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Leader comment: Jean Vanier’s feet of clay

03 February 2023

IT IS not the biggest news story of the week, but, for those who admired Jean Vanier, it is the one that stays at the forefront of the mind. The revelation that he used his position as a founder of the L’Arche community, where differently abled could live together, to seduce and manipulate women, was first made public two years ago (News, 28 February 2020). Then there were six women. This week’s exhaustive report, commissioned by L’Arche itself, suggests that there were at least 25, all adults without disabilities. Not only that: it shows that the impulse to found the first L’Arche community, at Trosly-Breuil in northern France, stemmed at least in part from a conscious desire to continue the work of a disgraced and disbanded community, L’Eau Vive, set up by Fr Thomas Philippe — “the Holy Office must not know!” Vanier wrote to his parents. Vanier, Philippe, and a few other individuals set up what is described as a “mystical-sexual” sect at the heart of L’Arche, which they sustained in secret throughout their lives.

The 872-page report is hard to read, as is the article that Vanier wrote for this paper three years before he died (Features, 4 March 2016), in which he said: “As [able-bodied] assistants open up to those who are weak and vulnerable, they begin to accept their own weaknesses and vulnerability, and so to accept their own hearts. They then have a desire to grow in greater love.” Allowing oneself to become open and vulnerable was a necessary step in forging a relationship with L’Arche residents with learning disabilities. It was also a convenient stage in the grooming process that Vanier and others perfected at Trosly-Breuil.

The task that was imposed on L’Arche International, and which they have performed thoroughly and honourably, was to separate the bad from the good — most obviously in the organisation, now established in 150 centres in 35 countries, but also in the influence of its founder and inspirer. The welcome news is that the abusive sect was not reproduced elsewhere, remaining among those few individuals at Trosly-Breuil. Quite simply, the good that L’Arche did and continues to do in its enlightened approach to people living with learning disabilities overwhelmed the rottenness that lurked at its core. In practical terms, the nature and scale of the community’s work brought it quickly under the scrutiny of secular authorities, limiting the freedom that a purely religious group might have had. More generally, the compassionate work of thousands of dedicated individuals is what continues to define L’Arche. This — rather than its founder’s compromised words and actions — is what can inspire future generations to subscribe to its mission with confidence, if also with caution.

It is more difficult to balance the good and bad in Vanier himself, so interwoven were they. It is a task now performed by his Maker, accompanied by the mercy that all rely on.

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