“Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also harder to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say ‘My tooth is aching’ than to say ‘My heart is broken.’” CS Lewis
The story of Jean Vanier’s abuse is a hard one for me to write. One of my daughters and I have long been involved in ministry to those with intellectual differences. For example, we have helped with Tim Tebow’s Night to Shine which is a prom for those who not able to attend proms due to their disabilities. I had a ball dancing with one young man in a wheelchair, spinning him around as we both laughed. My daughter has spent summers helping at Joni and Friends Special Needs Camp.
My local grocery store chain hires those with disabilities. I have known one young man for 10 years. He is incredible and manages the program to bring groceries from home shopping to the cars. He has shared with me, over the years, bits and pieces of his life. I encourage him since I truly believe the home shopping program is handled so well due to his dedication to his job. I believe, along with Nouwen, that each of us is blessed more by the disabled than they are by us.
L’Arche and Henri Nouwen:
L’Arche defines itself as a community:
We create communities with a culture of shared lives between people with and without intellectual disabilities, from which we can work together to build a more human society.
It is a miraculous group of communities in which those with and without intellectual disabilities live with one another, not as caretakers an clients but as equals in forming and running their community.
At L’Arche we celebrate people with intellectual disabilities and build circles of support around them. We go beyond supporting people’s basic needs. It is this focus on building relationships and cultivating a sense of belonging that makes us different.
L’Arche communities hold in balance four elements: service, community, spirituality and outreach. Experience has shown us that each element has an important role to play.
L’Arche communities around the world share this common philosophy and approach while reflecting and celebrating the ethnic, cultural and religious composition of the areas in which they exist.
Nouwen’s spirituality was greatly influenced by his friendship with Jean Vanier. The two men met while Nouwen was teaching at Harvard. Vanier sensed how lost Nouwen was feeling and invited him to visit Trosly-Breuil.:105Nouwen visited Vanier at the French community, the first in the L’Arche network, twice before returning in 1985 for a nine-month residency. The stay helped Nouwen find a purpose that had been missing. As Robert A. Jonas explains: “Henri had always wondered what a Eucharistically centered community would be like, and now he had found one at L’Arche.” :l
During Nouwen’s time in France he traveled to Toronto, Ontario, to officiate at a wedding and sought permission to stay for a week at L’Arche Daybreak in Richmond Hill. While there a core member named Raymond was hit by a car and left in critical condition. Nouwen provided spiritual guidance to the community and Raymond’s family, ultimately helping to reconcile the community and the family, who partially blamed Daybreak for Raymond’s injuries. Nouwen’s intervention had such an impact that the Daybreak members asked him to serve as their pastor. Nouwen accepted and moved in the fall of 1986 to L’Arche Daybreak, where he would spend the last ten years of his life.
While at Daybreak Nouwen was paired with Adam Arnett, a core member at L’Arche Daybreak with profound developmental disabilities.”It is I, not Adam, who gets the main benefit from our friendship,” Nouwen insisted. Nouwen wrote about his relationship with Arnett in a book entitled Adam: God’s Beloved.
I read his book, Adam, God’s Beloved, and was deeply moved. Nouwen ever took Adam with him when he was invited to speak. Also, if you haven’t read Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, you are missing one of the most profound books written on this beloved Biblical story.
So my connection to this disturbing story involving Jean Vanier and Father Thomas Philipe came through my admiration of Nouwen. Thankfully, it does not appear that Nouwen ever broke his vows and may not have known about the abuse.
Jean Vanier’s many accomplishments and death in 2019
When Vanier died, he was universally admired for his lifelong work, caring for those on the margins. He wrote numerous books and received impressive honors. According to Wikipedia
Jean Vanier CC GOQ (September 10, 1928 – May 7, 2019) was a Canadian Catholic philosopher and theologian. In 1964, he founded L’Arche, an international federation of communities spread over 37 countries for people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them. In 1971, he co-founded Faith and Light with Marie-Hélène Mathieu, which also works for people with developmental disabilities, their families, and friends in over 80 countries. He continued to live as a member of the original L’Arche community in Trosly-Breuil, France, until his death.
Over the years he wrote 30 books on religion, disability, normality, success, and tolerance. Among the honours he received were the Companion of the Order of Canada (1986), Grand Officer of the National Order of Quebec (1992), French Legion of Honour (2003), Community of Christ International Peace Award (2003), the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award(2013), and the Templeton Prize (2015).
Here is one obituary which was written after his death Jean Vanier, Savior of People on the Margins, Dies at 90.
The turning point in his life came in 1963, with his first visit to an institution for people with intellectual disabilities. He was so moved by their pleas for help that he bought a house and invited two male residents to live with him. It was the beginning of L’Arche. He helped found a similar group, Faith and Light, a few years later.
Today L’Arche, rooted in the Roman Catholic Church, has 154 communities in 38 countries; Faith and Light has 1,500 communities in 83 countries. Through both organizations, people with and without intellectual disabilities live together in a community where they can feel they belong. His work served as a model for several other organizations.
Rev James Martin, the editor of the Catholic magazine, America, said to the NYT:
Of all the people in our time who minister to people on the margins, I would say he and Mother Teresa were the avatars for Catholics,” Father Martin said. “Jean Vanier showed us the great strength of tenderness and vulnerability and weakness, which is Christ’s message.”
The “mystical” and clandestine abuse of women by Jean Vanier and Fr. Thomas Phillipe:
However, just like Ravi Zacharias, Vanier was hiding a dark secret. According to the NYT Founder of French Charity Is Accused of Pattern of Abuse:
The French-based charity, L’Arche International, revealed that its founder, Jean Vanier, had engaged in “manipulative sexual relationships” with women from 1970 to 2005.
’Arche’s statement said Mr. Vanier had been a member of a small clandestine group that included Father Philippe and some women, and that he had adopted some of the “deviant theories and practices” of the priest, who died in 1993.
In 2/2020 L’Arche Canada released a letter outlining Varnier’s sexual activities.
First, let me stress, that it appears that none of the intellectually disabled were abused. However, 6 women were abused in coercive relationships over long periods of time.This excellent report left nothing to the imagination. They first addressed the abuses of Varnier’s spiritual mention, Fr. Thomas Philippe. I think readers might find it interesting that Philippe claims he was seeking a mystical experience.
In 2014, the first allegations of sexual abuse by Father Thomas Philippe dating back to the founding of L’Arche until the end of his life, were sent to the leaders of L’Arche International. (Thomas Philippe died in 1993). At the request of the L’Arche international leaders at that time, Monseigneur d’Ornellas commissioned a canonical inquiry into these allegations in late 2014. The inquiry listened to victims of Father Philippe and concluded that the allegations were substantiated. In 2015 the canonical inquiry made the following conclusion:
“These consistent and sincere testimonies show that Father Thomas Philippe had sexual relations with women of legal age, through which he said he was seeking and communicating a mystical experience; however, they are very serious at odds with the religious vows he had taken and with the discipline and morals taught by the Church; they demonstrate a psychological and spiritual hold on these women from whom he demanded silence, because according to him this corresponded to ” special graces ” that no one could understand.”1
The letter now addresses allegations about Vanier’s behavior.
…The issue was raised directly with Jean Vanier by the L’Arche International leaders, resulting in public statements made by Jean Vanier in May 2015 and October 2016 when he essentially stated he was not aware of Father Thomas Philippe’s behavior.
In 2016, L’Arche leaders received an allegation from a woman who questioned Jean Vanier’s behavior towards here in the 1970s. This allegation was thoroughly investigated. While Vanier acknowledged the relationship, he stated that he believed the relationship to have been “reciprocal”.
Then, in March 2019 towards the end of Jean Vanier’s life, L’Arche International received another similar allegation.
At this point, L’Arche began an independent investigation.
GCPS Consulting, a UK-based group with expertise in the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse (PSEA), was selected for this work for their experience in such investigations and policy development with major international non-governmental organizations. GCPS was engaged in April 2019. Director Paul Nolan, and Senior Associate Ester Dross, who conducted this work.
In addition, L’Arche International established an Independent Oversight Committee and asked two people who had previously held senior positions in public administration in France to review the integrity and reliability of the investigation process and its findings. They concurred with the findings on February 11, 2020 and consider the conclusions of the investigation to be well-founded.
I am quite impressed with the investigation which appeared to demonstrate an understanding of a power differential between a priest and a church member.
Jean Vanier, as with Father Thomas Philippe, crossed boundaries which are expected and necessary when people are in a relationship of trust, for example being spiritually accompanied by either a priest or a person of authority.
• Jean Vanier had relationships with women, some of which were inappropriate at least and were formed under conditions of psychological hold.
• For some of the women, these relationships were experienced as coercive and non-consensual in nature.
• All of the women described how the behavior had a subsequent long-lasting, negative impact on their personal lives and inter-personal and/or spousal relationships.
• Most of the women have received psychosocial support for years to overcome the consequences of the abuse they described.
Here are some quotes from the women who were molested.
- In 19XX, when in Trosly, I was very upset (about a personal issue). I was very upset and very vulnerable. (……) He told me to come late (for spiritual direction). We prayed, I got an invitation to meet him in (xxxx). It was very intimate, he did everything except intercourse. (….)
- I was like frozen, I realised that Jean Vanier was adored by hundreds of people, like a living Saint, that he talked about how he helped victims of sexual abuse, it appeared like a camouflage and I found it difficult to raise the issue.
- He said: “This is not us, this is Mary and Jesus. You are chosen, you are special, this is secret.”
- In 19XX, (….) I decided to go and see Father Thomas to seek his advice. I wanted to talk about (….) our secret with Jean Vanier.(…) He told me to come and see him at 22h00. I knocked at the door. There was a curtain, and he sat on the bed. Before I could start talking about Jean Vanier, it started with him, the same as with Jean Vanier. He was not tender like Jean Vanier. More brutal, no intercourse, same words to say that I am special and that all this is about Jesus and Mary.
- When I expressed my astonishment saying (…) how could I manifest my love to Jesus and to him, he replied: “But Jesus and myself, this is not two, but we are one. (…) It is Jesus who loves you through me.”
The report discussed a close bond that was formed between Vanier and Philippe. However, women began to come forward regarding Philippe. His mystical coercion was quite disturbing.
The Dominican archives contain the statements of the two victims of Father Thomas Philippe who sounded the alarm. It describes the behavior of Father Thomas Philippe but also his justification for his behavior:
Then he began theories, to try to convince me, […]: the lost woman of Hosea, the sacrifice of Abraham, the glorious mysteries, the transcendence of the prophetic mission (of his mission) regarding the norms of morality. He asked me, most insistently, to bind myself to him by an act of absolute faith in this mission and in himself. I replied that I could only make an act of faith in God alone, and trust in creatures only insofar as they were God’s instrument for me […]. He explained to me that it was not for me to make this discrimination, that he was an instrument of God, and therefore at present and directly moved by God […].
He said that I lacked strength, that I had to get used to it gradually, that all this was a great honour to Our Lord and to the Blessed Virgin, because the sexual organs were the symbol of the greatest love, much more than the Sacred Heart -. And I said, “but that’s blasphemy! “Then he took up his theories again, saying that when one arrives at perfect love, everything is lawful, for there is no more sin5
Philippe was convicted due to his actions towards the woman as well as his mystical beliefs that such actions were Biblically warranted.
The punishment of deposition is one of the most severe penalties provided for in canon law (1917). It deprived Father Thomas Philippe of his capacity to carry out any public or private ministry: celebration of the sacraments, spiritual direction, preaching, etc.
Jean Vanier and the women, along with Fr. Philippe’s *advice.*
In all the letters kept by Jean Vanier, a series of indicators lead us to believe that he shared sexual practices similar to those of Father Thomas Philippe with several women, none of whom seem to have declared themselves as victims. Some of them he met at l’Eau Vive, others later.
In these letters addressed to him by these women, the interplay between a “love” dimension, “mystical” remarks and the evocation of physical contact, is in line with what is known about the sexual theories and practices of Father Thomas Philippe and those of Jean Vanier revealed by the allegations recently brought to the attention of the inquiry.
Some letters from Father Thomas Philippe sent him advice on precautionary measures and rules of conduct:
For XX be very careful. You can sometimes pray with her, if it is very prudent; but externally the minimum, no more than St John at the Last Supper and in a rather discreet way. I feel that the Blessed Virgin asks us to be very careful about this point. Rely on obedience. Even if XX […] and you are very much in a hurry internally, you must remain below this limit rather than go beyond it… Mary may want to test your obedience12
…Because Jean Vanier did not denounce the theories and practices of Father Thomas Philippe of which Jean Vanier was personally aware as early as the 1950s, it was possible, for Father Thomas Philippe to continue his sexual abuse of women in L’Arche and it allowed Father Thomas Philippe to expand his spiritual influence on founders and members of other communities.
So, in essence, Vanier covered up for Philippewhile continuing his own despicable actions.
The founder is not the community.
Here is a thought from The Conversation. I once thought Catholic humanist Jean Vanier a hero. Now I’m wrestling with his coercive legacy
The founder is not the community
The legacy of Jean Vanier will be forever compromised due to the nature and gravity of his actions.
This is not to say that the work of L’Arche is compromised. L’Arche consists of countless decent persons of goodwill whose work conforms to a vision that its founder could never quite attain.
Distinctions are important in theology as in life. The distinction to be made here is not between the sin and the sinner, for they are interdependent. The only distinction to be made is between the founder and the community that he helped found. There is one we must stand against and another we must stand behind.
The best insight came from reporter Jamie Munson of the National Catholic Reporter and it’s a lesson for all of us.
From the National Catholic Reporter by Jamie Manson, No, Jean Vanier is not ‘like all of us’
As I watched people grapple with this dark side of Vanier, I saw more than one person suggest that Vanier was like all of us, a mix of good and evil. That sentiment, I think, must be rejected. Most of us do not act the way Vanier did, abusing his spiritual power, twisting theology to force women into ritualistic sexual abuse, and lying to protect himself and his nefarious spiritual father.
What we should do instead is contemplate the mystery of how such an extraordinary movement like L’Arche could grow out of such unscrupulous and, frankly, creepy beginnings.
Be careful of over-identifying charismatic leaders with the movements they create. Let’s leave it with this!
Perhaps this moment invites us to be careful of over-identifying charismatic leaders with the movements they create. If L’Arche is as good and holy as many say it is, it is because of the courage of leaders like Tina Bovermann and the goodness and holiness of the countless lay people who built the 154 L’Arche communities in 38 countries.