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Vanier’s lost halo

28 February 2020

“IT IS only when I discover my need to pretend that I am superior that I can begin to see what is broken in me.” The exercise of rereading Jean Vanier’s works in the light of last weekend’s revela­tions about the abusive relationships that he had with at least six women is a long and disturbing one.

He was a man who wrote exhaustively and with what appeared to be complete honesty about the need to subject oneself to the weakest and most vulnerable people in society. Every utterance must now be read in the knowledge that he was simultaneously exerting his powerful personality over women who went to him for spiritual help, and doing so blasphemously, in the name of Jesus. It must be concluded that he did, indeed, see what was broken in him, since he took such pains to conceal it — and, moreover, to conceal the abuse perpetrated by his mentor, Fr Thomas Philippe.

Vanier died last year after a lifetime of inspiring people to draw alongside others with mental and physical disabilities. One of Vanier’s women victims told investigators: “I realised that Jean Vanier was adored by hundreds of people, like a living saint.” So, how much of the saintliness survives such a revelation? After all, Anglicans and Roman Catholics alike are enjoined to distinguish between saints and heroes, recognising that the aspiration to be perfect, as directed by St Paul, is not a work that can be con­cluded in this lifetime. The answer, however, is none.

A future generation might conclude differently, but, for the present, Vanier’s feet of clay bring down the edifice of his reputation. For, although no revelation has yet emerged about the abuse of any L’Arche members with disabilities, the stories of coercive sexual assaults on the women suggest that Vanier’s subjection to weaker people was less than total. The verdict of one L’Arche member with intellectual disabilities needs to be noted: “He is a dirty fucking bastard. . . But I’m glad I’m in L’Arche. We need to look after each other.”

If the saintliness of the man has evaporated, the good that he generated was successfully passed from the individual to the group. The lesson from politics is that the best defence against autocracy is democracy. God makes use of alpha men and women for their entrepreneurial energy, even in the caring pro­fessions; but they should not be trusted any more than ordinary mortals. L’Arche long ago developed from one man’s vision into a mature organisation. Its approach to the allegations against its founder — commissioning an independent body to lead the in­­vestigation, and being prepared to publish the results — demon­strated its professionalism, and ought to ensure that its funding is unaffected— something that Oxfam failed to do after the scandal of the Haiti prostitutes. Although Vanier’s reputation is de­­stroyed, the good that he did lives on in L’Arche.

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