Correction wording: An earlier version of this article included an incorrect name for Père Thomas’s sister. This version has been corrected.
At least 25 women were abused over nearly seven decades by Jean Vanier, the Canadian co-founder of L’Arche, a global organization for the intellectually disabled, a lengthy independent report has found after a two-year investigation.
The Globe and Mail obtained a 60-page synopsis of the report, released on Monday, that details the incidents that took place between 1952 and 2019, the year he died. It is replete with Mr. Vanier’s sexual abuses of nuns and other women who worked within or with L’Arche.
“But,” the report cautions, “the full extent of his activities has yet to be determined.”
It’s a measure of how shocking the report is that L’Arche Canada executives are already at pains to underline two essential findings: that none of the abused were people with disabilities, and that so far no charges of abuse have been laid in Canada, where the second L’Arche home was founded in Toronto in the 1960s. It was an early link in what became a global network of communities where the intellectually disabled are able to live as equals.
The independence of some members of the external investigation – which was instigated by L’Arche itself – has been challenged. Even so, the 900-page report is a striking condemnation of sexual abuse, secrecy and repression deep within the Catholic Church and the founding of L’Arche.
The six investigators – two historians, a sociologist, a psychiatrist, a psychoanalyst and a theologian – had access to L’Arche’s archives, previously unpublished papers in the Dominican archives of the Vatican, the lifetime writings and 1,400 letters of Mr. Vanier (including 340 he intended to be seen by only a handful of perpetrators), as well as 119 interviews with 89 people and the testimony of victims.
The investigation was mandated in August of 2020, after six women in France revealed that they had been abused by Mr. Vanier and his lifelong “spiritual father” and L’Arche co-founder, Père Thomas Philippe.
His victims were not disabled, but adult women who, when the transgressions first occurred, were between the ages of 20 and 35. Their number included nuns and both married and single women working at L’Arche. Most of them were Catholic, with access to what the report refers to as “high cultural resources.” Half came from privileged social backgrounds. (Père Thomas preyed on more pious, psychologically vulnerable girls.)
Mr. Vanier appears not to have questioned what he was doing – except years later, in some of his writings.
The report’s authors state: “Partial nudity, the absence of coitus as well as the spiritual justification of sexual abuse led Jean Vanier to consider that they were non-sexual practices.” The medical professionals on the panel describe him as delusional. Some relationships lasted weeks; many lasted years or even decades.
The report covers 90 years of history, from Mr. Vanier’s birth in Geneva in 1928 to his death in Trosly-Breuil, France, the village where he founded L’Arche, in 2019.
Mr. Vanier – the once revered founder of the world’s most progressive communities for adults with disabilities, a frequent candidate for the Nobel Prize who changed the way the world understood the intellectually disabled – is revealed as the centre of a “cult” (to use the investigators’ word) that practised bizarre, religiously motivated sexual rituals.
The report weighs in on everything from the early use of L’Arche as a smokescreen for the cult, to the psychoanalytic theories of Mr. Vanier’s sexual habits.
The Jean Vanier I knew, and the one I didn’t
Mr. Vanier had a privileged but chilly Catholic upbringing as the son of former Canadian governor-general Georges Vanier and his devout wife, Pauline. It was Pauline who first introduced her son to her spiritual adviser in France, Père Thomas Philippe, a well-connected French Dominican friar 20 years older than Jean Vanier. Père Thomas became his lifelong obsession and spiritual leader, initiating him into his cult of abuse and seduction, and into a lifelong rebellion against the leadership of the Catholic Church – a rebellion that, ironically, was partly responsible for the founding of L’Arche.
In the judgment of the report’s authors, Mr. Vanier – lonely and mostly friendless as a child, raised in an always busy family that valued public service and religious faith over emotions – was a sitting duck for a predator like Père Thomas.
In 1952, at the age of 22, after attending an English military school and serving in the navy, Mr. Vanier was considering the priesthood. (His mother was all in favour.) He joined L’Eau vive, an international training centre funded by Père Thomas, in 1945. L’Eau vive was “halfway between the religious community, the Christian youth hostel and the American style university campus” with an emphasis on theology and the contemplative life. It was located near several convents, one of which was run by Père Thomas’s sister, Cécile Philippe, a Dominican mother superior.
Père Thomas used L’Eau vive (and a total of five convents) to procure partners for the unorthodox sexual appetites he developed in 1938. By his account, he was standing in front of a fresco of the Virgin Mary and experienced a “mystic union” with her and his “graces” – which included his genitals.
According to the report, his sister was another of his procurers: she “pushed several of her nuns into her brother’s arms while having homosexual relationships with several of them herself and incestuous ones with her brother.” Père Thomas justified these acts with theological theories of his own devising. Mr. Vanier became a spiritual acolyte of Père Thomas – and eventually a participant in his sexual activities.
An investigation into Père Thomas’s behaviour in 1952 resulted in Mr. Vanier taking over the leadership of L’Eau vive. He defended Père Thomas vigorously four years later when the priest was found guilty of serious sexual abuse, ejected from the Dominican order and stripped of his rights as a priest. Even as late as 2012, when asked about Père Thomas, Mr. Vanier described the contretemps as a little more than a doctrinal disagreement.
Mr. Vanier spent the next eight years on a wandering path he described to his parents as a period of searching and solitude “so that he could know what Jesus will ask.” It was a convenient front: In fact, he maintained close if secret contact with Père Thomas and their core group of “initiates” – women he and Père Thomas “accompanied” on their mystical-sexual-religious practices. Jacqueline d’Halluin, a sexual partner of Père Thomas, then initiated Mr. Vanier into the rituals, at Père Thomas’s direction.
When first confronted with these details sixty years later, Mr. Vanier claimed little detailed knowledge of what had happened. “Suddenly that woman found herself in his arms,” he is quoted as saying.
The Vatican never publicly revealed the findings of its damning investigation of Père Thomas – one main reason the abuses continued for decades, according to the report. But several authorities – including Pope John XXIII – tried to persuade Mr. Vanier to break ties. Père Thomas was variously diagnosed as a “madman,” a “subtle pervert” and as a delusional schizophrenic. But, as Mr. Vanier later acknowledged, he couldn’t abandon his mentor: By his own admission, the relationship was both the deepest and most troubling of his life.
“He was 25 years old when he arrived at L’Eau vive,” Stefan Posner, the international leader of L’Arche, points out. “He was very open and impressionable. And he was seduced. I think in a sense Jean was a victim of Father Philippe. But he quite quickly became an accomplice.”
Mr. Vanier and his master become experts in the art of secrecy and dissimulation – behaviour startlingly (and conveniently) at odds with Mr. Vanier’s reputation as a compassionate and gifted leader. With Mr. Vanier’s help, the disgraced and exiled Père Thomas continued his mystical-sexual relationships with women – the “little ones,” as he and Mr. Vanier called them.
Mr. Vanier provided the cleric with overalls and a motorcycle balaclava so the notorious apostate could move about undetected. He also ensured that the little ones were “well rested” for their encounters with Père Thomas. In return, Père Thomas arranged “immediate access to ‘exceptional mystic graces’ ” – sexual experiences.
The sexual encounters were eccentric and often noncoital. They usually began with Mr. Vanier on his knees praying, with his head to the bared chest of the woman – naked prayer was common – followed by kissing and caressing and even ejaculation.
All this was couched, in the many letters Mr. Vanier and his victims exchanged, in hyperbolic self-justifying spiritual language: They share “a dive into divine Love” while “united in prayer” and “penetrating the mysteries” of seeking a “good pleasure” through God. He refers to himself as “the Christ” or “the bridegroom.” When a woman questions what is happening, he has an almost stock reply: “It’s not us, it’s Mary and Jesus.”
Many of the women professed feeling confused and lost – partly because of Mr. Vanier’s growing reputation as a compassionate, charismatic leader of a just and respected cause. “He put my conscience to sleep,” one victim recalled. He was not argumentative or a bully when someone wanted to end things. His behaviour often surprised his victims. Once, when a woman revealed that she was having a (prohibited) relationship with a Jesuit, Mr. Vanier laughed. “But it’s so beautiful in you that the physical and psychological should always go together,” he reportedly said. The investigators comment frequently on Mr. Vanier’s naiveté.
“I did not know if it was good or bad,” one of his victims said. “After the first time, I was totally lost … At the same time, it also made me feel good.” Said another: “I didn’t want to disappoint him.”
The findings raise serious questions: Mr. Posner wonders if an organization that does good work will be permanently tainted because its founder did bad things. Will it be possible for the public to accept that both good and evil could exist in the same person?
Most alarmingly, at least for L’Arche as an organization, the report undermines the world-famous foundation story of L’Arche. Mr. Vanier moved into a house with two intellectually disabled men who could not speak, in the town of Trosly-Breuil, outside Paris, in 1964. But the evidence now reveals that he did so mainly, and certainly initially, simply to be as close as possible to Père Thomas, who was living nearby in semi-exile. Even the name L’Arche was the idea of Ms. d’Halluin, the partner of Père Thomas who initiated Mr. Vanier into the sex cult.
But the larger community of L’Arche managed to keep to a straighter path. The report states that “there is little evidence that [the cult’s] toxicity deeply infiltrated L’Arche.”
One reason (and the report cites several) was that as L’Arche expanded as a refuge, it was subject to more public-health regulations and scrutiny.
As troubling as he finds the rotten roots of L’Arche – how extensive the abuses were, how long they lasted, how hidden they remained, and why – Mr. Posner is taking some comfort in L’Arche’s apparent immunity to greater contagion.
“The report confirms that this small circle of people did not go beyond that,” he says, with evident relief. “It would be very interesting to see why we did not, to see what in our history and our story has given us the resources to become something other than that.”
It’s an interesting question. Despite what its founders perpetrated, L’Arche also began as a triple utopia – Catholic, communal and medical. Having accepted one another as mutually broken companions and equals, the men and women who share their lives at L’Arche appear not to have needed to force each other to their will.