Thursday, February 2, 2023

Report on Jean Vanier: Vanier Founded L'Arche "Primarily as a Cover for a Secretive Religious Sect with Exploitative 'Mystical-Sexual' Beliefs and Practices"

Photo of Jean Vanier by Kotukaran, at Wikimedia Commons
Photo of Jean Vanier by Kotukaran, at Wikimedia Commons

On 30 January, a study commission convoked by L'Arche International to look into the question of reports of sexual abuse of vulnerable women by L'Arche issued its report. Vanier founded L'Arche as a ministry supporting physically and mentally challenged people. The report produced by an interdisciplinary group of French academics after lengthy probing and study of the evidence, found the following, as Michael Atencio reports:

A report released today concluded that Jean Vanier — a Catholic lay leader and founder of L’Arche, a worldwide network of communities supporting adults with intellectual disabilities — founded the first L’Arche community primarily as a cover for a secretive religious sect with exploitative “mystical-sexual” beliefs and practices.

The report also found Vanier sexually exploited at least 25 nondisabled women from 1952 until just before his death in 2019, far more than previously known.

According to the report, the sect used L’Arche as a “screen” to secretly reunite around their leader, Thomas Philippe, a Dominican priest who had previously been investigated and disciplined by Catholic authorities for his abuse and his manipulative theology.  ...

Their findings expose a much wider scale for Vanier’s abuse and lies than was previously known: While not all 25 nondisabled women described their experience as “abuse,” [Tina] Bovermann [executive director of L'Arche USA] told Sojourners “all of the women qualify their experience on some continuum of control, transgression, all the way to abuse.”

 As Michael Atencio also states,

The report carefully examined the history of l’Eau Vive, a center Philippe founded outside of Paris in 1946 that offered training in the contemplative life and the theology of Thomas Aquinas. In 1950, after serving in both the Canadian and English navies, Vanier joined l’Eau Vive; he was 22.

The new report reveals that within l’Eau Vive, Vanier and others became students of Philippe and were “initiated” into Philippe’s perverse sexual practices.

In 1956, Philippe was investigated and barred from ministry by the Catholic Church after two women reported Philippe’s sexual abuse to his superiors. The 2020 report outlined how church officials disbanded l’Eau Vive and gave its remaining members “definitive prohibition of its reformation in another place.”

Yet letters excerpted in the 2020 report show Vanier maintained contact with Philippe and even helped Philippe “meet clandestinely with the women of Eau Vive,” despite being informed by church officials that they condemned Philippe’s theology and Vanier should not participate in any activities of l’Eau Vive. The new report further confirmed that Vanier and others were following Philippe’s instructions from 1956 through the founding of L’Arche in 1964.

Throughout the early days of L’Arche, Philippe was a spiritual adviser to the community. He died in 1993.

Katie Collins Scott writes,

 Bovermann said the new report has led her to reflect upon the interplay of gender, power and charismatic leadership

"In the wake of the Me-Too movement, I would be hard-pressed to find a charismatic woman" who inflicted abuse in the manner of Vanier, she said. There are many such men, she said.

"What is it about the power that these perceived spiritual, saintly men hold and are given that allows for hidden, manipulative and distasteful behavior?"

Michael W. Higgins writes

The rot was extensive, insidious, encased in secrecy and ruthless in nurturing a culture hidden in plain sight. And Mr. Vanier was fully onside. He wrote in his autobiography that Père Philippe “loved me and accepted me the way I was. It was liberating for me. It is wonderful to be seen, to be recognized as a person who has a destiny and a mission.” That destiny and mission were, in great measure, defined by Père Philippe. ...

Both Père Philippe and Mr. Vanier drew on their self-invoked privileged relationship with the divine to channel their lust as they perfected their seductions in sacral terms: “It’s not us, it’s Mary and Jesus” and “Jesus and I are not two, we are one … and it is Jesus who loves you through me” – two phrases that appeared in some of the victim testimonies. Mr. Vanier at one point describes his genitals as a “sacrament of love.” 

All this, and as Higgins writes, Jean Vanier has, until the revelations of the last few years, been seen as "a living saint in our time." 

And that's what stands out for me as I read this story in light of news about the funeral today of Cardinal George Pell, who was acclaimed by Tony Abbott at the funeral "a saint for our times" — and Abbott is echoing what a number of pieces of commentary in the mainstream media have also said about Pell after he died. 

What does sainthood mean any longer in the Catholic tradition? I ask myself. One big reason lay ecclesial movements like L'Arche have played such a prominent role in the Catholic church in the latter half of the 20th century is that Pope John Paul II loved them, encouraged them, gave them perks and privileges. Many of these movements tend, after all, in a papolatrous direction, and John Paul II frankly liked that penchant. They also commonly espouse a fundamentalist reading of Catholic doctrine and moral teaching.

It was one of the lay ecclesial movements, Focolare, that astroturfed an immediate appeal for John Paul II's canonization following his death. Signs prepared before his death — Santo subito! — popped up in St. Peter's Square, making it appear that there was widespread acclamation of John Paul II's sanctity among the people of God. These were prepared for, bought and distributed by Focolare. 

Many of us thought that the immediate canonization of John Paul II was a huge mistake. Now we're hearing people call George Pell, with his history of hateful treatment of LGBTQ people in the name of the church, and with the Australian Royal Commission report on abuse exposing him as protecting clerics sexually abusing minors, a saint. As Jean Vanier was long called a saint, until now….

Honestly, what does sanctity mean any longer in the Catholic tradition? 

And you know who has not been declared a saint? Mychal Judge.

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