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French founder of the Communaute de l'Arche (Arch community) Jean Vanier, 86, poses at home on September 23, 2014 in Trosly-Breuil.

TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images

Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, the world’s foremost network of communities for intellectually disabled people, has been found to have engaged in sexually abusive relationships with at least six women.

After nearly a year of investigation, L’Arche International is about to release the findings of an independent investigation – to which The Globe and Mail has had exclusive access in the English-speaking world – into the past of Mr. Vanier, who died last May at the age of 90.

The report establishes that Mr. Vanier had “manipulative sexual relationships,” many of them coercive, over the course of 35 years, between 1970 and 2005. Some were assistants, some were nuns. The report also establishes that he enabled and shared sexual partners and “mystical” sexual practices with Pere Thomas Philippe, a censured Dominican priest and serial sexual abuser who was Mr. Vanier’s “spiritual father” – and one of the inspirations for L’Arche. Mr. Vanier publicly denied any knowledge of the practices on more than one occasion.

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None of the women were intellectually disabled, the core members of L’Arche.

The revelations are a blow to Mr. Vanier’s vaunted reputation. He was the son of governor-general Georges Vanier who abandoned the Navy, the priesthood and academia to found a globe-spanning series of homes for the intellectually disabled.

From the archives: L’Arche founder Jean Vanier established the unique value of an intellectually disabled life

Mr. Vanier was a perennial candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, a Companion of the Order of Canada, a winner of the Templeton Prize and the Joseph Kennedy Foundation Award with his good friend Mother Teresa. As many as 14 schools in Canada bear his name. He wrote best selling books, the most famous of which, Becoming Human, was the basis of a series of Massey lectures.

How the findings will damage L’Arche – which began as a revolutionary alternative to the institutionalization of the intellectually disabled in 1964, and has since become the crown jewel of community-based housing for them – remains to be seen. And how they will affect the intellectually disabled residents of L’Arche – among whom Mr. Vanier lived until the end of his life – is difficult to imagine.

The report, a summary of a fuller investigation that has not been released to protect the confidentiality of the women who testified, is the product of a series of escalating suspicions. They began with a 2014 inquiry into complaints of sexual abuse by as many as 14 women against Pere Thomas, Mr. Vanier’s self-admitted “spiritual father” who was in part responsible for Mr. Vanier becoming interested in the intellectually disabled.

But Mr. Vanier said he knew nothing. Another woman surfaced in 2016, claiming to have had a sexual relationship with Mr. Vanier at his instigation. He admitted the affair, but claimed it was consensual. He was never ordained as a priest, and so the suspicions abated.

But in March of 2019, as Mr. Vanier was dying of heart failure, another women testified that she too had had a sexual affair with him. She claimed Mr. Vanier had indulged in the same “mystical and spiritual” sexual practices that Pere Thomas had been accused of. Mr. Vanier said he could not remember.

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As a result, in April last year, Stefan Posner, the international leader of L’Arche, leapt ahead of what he feared might be an oncoming scandal by commissioning an independent inquiry into the matter by GCPS Consulting, a U.K.-based expert in the investigation and prevention of sexual abuse. By June, he had also commissioned a historian to delve into newly unsealed Vatican files, as well as into the now deceased Mr. Vanier’s correspondence, to study the links between Mr. Vanier and Pere Thomas.

The findings are damning. Mr. Vanier has been found, on the “balance of probabilities,” to have had at least six relationships with women at L’Arche, some of them abusive and all of them coercive and non-consensual. The relationships occurred over a stretch of 30 years, between 1970 and 2005, and involved women of a wide range of ages, all of whom worked within the L’Arche community.

The investigation also concluded that between 1952 and 1964, Pere Thomas and Jean Vanier shared sexual practices and even some female partners (though at different times), none of whom declared themselves as victims. Mr. Vanier founded L’Arche that same year, in 1964, when, repulsed by the institutions he had seen, he moved into a small house in Trosly-Breuil, outside of Paris, with two unspeaking middle aged men with intellectual disabilities. Out of that innocent move – and now, it seems, out of that darkness –L’Arche was born.

The women also describe very similar sexual experiences – some of which were distinctly unusual. The sexual activity often derived from a process of “spiritual accompaniment,” in which the women trusted Mr. Vanier to help them through an emotional crisis or a religious dilemma. To do that, Mr. Vanier employed the same “mystical” practices Pere Thomas had been censured for using as long ago as 1952 – techniques Mr. Vanier said in 2015 and 2016 that he knew nothing about, though he had in fact been familiar with them by then for nearly 50 years.

One nun, describing Mr. Vanier’s unwanted sexual advances, says that “when I expressed my astonishment saying that I was consecrated to Jesus, and 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.' ” Another victim remembered Mr. Vanier saying “This is not us, this is Mary and Jesus. You are chosen, you are special, this is secret." He was referring to the Virgin Mary, not Mary Magdalene.

Still another woman, when Mr. Vanier’s “spiritual accompaniment” turned to sexual touching, told the leader she had a lover. Mr. Vanier’s reply that “it was important to distinguish (what happened between us) referring to the Song of Solomon.” The relations went on for “3 or 4 years.”

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According to the report, these practices “crossed boundaries which are expected and necessary when people are in a relationship of trust, for example being spiritually accompanied by either a priest of a person of authority.” The relationships were “characterized by significant abuses of power, whereby the alleged victims felt deprived of their free will and so the sexual activity was coerced or took place under coercive conditions.”

Mr. Vanier understood the women were vulnerable, but they felt it was impossible to speak of their affairs. “I was like frozen,” one of them told the investigators. “I realized that Jean Vanier was adored by hundreds of people, like a living Saint ... I found it difficult to raise the issue.”

One of the women confronted him, and presented him with a letter in which she declared that what he had done was “unbearable.” His reply? “He told me, ‘I thought it was good.’ He didn’t tell me anything else.” All the women claimed these relationships had long-lasting negative impacts on their lives, and that they needed years of psychological support the overcome the consequences of the abuse.

Needless to say, the close-knit L’Arche community is in a state of shock over the findings. The report has been narrowly distributed to the head of each community, so that they can prepare clear, simple and non-verbal ways of spreading the news to the core members, as well as to major benefactors.

“I have to say that we have been in conversation with major donors,” Mr. Posner says. ”And we have had a very reassuring response.” He is also underlining a distinction L’Arche has made for years now – that L’Arche the institution is not the same as L’Arche’s founder.

That Mr. Vanier – a champion of openness and equality who invented the notion that the intellectually disabled have more to teach the able bodied than the able bodied can teach them – could coerce women into unwanted sexual relationships is shocking. But the fact that he lied for so long seems to have hit hardest.

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“Jean was a really seminal figure in my life,” Mike McDonald, L’Arche’s 30-year-old in-house filmmaker and communications co-ordinator, says. “The shock and the distance and the disillusionment that comes from realizing there was this side of his life that stood against everything I stood for, and everything L’Arche stands for.”

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