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L’Arche shock as six accuse Vanier of abuse

28 February 2020


Jean Vanier, outside his home in Trosly-Breuil, on 7 March 2015

Jean Vanier, outside his home in Trosly-Breuil, on 7 March 2015

DESPAIR at news of abuse perpetrated by Jean Vanier was followed by “real hope there is a future for our communities”, a member of L’Arche wrote this week, in an account of how the revelations had been communicated to members.

An investigation by the independent British consultancy GCPS, commissioned by L’Arche International, the charity that oversees more than 154 L’Arche communities around the world, received “credible and consistent testimonies” from six adult women that Vanier, who died last year (Gazette, 10 May 2019), had initiated “manipulative and emotionally abusive” sexual relationships with them.

A summary report, published on Saturday, said that the testimonies covered the period from 1970 to 2005. “The women each report that Jean Vanier initiated sexual relations with them, usually in the context of spiritual accompaniment. Although they had no prior knowledge of each other’s experiences, these women reported similar facts associated with highly unusual spiritual or mystical explanations used to justify these behaviors. The relationships were found to be manipulative and emotionally abusive, and had a significant negative impact on their personal lives and subsequent relationships.”

There was no suggestion that Vanier had had inappropriate relationships with people with intellectual disabilities.

Vanier founded the first L’Arche community in Trosly, France, in 1964, sharing a home with two men with learning disabilities. He wrote more than 30 books and received several honours, including the Templeton Prize (News, 13 March 2015). On his death, the Archbishop of Canterbury said that he had “lived the gospel in such a beautiful way that few who met him could fail to be caught up in it”, and praised his “luminous goodness”.

In a letter accompanying the summary report, the leaders of L’Arche International, Stephan Posner and Stacy Cates Carney, wrote to the L’Arche Federation: “We are shocked by these discoveries and unreservedly condemn these actions, which are in total contradiction with the values Jean Vanier otherwise stood for. They are incompatible with the basic rules of respect and dignity of persons, and contrary to the fundamental principles on which L’Arche is based. . .

“While the considerable good he did throughout his life is not in question, we will nevertheless have to mourn a certain image we may have had of Jean and of the origins of L’Arche. . .”

One of the remits of the inquiry was to explore “the environment surrounding” Fr Thomas Philippe, a Dominican priest who died in 1993 and was found in 2015 to have abused adult women, without disabilities, while he was in L’Arche, Trosly, in France, and exercising his ministry as a priest. Vanier had consistently asserted his ignorance of this abuse, but the inquiry found that he had known, as early as 1950, “of many of the significant reasons for the 1956 canonical trial and the condemnation by the Catholic Church of Father Thomas Philippe because of his theories that were described as ‘false mysticism’ and of the sexual practices that derived from these theories”.

It also found that Vanier’s actions towards the six women were “indicative of a deep psychological and spiritual hold . . . and reveal his own adoption of some of Father Thomas Philippe’s deviant theories and practices which he continued over a very long period of time.”

Allegations about Vanier were first made in 2016. The report says that its conclusions are based on a “balance of probabilities” and not the standard of proof “beyond any doubt”. The women include vowed celibates. For some, the relationships with Vanier — which included “everything but intercourse” — were “experienced as coercive and nonconsensual in nature”.

One said: “I was like frozen, I realised that Jean Vanier was adored by hundreds of people, like a living saint.” Another woman said that he had told her: “This is not us, this is Mary and Jesus. You are chosen, you are special, this is secret.”

On Sunday, Dr Irene Tuffrey-Wijne, a Dutch nurse and member of L’Arche who joined the community in London at the age of 21, and went on to specialise in the palliative care of people with learning disabilities, wrote about how L’Arche had told its members the news. In London, they had followed the model used by L’Arche to break the news of a death, gathering immediately and not excluding anyone.

“I looked around the room — we all did — and we knew exactly what our community leader meant when she said: ‘This is community. I LOVE this community!’” she wrote on her blog. The response of a man with learning disabilities, which had included asking after the welfare of a long-term assistant, had shown “yet again, that we do not just support people with disabilities: we all support each other”.

“The only thing, is to be utterly open and transparent,” she wrote. “To look at painful dark things, examine them, expose them. I am relieved and impressed with L’Arche, nationally and internationally, for its determination to do this. . .

“When I first heard the news, I despaired. But I looked around at all these people yesterday, who had gathered at the drop of a hat, and I have real hope there is a future for our communities.”

Read more on the story from Lorraine Cavanagh and in Andrew Brown’s press column

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