SOME part of me was not shocked to hear the news about Jean Vanier. What he did, of course, was deeply shocking. The man who had turned upside down the way the world thought about people with disabilities was acclaimed as “one of the great saints of our time” when he died, aged 90, last year (Obituary, 10 May 2019). He seemed to incarnate Christ’s message that true strength comes through vulnerability and weakness. To discover that he had a dark secret life, in which he sexually abused at least half a dozen women, turned things upside down in an entirely different way.
There had been rumours towards the end of his life, which most people dismissed, of at least one sexual relationship. Vanier confessed to it, but insisted that it had been consensual. When a second allegation was made, an investigation was launched by L’Arche, the organisation that he had founded, which now has homes in 38 countries where the able-bodied and those with developmental difficulties live together as equals rather than as carers and patients.
The investigators’ report makes grim reading. It is a catalogue of relationships that Vanier had with various women between 1970 and 2005. They are variously described as “inappropriate”, “coercive”, or “non-consensual”. The spiritual leader had a “psychological hold” over the women.
So, why was part of me not shocked? Perhaps because I have become punch-drunk at the repeated exposure of the human frailty of the spiritual leaders who offer themselves as
examples of the Christian life. But there is abuse everywhere, church leaders sometimes say in mitigation, in the Church, sadly, as in all walks of life.
It might be thought that this has been underscored by this week’s guilty verdict on Harvey Weinstein. Certainly, that exposes the relationship between sex and power in the way that the Vanier case does. But there is something else.
By coincidence, I was in conversation this week with an Anglican vicar about the Roman Catholic conception of sainthood. I was admiring of its one-time notion of “heroic virtue”, and the old tradition, not always now honoured, that a decent interval should pass before beginning the process of canonisation. This allowed the lesser human flaws of an individual to recede from living memory and be overwhelmed by that single heroic virtue that qualified him or her for sainthood — although even saints must have some human weaknesses without which they would not be such effective exemplars.
Sadly, Vanier’s vices, we now know, were as towering as his virtues. Men such as Weinstein have an instrumental and transactional view of sex.
Men such as Vanier abuse something worse. “This is not ours, this is Mary and Jesus. You are chosen, you are special,” one woman said that he had told her. Another said that he had referred to the Song of Solomon. A third alleged that he had said: “It is Jesus who loves you through me.” How did such women hear the world’s echoing praise of their abuser?
Weinstein’s abuse took place in the world of Hollywood’s material glamour. Vanier abused notions of grace, tenderness, and trust. It is a greater betrayal. So how can we reconcile the good and evil of Vanier? How can we reconcile the good and evil in ourselves?
Read more in Andrew Brown’s press column