When the news broke late Friday night that Jean Vanier, the revered founder of L’Arche, had sexually abused at least six women of a wide range of ages over the course of 35 years, Lori Vaanholt knew she had to speak to her four children right away.
Her kids attend Catholic high school in Sudbury, Ont. “In school, they talk about Jean Vanier all the time. My kids have always been firmly proud of Jean.”
She told the girls that evening. It went better than she feared. “What it helped us all to realize was that when you speak your truth, and there is light that comes out of it, you go forth stronger.”
Then the girls went to bed and Ms. Vaanholt, the director of strategic development at L’Arche Canada, went back to madly texting 29 leaders of L’Arche communities across the country, discussing how to break the terrible news to the assistants (helpers) and core members (intellectually disabled people) who live together as equals in L’Arche homes.
Ms. Vaanholt had seen the findings of a 10-month investigation into Mr. Vanier’s behaviour shortly after Christmas. “It’s so far removed from anything I would have imagined. And I’m really disappointed.”
Admirers of Jean Vanier have been struggling to process the revelations, trying to square them with the founder’s almost saintly reputation as a friend of the fragile. L’Arche itself is on its heels, albeit rallying, but the collateral damage extends far beyond its 152 communities.
The report revealed that Mr. Vanier, who died at the age of 90 last May, had “manipulative sexual relationships,” many of them coercive, with at least six women associated with L’Arche, between 1970 and 2005. The report also says that he enabled and shared sexual partners and “mystical” sexual and theological practices with Père 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.
Given that Mr. Vanier is no longer alive to defend or explain himself, the investigation reached its conclusions on the “balance of probabilities,” using the testimony of the women involved, new files from the Vatican and Mr. Vanier’s heretofore unseen correspondence. “Once we release this information,” says Stephan Posner, the director of L’Arche International, “we could assume that we will hear about other stories. But obviously, we’ve got no idea of the scope.”
(The Dominican brotherhood in Rome has opened two new investigations as a result of the Vanier discoveries – one into Père Thomas and his brother, Marie-Dominique Philippe, who also started a religious order and sexually abused women; and another to try to understand the “mysterious” theology and its associated sexual practices that Père Thomas and Mr. Vanier practised together.)
None of the abused women was an intellectually disabled core member. The report was prepared by GCPS Consulting, a British-based firm that specializes in preventing sexual exploitation and abuse, with additional historical work from theological scholar Antoine Mourges.
The Vanier name – not just Jean’s, but that of his famous father Georges, a former governor-general, and his mother Pauline – appears everywhere across Canada. There are at least 13 elementary and high schools named for Jean Vanier alone. Conversations with school board officials were already occurring over the weekend: Jean Vanier Catholic Secondary School in Milton, Ont., is fielding questions about a name change.
In Whitehorse, Vanier Catholic Secondary School principal Ryan Sikkes has had to issue a bulletin pointing out that “our school community is named after the Vanier family,” and not merely after Jean. Even so, Mr. Sikkes, an admirer of Mr. Vanier until recently, foresees long PTA conversations ahead. “It’s going to cause us out of necessity to have a bit of a reckoning about his reputation – as well as the dangers of creating cults of personality.”
The name of the Jean Vanier Research Centre, an institute specializing in disability studies within King’s College, a Catholic arm of the University of Western Ontario, may also be on the block. Its board meets next week to consider changing the name.
“It’s kind of an obvious conversation to have,” acknowledges David Malloy, the principal of King’s. “The actions of Jean Vanier are horrible. … He clearly can’t be seen, and should not be seen, with the same reverence as he has in the past.” His prohibition does not extend to L’Arche: “We’re here to support L’Arche in any way we can.”
There has been plenty of personal fallout as well.
Sister Sue Mosteller took over from Mr. Vanier as international director of L’Arche International in the 1970s. She stayed for 40 years, opening communities in India and through the Middle East. She was recently awarded the Order of Canada and was particularly proud of it: “Jean had it, too.” She pauses. “Now, they’ll probably take his away.” If they do, there are lots of other awards that will have to have Mr. Vanier’s name scrubbed of them: France’s Legion d’honneur, Britain’s Beacon Fellowship Prize, The Globe and Mail’s Nation Builder Award and dozens of others.
L’Arche has already begun the delicate task of passing the investigation’s findings along to the families of its wards, to private donors and to its government partners.
But the more daunting chore is to pass the new findings down to core members, the intellectually disabled in Canada’s 29 L’Arche communities. L’Arche has been using the time between the final delivery of the damning report and now to design E-Z Read pictograms and “circle processes” to help its intellectually disabled residents take in the sobering news of Mr. Vanier’s secret life.
“The big priority we’ve had is to make sure every person has a chance to take in the information and make sure they can process it, in whatever way they’re going to,” says Michael McDonald, L’Arche’s director of communications. “There’s not a lot out there on how to process organizational trauma when it involves neuro-diverse individuals. So we’re trying to invent a way forward.”
What’s interesting about Mr. McDonald’s statement, of course, is that it never for a moment assumes that the organization will not tell its core members the bad news. That partnership of equals between the intellectually disabled and the people who help them was the notion Mr. Vanier used to transform L’Arche from a housing project into a worldwide movement to improve the lives of those he called “the most oppressed people in the world.”
In a letter distributed over the weekend to the L’Arche federation, Mr. Posner wrote: ”While the considerable good he did throughout his life is not in question, we will nevertheless have to mourn a certain image we may have had of Jean and of the origins of L’Arche.”
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