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Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche, is pictured in this in file photo from March 11, 2015. An internal report revealed last week Vanier, a respected Canadian religious figure, sexually abused at least six women over a period of several decades.Lefteris Pitarakis/The Canadian Press

Madeline Burghardt teaches at York University in Toronto and is the author of Broken: Institutions, Families, and the Construction of Intellectual Disability.

I met Jean Vanier, once. Strangely, it came on my second day at L’Arche Daybreak, where I lived as an assistant for 2½ years in the mid-1990s. He was visiting Daybreak – based in Richmond Hill, Ont., it is the oldest L’Arche community in North America – for its 25th anniversary. Passing through the kitchen, I discovered him eating dinner, and found him to be as so many have – a kind, welcoming person, quiet and gentle in his demeanour.

Last weekend, Canadians woke to the news that Mr. Vanier, the highly respected founder of L’Arche, an international federation of communities for people with and without intellectual disabilities, had sexually abused six women over a period of several decades. The report also indicated that Mr. Vanier had known of abuses committed by his former mentor and spiritual director, Père Thomas Philippe, a revelation he had earlier denied, and that the abuse committed by Mr. Vanier was coercive and was done “under conditions of psychological hold.” This is a sad and difficult moment for L’Arche, and for all those who have held Mr. Vanier in high regard since the founding of L’Arche more than 50 years ago.

However, when the circumstances surrounding his situation are reflected on, this news should not come as a surprise. Despite the seeming peaceful, countercultural space that he had occupied for more than five decades, the underlying circumstances surrounding these incidents of abuse are not dissimilar from other high-profile cases in which men have also been found to abuse vulnerable people in their closest circles.

After leaving Daybreak, I held a number of part-time positions in the L’Arche Toronto community. I have not held a formal role in L’Arche for more than a decade and so do not speak on behalf of the L’Arche community.

Still, I have remained a friend and associate. Now an academic, I spend a lot of time reading, thinking and writing about historical decisions that have ended up hurting people – the damage that long-stay institutions inflicted upon people with intellectual disabilities throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the decisions that resulted in the thalidomide tragedy in Canada, the reasons surrounding the T4 program in Nazi Germany. In addition to their effects, I think a lot about the conditions that made these historical atrocities possible. What were the social, political and cultural conditions that allowed such things to emerge, and to make them appear reasonable?

The details of the report are, to many, shocking. When Mr. Vanier was confronted in 2015 about the allegations against Père Thomas, he denied knowledge of his practices and expressed concern, stating he needed to re-examine L’Arche’s founding story more deeply.

Yet the report reveals that not only was Mr. Vanier aware of Père Thomas’s actions, but that he, too, had engaged in non-consensual sexual practices with female assistants who were living and working in the L’Arche Trosly community in France. Mr. Vanier had coerced women, using the rhetoric of intimacy as an expression of a mystical spiritual bond through which they would draw closer to Jesus.

Typical of abusive situations, the women all described themselves as being in a state of vulnerability at the time of the abuse, and were afraid to come forward owing to Mr. Vanier’s convincing presence as a spiritual leader, his coercive tactics and his prominent position within L’Arche. Also typical, he swore the women to secrecy. The abuse lasted for decades: Accounts from women range from the 1970s until 2005, suggesting that Mr. Vanier knew well how to hide his actions, or that others who may have suspected felt unable to come forward.

In addition to these difficult stories of abuse, the silence and dishonesty that Mr. Vanier demonstrated around them creates an extra burden. L’Arche members are dealing with a deep sense of betrayal that this man, whom they had trusted as their spiritual if not practical leader for the past several decades, had manipulated vulnerable people for his own purposes and had abused his power as a respected and trusted leader.

When approached in 2016 about an allegation of abuse that had taken place in the 1970s, Mr. Vanier stated that he believed the relationship had been reciprocal. When approached again in March, 2019, near the end of his life, about another allegation, Mr. Vanier denied involvement.

Mr. Vanier’s seeming unwillingness to be transparent in his final days is devastating to many. Mr. Vanier preached forgiveness – indeed, this is one of the central tenets of L’Arche, that in order to truly live well together, we must be able to forgive each other our weaknesses and learn to appreciate each other’s gifts. Moreover, Mr. Vanier asserted that forgiveness is essential because of our common, shared humanity and brokenness.

His lack of admission as he neared the end of his life raises questions. Despite his testaments toward the ubiquitous brokenness of the human spirit, was he afraid that all might not be forgiven if the entire truth was revealed? Did he not trust that the survivors and his community were capable of that level of forgiveness? Or, more gravely, did he internally maintain that what had passed between himself and the women was not abusive? Or, cynically, was Mr. Vanier shrewdly aware of the potential damage that could come to L’Arche should the truth be known, and simply hoped that it would never come to that? Sadly, these are questions to which we may never know the answers.

The detritus this news has left in its wake is now strewn across the Canadian social landscape. Mr. Vanier had become, in the eyes of many Canadians, a revered figure because of his many decades of living with and speaking on behalf of people with intellectual disabilities.

He was esteemed – the son of a former governor-general, giver of the Massey Lectures in 1998, winner of the Templeton Prize in 2015, winner of the Pacem in Terris award in 2013, named to the Order of Canada, among several other designations. He has written dozens of books; schools have been named after him; high-school curricula include him and his work as an example of a man who lived social justice. He espoused the virtues of living simply in community, iterating the importance of living in mutual relationships and honouring the gifts of each person regardless of ability.

Yet for all the virtuous practices with which he engaged, the revelations that he deceptively manipulated and abused vulnerable members of his community should not be surprising. The circumstances surrounding his position are, sadly, identical to those of so many men who have acted similarly.

He held authority in a tight-knit, insular community, and he was deeply, implicitly trusted. His position was so central to the story of L’Arche and to its message of trust, fidelity and mutuality that to consider him untrustworthy was unimaginable. Yet that position of trusted authority afforded him tremendous power.

Mr. Vanier was revered, venerated even, in some circles, and talk of him being named a saint had emerged even before his death in May, 2019, a social and religious positioning that made him less vulnerable to criticism. Strangely, Mr. Vanier’s Canadian nationality is also a factor: Our country is often so desperate for national heroes that we are reluctant to critique those who emerge as leaders of positive social movements – Tommy Douglas and his early eugenic beliefs is a good example of this – even when robust and honest discussions of historical figures in their entirety would serve our national interests better in the long run.

In addition, similar to other situations of abuse, Mr. Vanier was surrounded by young women in search of something, and he was positioned as central to that quest. Although the women who came to L’Arche were seeking something very different from those who have followed their aspirations in other places – for example, the realization of a spiritual encounter as opposed to a big break in the film industry – their stories are familiar.

Replace the Hollywood dream with a L’Arche one, and although the features are different, the narratives are the same – the realization of something long sought for, dependent on a strong and influential man in order for that to happen, conditions of silence.

Similar to other men who abuse, Mr. Vanier used what was at his disposal for his own purposes and used deceitful messaging – in this case, describing the encounters as mystical and spiritual experiences – to coerce those with less power to oblige him. These underlying traits are, by now, familiar to anyone who has been attentive to the #MeToo movement over the past two years as women begin to speak out and name their abusers.

While it is extremely painful to place Mr. Vanier and former Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, who was found guilty of rape this week, on the same page – and indeed, I wince as I write these words – this is part of the process with which members of L’Arche, and indeed all those who are concerned about abuses of power, must engage in order to come to terms with what has been revealed here.

There is much to be learned here beyond the parameters of one federation of communities, and the lessons carry a broader social imperative. The results of this inquiry are a stark reminder of the dangers of investing our hopes, including altruistic ones that aim to build a better world, in one person or even one movement. When social movements adhere closely to a central figure with significant and often unchecked influence, there are frequently disappointments and, as this case demonstrates, often tragedies.

Not only L’Arche, but society more generally, must be vigilant toward these kinds of situations: the narrowing of our investments toward long-term dreams into one, potentially flawed direction.

L’Arche stands now in a difficult and painful place. It must now acknowledge the full scope of its history and must continue to work to uncover its reach, to begin to pick up the debris left behind in the wake of the findings. Leaders and assistants are now tasked with the difficult work of sharing and processing this news with community members, especially “core members” – people with intellectual disabilities, some of whom have openly referred to Mr. Vanier as their hero.

Leaders must make difficult phone calls – to family members, to donors, to long-term friends of the communities. L’Arche must now discern to what extent it can separate the founder from the movement. With more than 100 communities around the world, L’Arche has a great deal at stake in reassuring people that the care provided is solid and caring, despite the now-stained history of its founder.

Perhaps most difficult, L’Arche must begin to understand itself differently. It must now live with abuse in its history, with the potentiality that it may have gone further, and with far more people than what we can ascertain for certain, and with the knowledge, owing to Mr. Vanier and many other original members being now deceased, that the complete truth may never be fully known.

However, unlike many other situations in which histories of abuse emerge, L’Arche did not attempt to bury the story. Despite the potential for damage to its reputation, L’Arche International initiated the investigation and hired a reputable consulting firm with expertise in the prevention of sexual abuse to carry it out.

In its leaders’ words, L’Arche is “committed to reviewing arrangements for ensuring the safety and well-being of all members.”

In my 25-year history of connection with L’Arche, I know it as a beautiful and caring place where I learned to be patient and to listen deeply to those who are often not listened to. Our work remains to stay true to the task of L’Arche in spite of what we have learned about its founder.

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