L’Arche International released on Feb. 22 a summary of its findings from an investigation into its founder Jean Vanier (1928-2019) regarding allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct.
L’Arche began in 1964 as a ministry in Trosly-Breuil, France, to provide community-based living arrangements as an alternative to institutionalization for people with disabilities.
It has expanded over the last five decades to create 154 communities in 38 nations.
The inquiry into Vanier – commissioned by L’Arche and conducted by an independent consulting firm – resulted from allegations by several women who raised concerns about the nature of his relationship with them.
A total of six allegations arose in the course of the investigation, with five of the six victims being interviewed, as well as more than three dozen other individuals who had worked at or with L’Arche.
“While some [of the women] spoke positively, others described abusive behavior, whereby they had placed their trust in Vanier and he had used his power over them to take advantage of them through different kinds of sexual behaviors,” the report said.
The victims did not know one another’s stories, and their collective experiences encompassed the time from 1970 to 2005.
“They all describe similar events, providing sufficient evidence to establish that Jean Vanier engaged in manipulative sexual relationships with at least six adult (not disabled) women,” the report said.
“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.”
Inquiries had been made in early 2015 by L’Arche leaders regarding Vanier’s knowledge of substantiated claims of sexual abuse by Father Thomas Philippe, who died in 1993, a spiritual mentor to Vanier since the 1950s.
The newly released report determined that Vanier’s claims of ignorance were false: “Jean Vanier knew about and also displayed the same sexually inappropriate behavior demonstrated by Father Thomas Philippe.”
EthicsDaily.com reached out to several faith leaders, asking for their reaction and response to the L’Arche report:
“Vanier used theology to manipulate and destroy women’s lives,” said Natalie Wigg-Stevenson, associate professor of contextual education and theology at Emmanuel College at the University of Toronto.
“But theology has always been used in this way, and Vanier’s cruelty is more a reminder of this fact than a revelation.”
Returning to Vanier’s writings at the urging of a friend connected to L’Arche, she observed how “Vanier failed to attend to dynamics of power in his writing about vulnerability and community.”
“We must now reckon with how his abuse of power, his preying on women’s vulnerability, and his desecration of community not only poison his theological vision but contributed directly to constituting it,” Wigg-Stevenson said.
David Gushee, distinguished university professor of Christian ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University, called Vanier’s actions “horrifying” and observed “the extent of sexual abuse taking place within Christianity is even more terrible than we knew.”
“While, as Howard Thurman once said, a person is always more than the worst thing they ever did, sexual predation is a terrible sin and will permanently stain Vanier’s reputation and legacy,” he said.
Asked whether we can still learn from, and build on, the good that people like Vanier have done despite the terrible actions we learn later they were also doing, Gushee said “a balanced evaluation of the entire life of a person whose goodness reached great heights but whose wrongdoing also reached great depths seems very difficult for us right now.”
“Perhaps we lack an adequate theological anthropology to account for the full potential range of human behavior,” he continued. “Certainly, we are consistently surprised by the dangerous and exploitative turns that people’s sexuality so often appear to take.”
Referencing the biblical images of narrow roads as metaphors for the moral life and the way of salvation, Gushee observed, “So many are tumbling over those cliffs. It is a warning to all of us. Maybe it is time for a renewal of our theology of sin.”
Wigg-Stevenson noted “bringing an end to – or, let’s be honest, perhaps at best stemming the tide of – the church’s abuses will require more than just addressing individual abuses on a case-by-case basis. It will require a wholesale re-imagining of how we understand power, leadership, gender and relationships.”
“And that re-imagining will – and must – inevitably lead us to grapple with how our theologies of revelation, mystery, salvation, and Father, Son, Spirit, God can all contain an intrinsic orientation towards evil in the wrong hands,” she said. “Vanier reminds us that we can really never know whose hands those are, so we must also attend to the ways in which that evil has infected our lives too.”