By Michael Swan, The Catholic Register
[Toronto – Canadian Catholic News] – For the people with disabilities who are the core members of L’Arche, news that Jean Vanier sexually abused six women over a 35-year period hit particularly hard.
At a L’Arche Toronto community meeting to discuss the stunning revelations, several members rose to speak their truth, said John Guido, the L’Arche Toronto outreach co-ordinator. And that truth is “that this was bad — he’s a bad man who has done something to harm people, and that’s not right.”
Many of the intellectually disabled at L’Arche have survived abusive situations themselves, whether in dysfunctional homes or institutions, Guido said.
“It was a very powerful meeting,” he said. “That they could stand up with such courage and speak this truth, knowing that they would be heard, knowing that they were respected, was very, very moving.”
L’Arche Canada is the oldest L’Arche movement outside of France. Its leaders had wanted more time to prepare its members, the disabled, for the report that their beloved founder had used his charismatic personality and status to coerce and manipulate women into sexual relationships. But when the International Federation of L’Arche Communities went public on Feb. 22, L’Arche Canada had to react, Guido said.
“We made sure that it was not sugar-coated. It was delivered honestly, but in multiple formats so that people could — the widest number of people could — understand the seriousness of this.”
L’Arche International’s investigation began in March 2019, a month before Vanier died at age 90. The Paris-based leadership assigned the investigation to GCPS, a U.K.-based organization that consults with Church and non-governmental organizations on abuse protocols and prevention.
A report based on the GCPS findings and on research by Church historian Antoine Mourges revealed that Vanier engaged in “manipulative sexual relationships” with women in the context of spiritual direction or accompaniment. Six women who did not know each other, including L’Arche assistants and nuns, testified to a pattern of abusive behaviour stretching over a period from 1970 to 2005. None of the women were disabled.
Mourges’ research, supported by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome and the archives of the Dominican Fathers in Paris, indicates that Vanier was influenced by a Dominican priest whom Vanier called his “spiritual father.” Fr. Thomas Philippe took a 22-year-old Vanier under his wing in 1950. By 1956 Philippe had been convicted in Rome of abuse and dismissed from the clerical state.
According to a Feb. 22 letter from L’Arche International, Vanier was in a “trusting relationship with Fr. Thomas Phillippe and would have shared some of the sexual practices initiated by Fr. Philippe.”
L’Arche was founded by Vanier at the instigation of Philippe in 1964. By the mid-1960s Philippe was operating freely as a priest within and outside of L’Arche. In 2014, L’Arche International asked its accompanying bishop, Bishop Pierre Paul Oscar d’Ornellas, for a canonical inquiry into Philippe, who had died in 1993.
L’Arche leaders had confronted Vanier in 2016 about a single complaint that came to light at that time.
“Jean Vanier acknowledged the relationship, which he had believed to be ‘reciprocal.’ He initiated a request for forgiveness with regard to this woman,” L’Arche International said in a summary of its investigations.
Investigators uncovered no evidence of Vanier abusing anyone who was intellectually disabled or part of L’Arche’s core membership. He targeted single, married and vowed celibate religious women.
One woman told investigators she was abused for “three or four years.”
“Each time I was frozen, I was unable to distinguish what was right and what was wrong…. He told me that this was part of the accompaniment,” she said.
Guido said he can’t imagine the suffering caused by Vanier.
“It’s brutal to discover this secret side of him that was so harmful,” said Guido. “And to imagine these women who have lived always hearing about this man who had harmed them as (being) this living saint.”
Author Beth Porter, who spent the largest part of her life living in a L’Arche community or working for L’Arche, said she was “still processing the very sad news.”
“I spent many years writing educational materials based on his vision of inclusion and belonging and making the world a better place,” Porter wrote on Facebook. “I grieve for his victims and also for the students and teachers who were inspired by him and may feel deeply disillusioned.”
L’Ache was praised for commissioning the report and releasing its findings. “We don’t know yet what the way forward is, only that today we need to face the truth and work to help those most impacted by the news,” said Guido.