Reckoning With the Revelations About Jean Vanier | Sojourners

Reckoning With the Revelations About Jean Vanier

On Saturday, L’Arche International — a network of more than 154 communities in 38 countries where people with intellectual disabilities and those without intellectual disabilities live together in community to "work together to build a more human society" — announced the results of an investigation it commissioned last year into L’Arche founder Jean Vanier, who died in 2019. The investigation revealed that Vanier “has been accused of manipulative sexual relationships and emotional abuse between 1970 and 2005, usually within a relational context where he exercised significant power and a psychological hold over the alleged victims,” as Tina Bovermann, Executive Director of L’Arche USA put it in a letter describing the investigation and its findings. These relationships were “described as emotionally abusive and characterized by significant imbalances of power,” according to the report, and occurred in the context of spiritual direction. In addition, the report establishes that Jean Vanier knew of the emotional and sexual abuse perpetrated by his mentor, Father Thomas Philippe, and may have enabled further abuse by his silence, continued relationship with Phillipe, and access to a L'Arche community he provided Phillipe for decades.

The reaction to this news has been widespread in many of our circles.

"A devastating and lifelong tragedy for those who were abused. A time of heartbreak for L’Arche. A grave disappointment for all who admired him, and considered him a saint, as I once did," wrote Jesuit priest and America magazine editor James Martin.

"My heart breaks for his victims, including those who will never be included in official numbers because they can’t come forward," wrote activist and author Shannon Dingle.

Common themes to the reactions are shock — and grief.

One of the other themes we see emerging is appreciation for L’Arche International’s transparency in this matter. With so many cases of men abusing power — including gymnastics trainer Larry Nassar at my own alma mater Michigan State, and many more throughout both Catholic and evangelical churches — we see quite the opposite: Public denials after a public accusation, often followed by attacks on the survivors and/or minimizing the severity of the offenses. Of course, this often happens after a pattern of concealment and cover up, many times stretching over decades, which often allows the abuse to continue. That does not seem to be what happened with L’Arche. The organization reportedly launched the investigation by an experienced and neutral outside firm in response to allegations, and a report of its findings was published proactively. It’s also worth noting that many of L’Arche’s current leaders have been very accessible, forthcoming, and transparent in their interactions with the media since the report came out last Saturday.

Given the pain I know this revelation is causing for so many, I reached out to Tina Bovermann, head of L’Arche USA.

"First and foremost, we stand with the women today. Jean’s actions are inexcusable," Bovermann said, in reference to what she sees as L’Arche’s duty and priorities in this moment. "My heart is with those who have been harmed and silenced. My heart is also with our many members and friends who are integrating the news. And, we are, of course, so grateful for the journalists and columnists out there who are offering nuanced reflections, because that is how we seek to live this season, resolved and clear, but with kindness and deliberate slowness. ... whether we've done this right or not, time will tell."

In my conversation with her, I commented on the pain that survivors must have endured, the grief of so many people as they reacted to the news, and the pain she and so many who live and work with L’Arche must be feeling this week.

''Painful' is the right word,' she confirmed. '… What have [the survivors] lived all these years when they were silenced? What have they lived when Jean died and was talked about as a saint? Even now the stories are more centered on him."

I’ve been reflecting on some of the similarities and differences between what seems to have happened between Vanier and those he targeted and Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder‘s abuse of more than 100 women. The similarity I find the most striking is the way a teaching, mentoring, pastoral, or even spiritual direction relationship was so closely connected — and, it seems, warped and manipulated — to serve the desires and purposes of a powerful man. Bovermann spoke to me of the "pseudo-mystical justification" Vanier and his mentor Thomas Phillipe seem to have employed with their victims, each other, and themselves in rationalizing their actions. That strikes me as similar to the pseudo-ethical arguments Yoder always made in his own defense. The insidious nature of spiritual manipulation and abuse — which has driven so many from the church, as it can no longer be a safe place — threatens Christian witness and, indeed, the lives and spiritual health of all people.

"[These revelations] point to a very important question in our society and L'Arche and elsewhere,“ Bovermann said. "... What is the place of the charismatic leader? It's a valid question that we need to ask."

We do need leaders, but we need to think about who we elevate and how we elevate them — and how they are allowed to lead. Do our leaders have the necessary self-reflection that is required of them? What are the practices and systems of accountability we need? How do we discern leadership as a spiritual gift from pride in one’s own efforts? How do leaders honestly and humbly understand their own humanity and their own vulnerability?

After Vanier’s death, but even before these new revelations, biogapher Carolyn Whitney-Brown wrote about this reality we find in human leaders.

“Jean was not perfect and he hurt people and he knew it. If that reality crushes your opinion of Jean, then you might ask yourself why you want any human being to project perfection,” Whitney-Brown wrote. “Only the light itself has no shadows, and only God is the light. To turn a person into the light is to create an idol.”

Bovermann spoke to this — and the struggles so many within L’Arche and outside it are having in processing the news.

"... There was something in [Vanier] that sort of went directly to your soul ... and that makes it all the more incomprehensible and unfathomable to integrate what we now know,“ Bovermann said.“... How do we hold the light and the darkness together? We are here at the intersection of spirituality, of sexuality, of deep longing for intimacy ... it's very disturbing."

Still, she expressed a great deal of hope for L’Arche’s resilience and future viability of its communities, saying:

"I'm having so many conversations with people who are hurt and betrayed and sad ... and yet something in our people allows them to hold the tension between these distressing facts … a somewhat nuanced picture of Jean, and second, people are really rallying around L'Arche ... it touches me to be able to serve these people and this mission ...There are 10,000 people who live these lives across difference ... this is hard and trying, but I have no concerns for L'Arche.”

L’Arche has taught many people many important things over the years about “the value of human beings,” as they often put it, or put another way, how human we all are. Their transparent treatment of this painful moment may offer lessons for us moving forward — about standing with survivors with no caveats, about discerning leaders’ humanity and “fallenness.” When the message of leaders strikes so deeply into people’s hearts, souls, and lives, how do we hold onto that message when those same leaders manipulate the response into predatory behavior that harms God’s people? Good human leadership is needed, perhaps more than ever in days like these. Painful and devastating revelations like these must lead to much deeper self-reflection, self-understanding, and humility for leaders in all walks of life and, perhaps most, in places of spiritual leadership.

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