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.