A Light Extinguished

Jean Vanier & the Betrayal of Trust
Jean Vanier, founder of the L'Arche communities, is pictured in a March 3, 2011, photo. (CNS photo/courtesy Jean Vanier Association)

People around the world are processing the news that the revered spiritual leader Jean Vanier has been found to have sexually and emotionally abused multiple women who came to him for spiritual “accompaniment” over several decades. The revelations sparked a media storm inside and outside Catholicism. Celebrity abusers are front and center in our tremulous time: Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein, to say nothing of the serial abusers who have haunted the studios of the BBC, the campsites of the Boy Scouts, and the curial cells of Vatican apparatchiks. But there is something even more disturbing about spiritual leaders, as they are the ones we most trust, the ones removed from the hurly-burly, the mad contradictions that define our flawed humanity. They are beacons in a darkening landscape. And now one light has been extinguished.

When L’Arche International undertook an investigation into the ministry and behavior of the renegade Dominican friar Thomas Philippe in 2014, they had little idea of the extent of his amorous alliances dressed up as spiritual counselling, his abuse of novice nuns, his psychological predation. They took the allegations brought forward by victims seriously, secured a canonical inquiry, and in 2015 issued their report. It was damning. Père Thomas broke his vows and demonstrated “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.” We had seen this before: the deployment of seductive language, the creation of a private and sacred secrecy, the invocation of special status by priestly intervention.

Vanier of course had a unique and longstanding relationship with Philippe, whom he called a “spiritual father” in describing the mentorship the Dominican had provided since 1950. Their shared pastoral concern for the emotionally and intellectually challenged led to the establishment of L’Arche in France in 1964. When L’Arche International queried Vanier about the allegations against Philippe, he stated that he was unaware of the friar’s behavior. That appears not to have been true. L’Arche International, following allegations by two women, in 2016 and 2019, launched an investigation of Vanier to determine the precise relationship between him and Philippe, and to clarify the founding charism and early history of the L’Arche movement, with the express purpose of determining if there were other allegations that need to be brought to light. The findings of this inquiry were detailed in a report issued on February 22, the conclusions of which have shocked the Catholic world as well as dismayed the large following Vanier had among multitudes regardless of creed or ethnicity.

The collateral damage of these discoveries was immediate and continues to be felt: demoralized assistants and core members of the 152 L’Arche homes around the world (great care is being taken to explain what has happened to the core members, the intellectually disabled ones, cognizant of potential trauma and agonizing disbelief); the future of various institutes, research bodies, and schools named after Vanier (following discussion with the various stakeholders determining whether the name should be stripped or re-contextualized); the removal of his books from publishers’ catalogues and the pulping of unsold copies (full disclosure: the publisher of my biography of Vanier, Logician of the Heart, will be recycling the remaining copies).

Of greater damage, of course, is the profound feeling of personal betrayal and deep disappointment that a man they trusted—and Vanier made much of trust as the cornerstone of an integrated and meaningful life—was not the person they thought he was. There will be no santo subito moment, no groundswell of public acclamation that Vanier was a saint; the luster of holy leadership has been expunged.

There will be no groundswell of public acclamation that Vanier was a saint; the luster of holy leadership has been expunged.

How did this happen? Why did an eccentric and narcissistic French cleric hold such sway over Vanier, and indeed members of his family, and for so long, even after he was subject to the canonical sanction of deposition by the Holy Office in 1956, deprived of his right to celebrate the sacraments, engage in spiritual direction, or indeed to preach? Philippe’s own order complied and all parties were made aware that he was censured by the authorities because of his “mystical doctrine” and his conduct. The Dominican archives establish conclusively that Vanier was made aware of the reasons for Philippe’s censure, and yet Vanier persisted in keeping in close contact with him, facilitated his inclusion in various L’Arche homes, and ensured that his spiritual practices were resumed. I asked some Vanier authorities—Mary Frances Coady, author of Georges and Pauline Vanier: Portrait of a Couple, and Carolyn Whitney-Brown, editor of Jean Vanier: Essential Writings—if they had knowledge of the true nature of Philippe’s sanctioning and if they were at least dimly aware of Vanier’s conduct. Both emphatically said “no.” That was my experience as well.

We all labored under the impression that Philippe’s canonical penalty was imposed exclusively on the basis of his esoteric Mariological theories with no hint that there were more serious concerns that occupied both the Vatican authorities and his Dominican superiors. As a consequence of the Vanier report, the Dominicans are opening two investigations—one concerning the order’s treatment of Philippe, in light of the fact that he appears to have insinuated his way back into active ministry enabled by Vanier—and one concerning Philippe’s brother, Marie-Dominique Philippe, founder of the Community of St. John and recently the subject of a graphic exposé of his immoral and abusive behavior toward members of this community. There appears to be something in the Philippe genes that merits examination.

Throughout the investigation, the team of experts respected the allegations of the women who came forward in both the case of Philippe and of Vanier. They operated on the principle of a “balance of probabilities” rather than “beyond any doubt,” recognized the fact that both men were deceased (Philippe in 1993 and Vanier in 2019), but were also able to access hitherto unavailable archival materials, including a hefty correspondence between Philippe and Vanier. In addition, they were able to conduct some interviews with Vanier himself, in one of which he acknowledged a relationship he had in the 1970s, which he believed to be reciprocal.

There is no illegality in any of this; no preying on youth or on the disabled; no calls for compensation. Just a sad but determined effort to cleanse the waters of perception, listen with compassion to the victims, look at the origins of L’Arche in in an unblinkered manner, begin the tasks of healing and of telling the truth. Lies and deception, subterfuge and evasion, have compromised the integrity of the mission of L’Arche. But the international body responsible for the inquiry is committed—with a subdued and eloquent dignity, in my opinion—to recovering its purpose and ensuring its survival by demystifying its origins, holding accountable the spiritual father and spiritual son, and redressing the evils committed.

Permit me to conclude with a passage from my soon-to-be-pulped biography that speaks to the enduring good of the Vanier vision, a good that must not be erased from our memory, a good that allows us to see beyond the fractured founder to the deeper truth of our broken humanity: “Vanier’s spirituality of the wounded is a spirituality enmeshed in the world of broken bodies, broken minds, broken spirits. Vanier knows to break open Albert Camus’s ‘plague of cerebration’ that poisons our culture, to expose to the open air the fallacies of reason, we must allow ‘the wounded’ to heal our wounds and touch our invisible scars of heart and mind.”

L’Arche International, in conducting this investigation, was motivated by nothing less than allowing the wounded to heal our wounds with the light of truth.

Published in the April 2020 issue: 

Michael W. Higgins is Distinguished Professor of Catholic Thought, Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, past president of two Canadian Catholic universities, and co-author of Impressively Free: Henri Nouwen as Model for a Renewed Priesthood.

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