Episode 2: Origin Stories
It was a powerful story that inspired a movement: Jean Vanier heard a call—from Jesus and people suffering in mental institutions—and decided to invite some men with intellectual disabilities to live with him. The only problem? It wasn’t true.
In this episode, we examine the origin stories of L’Arche: the one Vanier told for decades and the stranger, more devastating story revealed in a recent 900-page report. Host Jenna Barnett talks with L’Arche USA leader Tina Bovermann about why it took the organization so long to identify Vanier’s abuse and how they’re now trying to untangle L’Arche's mission from Vanier's lies.
You’ll also hear from Carolyn Whitney-Brown, an author who spent a decade of her life interviewing L'Arche leaders whose stories rarely get the spotlight.
Listen and subscribe today on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or anywhere you get your podcasts.
Credits: Lead Us Not was produced, written, and edited by Jenna Barnett, with executive production, story editing, and additional reporting by Betsy Shirley. Sound design and mixing and additional story editing by JP Keenan, factchecking and additional reporting by Mitchell Atencio. Tiarra Lucas designed our podcast cover. Our theme music is by Borrtex and by Yehezkel Raz.
Follow Sojourners on Facebook (@SojournersMagazine), Twitter (@sojourners), and Instagram (@sojogram), and share your thoughts about the podcast with #LeadUsNot or by emailing email@example.com.
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JENNA BARNETT, narrating: This podcast talks about sexual and spiritual violence and today’s episode includes some descriptions of Jean Vanier’s abuse, mostly in the first three minutes. If you’d rather skip this part, start around minute 3. Please use care when listening.
Hey there listeners: Last week, there was big news: A nearly 900-page report came out with new information about the founding of L’Arche and the abuse of Jean Vanier and his mentor, Thomas Philippe. If you heard the update we shared last week, you’ve already heard a little about what’s in the report, but there’s a lot more to say. The report was commissioned by L’Arche, but it was conducted by a group of independent scholars who worked on it for two years. I’ve spent most of the past week trying to wrap my head around everything we’ve learned.
From the report, we learned that Vanier’s abuse was far more extensive and strategic than we previously knew. In 2020, we learned that Vanier had been spiritually and sexually abusive toward 6 women. Now we know he pursued exploitive sexual interactions with at least 25 women. This abuse took place from the 1950s all the way up until 2019 — the year Vanier died. The women he exploited were often volunteers or assistants at L’Arche who had come to him to pray and ask for spiritual advice, often at times in their lives when they were dealing with significant personal and family problems. They included women who were married, single, or had taken religious vows.
It’s important to note: The report did not find any evidence that Phillipe or Vanier abused people with intellectual disabilities. But the report says, “on this crucial point, we must be careful.”
According to the report, the nature of the abuse falls on “a continuum of sexual violence marked by the experience of control, abuse of authority and, more generally, by the confusion of the spiritual, emotional and sexual spheres.”
The report details how Vanier began these relationships slowly over multiple sessions, gradually getting physically closer to these women as they prayed and introducing intensifying levels of touching. According to the report, Vanier’s abuse would escalate to “passionate, voluptuous kisses on the mouth of increasing intensity,’ and caresses on the erogenous zones of both parties, especially the female breast.”
[sighs] I hate reading that. I hate how Vanier distorted a beautiful thing like prayer into something so sinister.
The devastation doesn’t stop there. The revelations inside the report throw the whole origin story of L’Arche’s founding into question. I gotta say: It’s one of those stories that’s stranger and more haunting than I think anyone — including myself — imagined.
We’re going to get into that story, because the truth of what happened matters. But before we dive into the real story of L’Arche’s founding, I want you to hear the story that Vanier told for decades.
In the first episode and in last week’s update, you didn’t hear Vanier’s voice. That was intentional. He’s had more time in the spotlight than he ever deserved. But I want you to hear the story that inspired a movement. And I want you to hear it from Vanier himself.
JEAN VANIER, archival clip: Every time I see a man or woman with a severe mental handicap, the incredible cry that is coming from them, what I would, what I would call the primal cry, which is, do you love me? It's a very deep cry...
JENNA, narrating: Here, Vanier is talking on the television show “30 Good Minutes,” produced by the Chicago Sunday Evening Club. The year is 1995.
JEAN, archival clip: Somewhere this cry of, "Do you want to be my friend?" touched me. I began visiting asylums, hospitals, different institutions, families, and I discovered an immense world of pain, which I hadn't even imagined existed, and it seemed very clear to me that Jesus was asking me just to take one or two men and to start living together.
JENNA, narrating: The way he refers to people with intellectual disabilities is dated. His tone feels infantilizing toward them; the men feel like objects he “takes.” But at the time, the story was revolutionary.
JEAN, archival clip: So I was able to buy a small, broken-down house, and I welcomed two men, Raphael and Philippe, from an institution. Raphael had had a meningitis. He couldn't walk very well. He couldn’t speak very well. Philippe had had an encephalitis, one arm paralyzed, one leg paralyzed, living in a world of dream, but also with quite a severe mental handicap.
And we began to, to live together. And I did the cooking. So we didn't eat very well. We, um, did everything together. We cooked, we, um, worked in the garden together. We fought together, we prayed together, we forgave each other, and so a whole sort of journey began. You see, I began by thinking that I could do good for them [chuckles] but then as the days and as the months moved on, I began to discover what they were doing for me, transforming me, changing me, I thought I was going to teach them something and suddenly I was discovering that they were teaching me quite a bit.
JENNA, narrating: This story struck a chord with people. It inspired L’Arche communities to open up all over the world. It helped push forward the deinstitutionalization of people with disabilities. It inspired my own personal faith. But now we know: It’s not true.
[theme music] This is Lead Us Not, a podcast from Sojourners magazine that asks: What do we do when the people we once called living saints turn out to be secret perpetrators? In this episode, we’re going to talk about founding stories, the creation myths that shape our lives and communities.And when those origin stories turn out to be more stump speech than reality, what new stories do we tell about ourselves? [music ends]
TINA BOVERMANN: There’s sort of this public myth that we all have about ourselves individually, and that we certainly have about an organization. Which is interesting, right? And we have this public myth about L’Arche.
JENNA, narrating: This is Tina Bovermann, the executive director of L’Arche USA.
TINA: There’s Jean, who doesn't really know what to do, but he invites these guys out of this institution into this home … That's of course not what happened.
JENNA, narrating: This is her back in August of 2022.
TINA: There's an operational myth underneath, which is sort of the, the harsh reality of how it actually feels like going to do this. And then there's a gap, right? The gap between the public myth and what actually is reality. And when that gap becomes too big, the thing falls apart.
JENNA, narrating: That gap – between the operational myth and the harsh reality – has become larger than I think any of us imagined. But if we want to move forward, we need to know the truth. If we want to find healing, we have to understand the injury. And the injury is much worse than we initially thought.
For me, this is the most shocking finding in the nearly 900-page report: Vanier had a secret motive for founding L’Arche. He wanted to find a way to live what he called “a hidden life.” And for him, that life revolved around perverse and often abusive sexual practices. These practices enacted an incestuous relationship between Jesus and Mary.
Vanier knew what he was doing was not approved by the Catholic Church; his mentor, Thomas Philippe, had been strictly punished by the church for spreading these teachings and practices in the 1950s. The church also disbanded the community Philippe was leading, where Vanier was a member. And the Catholic Church thought the problem was solved. Punish the leader, disperse his followers, case closed, right? But what this new report shows is that Vanier used the creation of L’Arche to reunite some of these followers. After all: Who would expect that people who created an organization dedicated to helping folks with intellectual disabilities were secretly engaging in abusive mystical-sex practices?
If you’re thinking this all sounds too wild to be true, I get it. I’ve thought that, too. “Secret sex sect?” “Incestuous relationships with Jesus and Mary?” It doesn’t just sound sad; it sounds far-fetched. In the conclusion of the nearly 900-page report, the scholars put it this way: “The file is heavy. The diagnosis may seem harsh. It is now not without support.” A few pages later, the authors of the report elaborate on this heaviness, saying, “was L’Arche founded to serve as a screen for the activities of the group of ‘initiates’? … Contrary to what is being said about the founding of L’Arche, there is no 'revelation', no cry heard, no vocational call defining the founding moment. The primary intention ... was to gather around T. Philippe ... The ‘mystical-sexual’ beliefs they received from him are the cement that unites them and pushed them to rebuild a work. This work was originally only necessary to create an official support, a screen, for their reunion.”
It’s true that Vanier grew to deeply believe in the power of people with and without intellectual disabilities living together in community. But the story you heard him share at the beginning of this episode is not true. In 1964, when Vanier saw the plight of people with intellectual disabilities, he didn’t hear a call from Jesus to start a community with them. He saw their suffering and saw an opportunity. He saw a benevolent mission that was big enough and beautiful enough to hide behind. And he successfully hid his abusive sexual practices behind that mission for decades.
Tina talked to me about what it’s like to untangle the mission of L’Arche from the lies Vanier told.
TINA: What we know now that there were, there was a public myth, foundational myth, and then there was something underneath that had internal sort of drivers and motivators that we were not aware of. And unpacking that is super important because, you know, I can't detach myself from my family of origin, whether I want it or not. Right? An organization can't do that either.
JENNA, narrating: Tina’s right. We can’t detach ourselves from our families of origin, or from the origins of the communities we belong to. But we can change they way we tell our origin stories. And we can change what comes next.
Here’s Tina again, this time in February of this year, just a couple days after the report came out.
TINA: Well, stories in general are powerful, right? And founding stories are particularly powerful because they, they anchor us, right? They anchor my values.
Now, as to Vanier, he is the founder of L’Arche. That's absolutely clear. He is the person who has pushed L’Arche’s development. He has had a positive influence on thousands of people in the world, within L’Arche and elsewhere. There's no doubt that that's the case and nobody needs to deny that. The founding is the founding, and we know how much clearer on what the reality was. We can move further away from the myth and more toward the reality. Good. Um, the bigger question is, um, how do you sort through what's to keep and what's to discard?
JENNA, narrating: Whenever a spiritual leader turns out to be abusive, we have to ask ourselves: What do we keep and what do we discard? On a personal level, what do I keep on my bookshelf? What do I keep in my theology and my spiritual practices? It’s also essential that communities ask themselves these questions. If our organizational structure couldn’t stop, or didn’t stop, abuse among our people, what do we need to change? What should we have done differently, and heaven forbid there’s a next time, what will we do differently?
JENNA: One of, one of the feedbacks we've gotten a lot on the podcast and when we did the reporting is just a lot of gratitude for the transparency that L’Arche is showing and just going, you know, to the effort of, of funding and initiating what became a 900-page report. Looking at that report now, are there any ways that you wish that there would've been more transparency before 2020?
TINA: Of course, of course. How could we not? There are plenty of points where I think all kinds of people, institutions and potentially individuals, um, might want to ask themselves, well, how in the world could that have happened for so long, somewhat under the eyes of so many people? This all started in 1951. Who cannot say, yes this should have, uh, should have been dismantled and uncovered earlier?
JENNA: Yeah. One of the things that I think made me saddest when reading the report was learning that his abusive practices continued basically until his death in 2019. I don't know, that probably shouldn't have shocked me as much as it did. But with that in mind, I'm also wondering like, was there anything that L’Arche tried to do after, you know, receiving the first formal allegation in 2016? Like after that, did L'Arche do anything even in the midst of investigating to be like, okay, let's do something to make sure that this stuff doesn't continue to happen?
TINA: Yeah I mean of course, so I was already in this role in 2016, so I personally have asked myself that question a lot. What I personally have experienced, I don't wanna speak on behalf of others, but… because it was so insidious, and because there was such a mix of spiritual and psychological and sexual abuse and use of power and you know, with this weird justification, that it took them time to actually understand what their own experience was, and to claim it, right, and to create distance between what had been sort of put into their minds and hearts and what was their own embodied wisdom. And I think somewhat similar, L'Arche had to do that too.
JENNA, narrating: Now, the timeline of abuse allegations is kinda confusing. So I wanna take a moment to explain. In all public information before this most recent report, L’Arche had said it first received an allegation of abuse against Vanier in 2016. They began investigating him shortly thereafter, which resulted in the 2020 report that first made the allegations of sexual abuse against Vanier public.
But the new report shows it was more complicated. The report opens by saying, “In the history of L’Arche, punctually and discreetly, women have tried on various occasions to report the abuse they have suffered from one or other of the founders, Thomas Philippe and Jean Vanier.” Sometimes this abuse was reported to Catholic leaders outside L’Arche, other times to L’Arche volunteers and assistants who didn’t know what to do with it and did nothing.
In 2013, various people within L’Arche seem to have been aware of or suspected Vanier “had had relationships with women but had no idea of their abusive nature.”
The report details how L’Arche leaders were first contacted with an allegation of Vanier’s abuse in December 2014, by a woman who “demands that she remains anonymous and that her testimony remain confidential.” Wishing to respect the request, L'Arche leaders wait until 2016 — when they receive a new report of abuse — to begin confronting Vanier about his actions and his relationship to Philippe’s practices. And I wanted to know from Tina: Why didn’t L’Arche take stronger action at that point? How did the abuse continue for several more years, right up to Vanier’s death?.
TINA: Well, there are reasons for that. Do I feel like those reasons justify what probably then was still ongoing? No, of course not. Do I have regrets? Of course I do. Um, but the reasons are valid and I think are an extreme and excellent example of how this perfect storm of a charismatic leader often who was, who was increasingly on his way out, right? We knew he was gonna die. He was getting sick. An organization that didn't have the authority accountability structures in place that probably we should. No access to the archives. So we did not know at that point what the Vatican knew and what the Dominicans knew, and they had refused to giving us access. And the women themselves who did not, were not in a place where they could make clear complaints. Or couldn't articulate their experience as a complaint.
So it’s a very long answer and I personally find the answer not particularly satisfactory, but it is the reality.
JENNA: Knowing what you know now, if we rewind to 2016, this, uh, first woman comes forward, what, what do you think you would want to do at that point? How would you do it differently?
TINA: I mean even if I project myself out of this whole L'Arche world and say, you know, I'm getting into another organization and something like that comes up, clearly what the learning is, is, um, don't assume good intent. You know, I mean, as hard as that is to say, you know, when somebody brings an allegation like that forward and the person herself is, is fairly gracious, actually, right? And wants L'Arche well and you know, kind of expect the worst or at least be prepared to deal with the worst and know how to ask these questions and then how to create accountability. And I don’t think we were even close to imagining what we know now.
[music begins] “Expect the worst” is not as easily done as, as it sounds like when your whole infrastructure and your whole inner and outer north stars are geared towards see the sacred in the other, right?
JENNA, narrating: Tina is pointing to the incredibly difficult task in any Christian community: See everyone as sacred. But also: See everyone as susceptible to sin. Be vulnerable but also vigilant. I’ve lived in several intentional communities similar to L’Arche. They were so fulfilling but they were never simple. [music ends]
L’Arche has known for a while that their founding story was too simple, too tidy, too singularly focused. In 2009, the leaders of L’Arche asked Carolyn Whitney-Brown to write a book about their founding. Carolyn had lived at a L’Arche community for seven years in the ’90s, so she knew the organization well. In her research for the book, she cast a wide net. She didn’t just focus on the founding of L’Arche in France, but also the founding of L’Arche in Canada, the U.S., Haiti, and beyond. She tried to capture the beauty of community life, but also the mess. She never guessed just how messy the founding of L'Arche really was.
In 2019 Carolyn published Sharing Life: Stories of L’Arche Founders. She interviewed Vanier for hours in order to tell the story. Less than a year after the book was published, news broke about Vanier’s abusive behavior. This is her talking to me in January of 2023, before the most recent report came out.
CAROLYN WHITNEY-BROWN: When the news about Jean broke, I, I realized that what it was doing to me was, it was making me feel that my 10 years of work on these books, that my decades before that of reading Vanier’s work, my seven years living in L’Arche, that all those had made a fool out of me. Someone who I trusted to protect the vulnerable had exploited people’s vulnerabilities and been really callous about it and cruel about it. I, I just, I felt, I felt physically really sick, uh, for quite a while.
JENNA, narrating: I talked to Carolyn again last week, just after the latest report was public.
JENNA: And as someone who’s interviewed Vanier about the founding of L’Arche, what was it like to learn that so much of [what] he said was not true? That the real main reason why he wanted to found L’Arche was to bring back together these disciples of Philippe?
CAROLYN: Well, always primary to, to Jean’s description was wanting to follow Jesus, but wanting to follow Jesus with Père Thomas. So that was already in the story. What wasn't in the story is this whole strange, sexually active, intimate cult of people. And that they were actually known to be dangerous to others. They weren't just a little group of consenting adults experimenting. They had a theology and lived out their fantasies with other people who were really not consenting and much more victims right from the start.
I’m still trying to wrap my head around who these people really are. How their faith in God and commitment to the Holy Spirit turns into something so very, very weird. And somehow they don't call each other on it. They deepen each other in it. You wanna think community makes everyone better. But of course, communities can also really confirm each other's wrong thinking, can dig themselves deeper. Can…yeah.
JENNA, narrating: Initially, Vanier was engaging in these mystical-sexual practices with women who were also from the sect and shared some of his beliefs. The report uses the language of “abuse” but recognizes that not all the women feel that what they suffered was abuse; a few women still felt positively about the experiences.
But after L’Arche was founded, Vanier began incorporating these same practices into his interactions with L’Arche volunteers and assistants who previously had no idea about Vanier’s mystical-sexual beliefs. The impact of this abuse on these women was profound.
You’ll hear more from the victim’s testimonies in future episodes. Their testimonies are so integral to the real story of L’Arche. Without their stories, we’d still be trying to draw water from a poisoned well. We’d still be telling the hero’s tale of Jean Vanier.
CAROLYN: There’s a geographer named Doreen Massey who talks about every place is a collection of stories. Stories told, stories hidden. Stories of things that happen, stories of the things that don't happen. So a founding story is a collection of stories. It’s never one story. And L’Arche’s founding story has never been one story. And yet a founding myth is really powerful. If the creation myth tells you that that, that the creation was essentially a solitary act of a heroic individual, then you have a whole different sense of how this creation goes forward than if you think of creation as a shared activity, interconnected right from the start. Um, L’Arche has been founded over and over in many places because everyone who was part of a founding moment has their own version of a story.
JENNA, narrating: We have to change the way we tell our creation stories. Hero tales are so convenient: fewer names to remember, a linear moral path, and benevolent heroism. When we spend all our time looking at the charismatic guy at center stage, we miss all the fun stuff happening behind the curtain.
When Vanier was alive, his saintly reputation stole the spotlight. Now, it’s Vanier’s dark shadow that eclipses the other stories of L’Arche.
Like the stories of Luke and Charles, in Arlington, Va., who you heard from in the first episode:
LUKE SMITH: I opened the door and you said, “Hi, my name’s Charles Clark, I’m your brother.” Do you remember?
CHARLES CLARK: Oh yeah.
JENNA, narrating: Or stories from Bill Van Buren, Peter Rotterman, and Steve and Ann Newroth, founding members of L'Arche Daybreak, the same community where Carolyn lived with her family for seven years:
CAROLYN: And when he walked in, there was a bedroom with two twin beds, and each one had a side table with a lamp on it that he and Bill were gonna share. And he said he, he just walked in and he thought, “Welcome back to home life.”
And he said, and, and you would see utter sincerity, he said, “And after that, I just wanna make sure that everyone who comes to daybreak has that feeling, has that very same feeling of welcome back to home life.”
Coming up on Lead Us Not, I return to a question we’d planned for an earlier episode, but decided to pause when the new report came out. In light of what we learned, I think this question is even more important: So why do we call people “living saints” in the first place?.
TIM MOORE: It feels like kinetic authority. There’s a kind of magnetism that draws you. It’s kind of a guru effect and I was prey to it for sure.
JENNA, narrating: …and what role, if any, does charisma play in spiritual abuse?
KATELYN BEATY: I think about how charisma can sometimes be mistaken for a godly giftedness. Like because you’re so well-spoken, because you can get up in front of a crowd and preach a really good sermon, you must be uniquely called by God. And I don’t really believe that.
JENNA, narrating: Lead Us Not is a podcast from Sojourners magazine. This episode was produced, written, and edited by me, Jenna Barnett, with executive production, story editing, and additional reporting by Betsy Shirley. Sound design and mixing and additional story editing by JP Keenan, factchecking and additional reporting by Mitchell Atencio. Tiarra Lucas designed our podcast cover. Our theme music is by Borrtex and by Yehezkel Raz
The audio of Jean Vanier you heard in today’s episode comes from a 1995 interview for “30 Good Minutes,” which was produced by the Chicago Sunday Evening Club. The show is no longer being produced, but you can watch all their old shows on YouTube.
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