Jean Vanier, the founder of L’ARCHE, an international network of communities
De-canonization: Reflections on the discovery of abuse by Jean Vanier
March 4, 2020
Recently, I have been part of a number of online discussions about the awful news from L’Arche International announcing the results of their investigation into rumors of sexual abuse by their founder, Jean Vanier. I have been very appreciative of the reflections of others, including that of Keith Dow which has also been posted on the Facebook page for the Institute on Theology and Disability. Keith is part of the new coordinating team for the Institute. I have decided to draw some of my thoughts and reflections into this piece to which I am adding links to key articles and reflections I’ve read since the news first broke.
My first thoughts have been for the six women, along with all the other women abused by powerful men. I ache for all that has happened to them.
The contrast between Vanier and people like Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein, and others comes to mind. No one ever accused them of being saints. Their exploitation and abuse were bound up in their use of money, power, and manipulation. Their actions don’t stand in such marked contrast with the rest of their work, reputation, and lives.
In some ways, that contrast makes the revelations about Jean Vanier worse, because people came to Jean Vanier in search of spiritual guidance and blessing. He also was a famous man and charismatic leader. His life and writings impacted and blessed thousands, if not millions, of people in profoundly important ways. (Nor am I making a quantitative balancing, the numbers of people helped vs. the number of people abused.) I was and am one of them. Besides his books, recorded interviews, and people writing about him, I was with Jean Vanier on four primary occasions:
The first time, I heard him give a keynote at the first ever American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD) national conference I attended. I was less than two years into this new vocational path for me. I never forgot it, such a radically different exploration of the meaning of community with and for people with intellectual disabilities.
The second was at a conference in Aberdeen, Scotland hosted by John Swinton and others that featured a conversation between Jean Vanier and Stanley Hauerwas. That is when I met and ate with him for the first time. One of my prized possessions is a picture of me standing next to this taller man, with his hand resting on my shoulder.
The third was a weeklong consultation at Trosly, France funded by the Templeton Foundation, which gave rise to the collection of essays, “The Paradox of Disability,” edited by Hans Reinders. For this minister of Baptist origins, the trip to Trosly was the closest thing I have come to making a pilgrimage.
Finally, in 2015 to hear Vanier accept the Templeton Prize and to have the opportunity to be in conversation with him because he said he wanted to catch up with me. That initiative was very special, as are some pictures of me sitting with him in a corner during the reception.
Those were all powerful moments and times for me. They will remain so. The impact of such experiences is as much about what I brought to them as it was about what Vanier said or did. That which felt sacred was a sense that the times were bigger than the two of us.
One tragedy is that if I had known this uncovered side of his history, I would not have come to those experiences with the same expectations, or, possibly, not ever have had the opportunity to come to them at all. But their power still stands, and I am reflecting more deeply on why that was. Similarly, I think the power of what he facilitated through L’Arche came from what many others brought to that experience, and a Spirit larger than all of them. Or, in other words, L’Arche grew out of the commitment and faith of hundreds and thousands of people, not just one man. The whole has been greater than the sum of its parts, which my faith says is about the presence of God.
But I now also seen Jean Vanier in an ever-growing list of male religious leaders whom we discover to have abused the power of their office and the trust of others who came to them for spiritual guidance. I have known others who fall into this category. Pastoral care, counseling, spiritual direction…all can involve great intimacy if the relationship is trusted and valued. The devilish part is that those leaders have been unable to, or chose not to, maintain the boundaries of such trusted and close relationships. Rather, they have shown the ability to rationalize their stepping out of bounds, sometimes with remarkable intellectual acrobatics of self- justification. That includes convincing themselves that the relationship was consensual, or even sought by the women involved. Our human capacity for self-deceit and self-justification is powerful.
From my own work and training in supervising seminary students in Clinical Pastoral Education, and in learning about pastoral care and counseling, I have become aware of how much capacity there is to misuse the trust and the power of projection by either party. The counselor, supervisor, or spiritual director is supposed to be the one who is aware of that power, which can often be necessary for therapy or guidance to do its work. All of the key ethical systems for this kind of relationship stress that it is the counselor’s responsibility to keep the boundaries firm and to recognize what is going on in both parties so he or she can help the counselee to do their own internal work and to develop. When that intimacy and power is abused by moving the relationship to a sexual level, that counselor or guide is both abusing his or her power, as well as utterly failing to recognize and deal with their own needs for care, comfort, love, and indeed, their own sexuality. Rather than being responsible, it is an “acting out” behavior in which the person involved may or may not understand his or her own motives. People on whom much authority has been conferred too often seem prone to confuse that authority with permission to step over lines.
I have no way of knowing what was going on inside Jean Vanier. He seemed to be so profoundly aware of the woundedness and brokenness of all of us that I now wonder if that was partly propelled by his own sense of brokenness and sinfulness that he, for whatever reason, chose not to share with others or to seek more socially and ethically appropriate ways of dealing with his own needs and wants. This “acting out” of needs for love and intimacy in a sexual way is a huge issue in the Roman Catholic Church, partly because of the vow of celibacy and the lack of any sanctioned way for priests (or nuns) to be in relationship with the other sex, or the same sex. But it is not only in the Roman Catholic church. There are multiple Protestant clergy in both mainline and evangelical traditions for whom this has been the case, who are not only breaking marital vows but also misusing their pastoral and spiritual power through their use and abuse of women (and men). Again, I am trying to understand what may have happened, so that I learn another lesson from Vanier, this time by negative example.
So, the tragedy is compounded by the fact that a man who invited and led so many others into close spiritual communities and relationships, and taught so many people about the importance of a community that embraces the brokenness of one another, especially that of loneliness, was probably at some level profoundly lonely himself. That is sometimes a byproduct of being that kind of charismatic or revered leader, because people come to him or her out of their own pain and needs, and the leader is caught not being able to find relationships for his or her own care. That community about which he so eloquently spoke and in which he guided others was a place, he said, for healing, and then ultimately forgiving.
So that is the company which Jean Vanier now unfortunately joins, for me at least. I really have no idea, of course, of whether or not he recognized the connection between his own needs and what he tried to provide for and with others. I am aware that for me, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities have taught and nurtured my own needs for relationship and community. Bruce Anderson writes and talks about our core gifts, and the paradox that often under or behind a core gift is a core pain. By trying to deal with that pain, one develops abilities and awareness that others begin to see as gift.[i] I am quite clear that I have benefitted as much from my sense of community that has come from being and working with people with disabilities as much as I have tried to help build communities in which all are included. One of my prayers is that I hope I have not misused any one in that process.
If Jean Vanier did not recognize the connection between his own wounds/sins and what he did and taught, that is yet more evidence of the far too human capacity for self-deception. If he did, then the tragedy is that he did not come clean, be open, repent, ask for forgiveness, and look for his own healing more honestly. Perhaps, in spite of all his apparent humility, he could not bear to do something that would so publicly disillusion the millions who have looked up to him. The maddening thing about that is that he has left the responsibility for coming clean to his greatest contribution and legacy, the L’Arche community. The tragic irony is that in their commitment to the soul of L’Arche, they knew they had to be perfectly honest and transparent about the brokenness of their beloved leader and the mentor to so many of us.
If Jean Vanier did not recognize the connection between his own wounds/sins and what he did and taught, that is yet more evidence of the far too human capacity for self-deception. If he did, then the tragedy is that he did not come clean, be open, repent, ask for forgiveness, and look for his own healing more honestly. Vanier has left that responsibility to his greatest contribution and legacy, the L’Arche community. The tragic irony is that in their commitment to the soul of L’Arche, they knew they had to be perfectly honest and transparent about the brokenness of their beloved leader and the mentor to so many of us.
I have been impressed for years by the ways he and the L’Arche community seemed to have planned for the transition from his leadership. Vanier did them a huge disservice by not recognizing this might be part of the transition. The leaders of L’Arche now seem more faithful to the vision and soul of L’Arche than Vanier was. Keep them, along with the six women, in your prayers.
Rev. Bill Gaventa is an ordained American Baptist chaplain and former director of the Institute on Theology and Disability. If you would like to support L’Arche in this time of crisis, go to An Act of Hope: An Invitation.
For further reading:
- Cristian Gangemi, Vanier Admirers Reeling from recent Revelations of Sexual Abuse.
- Jamie Manson, National Catholic Reporter: No, Jean Vanier is not like “all of us.”
- Caroline Mackie: Sin, Grief, and Jean Vanier.