L’Arche U.S.A., Tina Bovermann, said in a statement that “L’Arche in the U.S. trusts and painfully accepts the truth that was revealed.”

“We feel deep grief about the pain that was endured. L’Arche recognizes that we were not able to prevent, identify or report the abuses, and, consequently, we could not stop them. We offer our heartfelt and sincere apologies for the suffering that these situations created,” Ms. Bovermann said.

The report, while providing new information about Mr. Vanier’s abusive and coercive history at the L’Arche house in Trosly-Breuil, raises questions about how these “mystical-sexual” practices remained hidden for nearly 80 years as L’Arche grew worldwide and why they remained confined to a small group at the original house.

The executive director of L’Arche U.S.A., Tina Bovermann, said in a statement that “L’Arche in the U.S. trusts and painfully accepts the truth that was revealed.”

Mitchell Atencio, who covered the story for Sojourners magazine, had obtained a copy of the report ahead of its Jan. 29 release. He said in an interview with America that an influx of new workers and increased contact with government authorities, both results of L’Arche’s rapid growth, confined and hid the comparatively small sectarian cohort in rural France.

“When we say accountability because of these outside forces, it was unintentional accountability,” Mr. Atencio said. “L’Arche grew larger and was interacting with these outside forces, and the sect had to keep their circle small.”

What allowed these former members of L’Eau Vive to reassemble unchallenged, after being disbanded by the Vatican? The report highlights several factors, including jurisdiction disputes between the Dominicans in France, the local diocese and the Vatican. In addition, though L’Eau Vive’s leader Father Phillipe was prohibited from ministry after its dissolution, the Holy Office (now the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith) kept the reasons secret as a matter of procedure.

“We must emphasize that the non-disclosure of the exact causes of T. Philippe’s conviction is precisely what helped maintain his reputation for holiness and rewrite history as he saw fit,” the report says.

The report states that Mr. Vanier created L’Arche as a “screen” to reunite a religious sect called L’Eau Vive, disbanded for their exploitive “mystical-sexual” beliefs and practices.

The impact of the report’s findings are already being felt throughout the L’Arche organization. According to Ms. Bovermann, L’Arche International is a member of the Commission Reconnaissance et Réparation (Recognition and Reparation Commission), an “independent commission...set up by the French Catholic Church to receive and treat reparation requests for abuse committed by clerics or lay people.”

The commission’s website states that its restorative justice process “complements civil and criminal justice, it does not replace them.” Reparations are individualized and can range from financial compensation to therapeutic writing workshops.

Mr. Atencio noted that L’Arche International has been candid and transparent in the investigation process.

“L’Arche has handled this a lot differently than a lot of other organizations that have had large scandals of any sort relating to their founder,” he said. “What Tina Bovermann told me is that it was a truth-telling exercise in establishing what happened, first and foremost.”

Sojourners’ Jenna Barnett has followed the L’Arche story for several years and has been working on a podcast, “Lead Us Not,” that she hopes will “shift the mic…away from the person who committed the abuse and toward the people who are left dealing with the aftermath.”

“We want the podcast to still focus on healing but don’t want to gloss over how bad this injury really is,” Ms. Barnett said. The podcast not only tells the story of L’Arche but considers the role of foundational stories and charismatic leaders in an organization’s self-understanding.

Since 2020, when the six original accounts came to light, the L’Arche organization and Catholics around the world have struggled to come to terms with Mr. Vanier’s legacy. Mr. Atencio and Ms. Barnett both agree that this new report, and the new questions it raises, will only further complicate that struggle.

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