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Jean Vanier’s misuse of power

28 February 2020

Spiritual direction can be dangerous. It requires a radical rethink, says Lorraine Cavanagh


THE revelations that Jean Vanier sexually abused six women in France have deeply shocked and saddened many. For those of us who have experienced abuse of any kind at the hands of those in religious authority, or by those entrusted with spiritual and psychological care, it is es­­pecially painful.

The organisation that Vanier founded, L’Arche International, has said: “It is alleged that Jean Vanier, like Father Thomas Philippe [his spiritual mentor], abused his power and used spiritual or mystical ex­­plana­tions in the context of spiritual accompaniment to justify his ac­­tions, and that he held a psycho­logical hold on these women, many of whom have suffered in silence for many years.”

This raises serious questions about the practice of spiritual direc­tion, and shows the need for a radical rethink.

FEW spiritual directors are trained psychotherapists. Little attention is paid to the mentoring of those who accompany others on their spiritual journey — specifically, to the way in which spirituality and sexuality work together, or can be made to, even without either party being initially aware of it.

One of the reasons for this lack of awareness of the psychosexual in the work of spiritual guidance, and of prayer itself, is that spiritual direc­tion and the kind of journeys under­taken by both parties involve dark­ness.

Darkness, in the context of spir­itual experience, may fit with a per­son’s sense of the absence of God. It could, however, also be a sign of acute depression, loneliness, or even psychosis. These conditions need to be recognised for what they are. In most cases, they fall outside the com­­petence of a spiritual director — or, indeed, of most clergy.

One of the dangers associated with spiritual direction is the power that the spiritual director has over the person whom he or she is directing. Memories and associated trigger-points can be manipulated in such a way as to give the director a very personal hold on the one whom he or she is supposed to be walking alongside. The person being directed might experience this as manipu­lation. Sometimes, as the Vanier case has shown, it finds expression in inappropriate or abusive sexual behaviour.

A good director will lead people to scriptural texts that liberate them from feelings of guilt, personal in­­adequacy, and general unworthi­ness. He or she will then encourage them to internalise them in a way that speaks forgiveness, where that is needed, and confidence in God’s loving purposes for their lives.

As with any psychotherapeutic relationship, this can lead to de­­pend­ency on the director; but, unlike the relationship with a psychologist, where a degree of dependency is ac­­knowledged and trained for, it can be distinctly un­­helpful in the context of spiritual direction.

Dependency reinforces power and can lead, as it seems to have done in the case of Vanier, to the abuse of power through inappropriate sexual touching, or through religious lan­guage and metaphor that en­­cour­­ages delusion and sexual fantasy for both parties involved. Some of the Mary and Jesus “experiences” used by Vanier suggest that this might have happened on more than one occa­sion with the women whom he abused.

Additionally, a too heavy emo­tional dependency on a spiritual director creates an intensity in the relationship itself.

In other words, everything that is said, or that passes between the two people, acquires a significance that can easily be mistaken as uniquely theirs. When this happens, the personal and sometimes the sexual can dominate the whole tenor and direction of the work that they are supposedly doing, and lead to an increased experience of power in the director.

ALL of this suggests that there needs to be a radical rethinking of spiritual direction. If the one-on-one re­­la­tion­­ship is to continue as the prim­ary means for spiritual accom­pani­ment, more attention and honesty is needed in facing up to the issue of power, and how to ac­­knowledge its existence, before it is too late.

Looking at the part played by power in the two-way relationship of spiritual direction also invites deeper reflection on how a person’s sense of identity and belonging is to be respected and helped to mature in and through a living relationship with Christ.

Reflecting on power as it plays into the work of spiritual direction also invites those involved in this work to look more closely into ques­tions of religious truth as they pertain to spirituality — whether that truth is both singular and universal, or shaped by one person’s life experience, or both.

All of this suggests that, while one-on-one spiritual direction might not have had its day, it is badly in need of reform and competent mod­era­tion.

The Revd Dr Lorraine Cavanagh is a priest in the Church in Wales and the author of In Such Times: Reflections on living with fear (Wipf & Stock, 2018).

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