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Jean Vanier, L’Arche founder, abused ‘at least 25 women’ report finds

03 February 2023

Investigation uncovers ‘shattering’ picture of sexual abuse

John Morrison/Templeton Prize

JEAN VANIER, the founder of the international charity L’Arche for people with intellectual disabilities, sexually abused at least 25 adult women, a report published this week has found.

The 900-page multi-disciplinary report by French scholars into Vanier was commissioned by L’Arche, after a 2020 investigation by a British consultancy found “credible and consistent testimonies” from six adult women that he had manipulative and abusive sexual relationships with them (News, 28 February 2020).

The abuse was carried out between 1950 and his death in 2019. None of the abuse involved people with intellectual disabilities, and the report said that the culture of abuse had not spread widely beyond L’Arche’s original community in Trosly, France, founded in 1964 by Vanier and a priest, Thomas Philippe, also a sexual abuser of women.

In a statement published alongside the report, the International Federation of L’Arche Communities said that the 25 women were aged between 20 and 25 years old, single, married, or consecrated into the religious life; some presented themselves as victims of an abusive relationship, while others suggested that they were “consenting partners in a transgressive relationship”.

Some of the women, who have since died, were abused concurrently by Vanier. The report says that the relationships between Vanier and the women were “part of a continuum of confusion, control and abuse”.

The report identifies Vanier as a part of a “sectarian core” in the L’Arche Trosly community who possessed “distorted pseudo-mystical beliefs and a culture of deliberate secrecy”.

The group was influenced by the “deviant mystic” Thomas Philippe, a Dominican priest whom Vanier called his “spiritual father”. In 1956, Philippe was investigated and barred from ministry by the Roman Catholic Church after two women reported Philippe’s sexual abuse to his superiors, but records held in the archives of the Dominican order show that he ignored the prohibition.

Although the desire to improve the lives of people with intellectual disabilities — who were living in crowded institutions — was sincere, the “primary intention” behind the founding of L’Arche in 1964 was to “gather around Philippe”, the six authors of the report found.

Vanier and Philippe’s abuse included “spiritual deviation, manipulation, incestuous representations of relationships between Jesus and Mary”, the report said.

Philippe was spiritual adviser to the community. He died in 1993. L’Arche learned of accusations against Philippe in 2014, and a subsequent investigation by the Catholic Church found that he was “perpetrator of abusive sexual behaviour towards adult women”.

Vanier denied knowing anything about Philippe’s abuse.

The report said that the abuse that had been uncovered was largely confined to the original Trosly community. “It was within the community of Trosly that the majority of the cases of control and sexual abuse investigated by the commission took place. People accused of sexual abuse have been members and have held positions of responsibility there, victims still live nearby.”

In a letter to all members of L’Arche, the leaders of the international organisation, Stephan Posner and Stacy Cates-Carney, said that the abuse was “in total contradiction with the elementary rules of respect and integrity of persons, and contrary to the fundamental principles of our communities.

“We recognise our institutional responsibility for failing to spot these abuses, report them and forestall them.”

The report was written by six academic experts in history, sociology, psychiatry, psychoanalysis, religion, and theology, who were selected and paid for by L’Arche International. They carried out more than 200 hours of interviews with 89 people, and read more than 1400 private letters received by or written by Vanier, many of them written in startlingly intimate terms. Their final report was written in French and translated into English.

In their conclusion, they said they had approached the commission with “the desire to establish the facts and try to understand the mechanisms at work, but also with the conviction that their exposure in full light is the essential condition for their extinction”.

L’Arche International said that the latest report was not a safeguarding report, but was “in response to the need to deepen our knowledge of what we were discovering” after the 2020 investigation “shattered the picture we had of Jean Vanier’s life and of our foundation”.

In the past two years, a “thorough federation-wide evaluation and redesign of our safeguarding measures for people with and without disabilities” has been undertaken. An abuse-reporting unit has been set up, and a new audit of compliance with safeguarding standards is taking place in all L’Arche communities in 2023.

L’Arche now has 154 communities and 19 projects running in 38 countries around the world.

Read more on the story in this week’s Leader comment

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