A little over three years ago, L’Arche International published its preliminary findings on allegations of sexual abuse and other transgressions against Thomas Philippe, OP, and Jean Vanier, the principal figures in the L’Arche movement. The organization noted at the time that “the stakes are high for L’Arche, following the death of its founder and revelations which mark a break in its history, there is a need to reread the past.... An in-depth study is to be carried out to gain a better understanding of the personality and input of Jean Vanier and the relationship dynamics at work between the founder and those who knew him.”
That in-depth study, “Abuse and Hold: An Investigation of Thomas Philippe, Jean Vanier and L’Arche,” was released in January. It’s a nine-hundred-page document comprehensive in scope, scale, and methodology. Its main conclusion is made plain in the accompanying cover letter, in which L’Arche admits “our institutional responsibility for failing to spot these abuses, report them and forestall them. At the same time we feel that our founder’s adherence to the doctrines of Thomas Philippe and the reproduction of his practices, their concealment and the lies that followed, constitute a serious breach of trust towards L’Arche and its members.”
The commission that L’Arche charged to undertake the investigation consisted of six researchers from several disciplines: history, sociology, psychiatry, psychoanalysis, and theology. They were assisted in their work by a group of experts from diverse fields and positions of authority. The investigation covered the period from Vanier’s birth in Geneva in 1928 to his death in Trosly in 2019. The commissioners held 119 interviews with eighty-nine individuals and examined fifteen books written by Vanier in order to get as complete a picture as possible of the thinking behind his behavior, and they made clear that “by publicly reporting the results of its investigation, the intention...is to make available to all solid elements, rigorously sourced and cross-checked, capable of offering an enlightened understanding of the alleged facts.”
Understanding Vanier’s spiritual and sexual abuse of multiple women associated with L’Arche first requires underscoring his relationship with the controversial and disgraced Dominican Mariologist, Thomas Philippe. Philippe’s “Marian maximalism” originated in an intense experience in 1938 in a convent chapel in Rome in front of the fresco Mater Admirabilis, an affective experience of divine enrapture resulting in private revelations and mystical graces that would determine the direction of his theological thinking and ministry. It blurred the distinction between the mystical and the erotic, rationalized sexual behavior—often deviant and clothed in the language of Marian devotion—and facilitated his predation on young and vulnerable women, religious and secular, all behind a screen of avowed sanctity.
Vanier fell under Philippe’s influence almost from the moment he first met him in 1947. Throughout the 1950s, Vanier cemented his relationship and dependence on Thomas, initially as a student of his esoteric Thomism, but eventually as an initiate in his secret society of Gnostic libertines glossed as devout votaries of Mary and her son. No less a French Catholic luminary than Jacques Maritain judged Philippe’s Marian spirituality “mad,” writing in a letter to Charles Journet that his “mannerism of wanting to make the Holy Virgin her Son’s bride infuriates and shocks me.” As the L’Arche Report notes: “The mystique of T. Philippe is based in particular on the affirmation of incestuous sexual relations between Jesus and Mary during their earthly life and continuing in their heavenly life. This religious vocabulary encloses people in a gangue.”