Episode 3: The Camouflage of Charisma

There was an unnamable something about Jean Vanier that transformed an experience — or transformed you. For many people, Vanier’s captivating presence was evidence of his godly giftedness. But for victims of abuse, this saintly reputation had a dark side.

In this episode, host Jenna Barnett talks with Katelyn Beaty, author of Celebrities for Jesus, about the danger of charismatic leadership in Christian communities. You’ll also hear again from L’Arche USA leader Tina Bovermann, about the role of privilege in leveraging charisma, and author Carolyn Whitney-Brown, on why we should stop calling anyone a “living saint.”

Listen and subscribe today on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or anywhere you get your podcasts.

You can read Tanya Marlow’s 2021 essay “But his books are still good, right? – 5 things Christians must stop saying about sexual abusers” at tanyamarlow.com.

You can watch Roy Bonisteel’s 1972 interview with Jean Vanier and Mother Teresa on the CBC website, cbc.ca.

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 by JP Keenan, factchecking by Mitchell Atencio. Tiarra Lucas designed our podcast cover. Our theme music is by Borrtex and by Yehezkel Raz.

Special thanks to Amanda Zalken, Laura Hallman, Erin Greeno, and all the archivists at the United Church of Canada Archives for helping us find Peter Flemington’s documentary If You’re Not There, You’re Missed.

Follow Sojourners on Facebook (@SojournersMagazine), Twitter (@sojourners), and Instagram (@sojogram), and share your thoughts about the podcast with #LeadUsNot or by emailing response@sojo.net.

Never Miss an Episode!

Sign up for the podcast newsletter and we'll send bonus content, related resources, and notifications every time we publish a new episode.

Episode Transcript

JENNA BARNETT, narrating: This podcast deals with issues of spiritual and sexual violence. Please use care when listening.

TIM MOORE: He would walk into the room and there were about 40 of us in this tiny, tiny little room in an arc around him. He would close his eyes and then he would start talking.

JENNA, narrating: This is Tim Moore, the community leader for L’Arche Atlanta. You heard from him in the first episode. Here, he’s describing going on a L’Arche leadership retreat in France with Jean Vanier, about 10 years ago.

TIM: And it was as if he was reading notes in his brain. And then right around 90 minutes he would sort of wake up out of the reverie and say, “Okay, I think that’s enough.” [pauses] It was amazing. It felt like every single word was pure gold. But the fascinating thing was, when I went back and listened to the recording, I didn’t have the same experience. There was something about his presence that transformed how you received what was being said.

JENNA: So you’re one of many people who’s spoken about his presence. Can you try your best to explain that intangible thing?

TIM: My guess is the Dalai Lama has it. Desmond Tutu probably had it. Mother Teresa probably had it, it, it feels like kinetic authority. There’s a magnetism to it that draws you, it focuses you. It’s kind of a guru effect. I was prey to it for sure.

[Theme music begins]

Here was someone who had dedicated his entire life to living in community with L’Arche, this thing that he’d given birth to, that he’d given all of his wealth away, all of his privilege. I can trust this, this is okay. So I sort of surrendered to it, somewhat knowingly.

JENNA, narrating: From Sojourners magazine, this is Lead Us Not, a podcast that explores: What do we do when the people we once called living saints turn out to be secret perpetrators? In this episode, we’re taking a step back to consider why we call some people “living saints” in the first place. And what role, if any, does charisma play in abuse?

[Theme music ends]

The term “living saint” is a kind of oxymoron. After all, the Roman Catholic Church typically waits to begin canonizing people until they’ve been dead for at least five years. I’m not the first person to take umbrage with the term. In 1972, Canadian journalist Roy Bonisteel interviewed Mother Teresa and Jean Vanier for the Canadian program Man Alive. This was the last question Bonisteel asks of Teresa and Vanier:

ROY BONISTEEL, archive clip: I want to open this question, which is a difficult one, and I hope you take no offense in it. But I think it has to be dealt with. And that is that in the eyes of many people, and in the language of many people, both of you are beginning to be spoken of in terms that approach something like saintliness. There are people who are coming somewhere close to the borders of worshipping not God through Mother Teresa, but Mother Teresa.

JENNA, narrating: This echoed a similar question that the filmmaker Peter Flemington had asked Jean Vanier five years prior for the documentary If You’re Not There, You’re Missed.

PETER FLEMINGTON, archival clip: I mentioned jokingly that Canada’s largest Protestant church was now featuring his life story as part of its church school curriculum. Did this make him feel a sort of latter-day saint?

JENNA, narrating: I’m not going to play more of Vanier’s voice. His answer, as it often did when he fielded this question from the media, had a self-deprecating charm to it. When interviewers asked if he was a saint, Vanier often said something like: “The real saints are rarely the ones who are called saints,” an answer that sounds ominous now. But while Vanier deflected questions about his own sainthood during media interviews, in his private letters and conversations, he defended his abusive spiritual mentor, Thomas Phillippe, referring to him as a “slandered saint.” And according to the 900-page report, throughout his life, “Vanier constantly rubs shoulders with saints.” Mother Teresa and three popes, Pope John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II all publicly promoted Vanier.

Some 50 years after Peter Flemington asked Vanier if he felt like a saint, Carolyn Whitney-Brown, who you heard from last episode, posed the question even more directly. In the 2019 obituary she wrote for Sojourners, she described the interaction with Vanier. “Are you a saint?” she asked him. Vanier put his head in his hands and said, “Nobody knows me.”

JENNA: Did you interact much personally with John Vanier?

CAROLYN WHITNEY-BROWN: I first met him in person when we were still in L’Arche.

JENNA, narrating: As a reminder, Carolyn lived in a L’Arche community with her family for seven years and has worked on several books about L’Arche and Jean Vanier.

CAROLYN: There was something about Jean that felt like he could sort of see not just who somebody was in that moment and accept that, but see who they could become, whether they were someone with a disability or without—just a sense of what their inner strength and gift was… And in his presence, that kind of sense of his suggestions that I was, you know, a fine writer; I should be writing books. And I was like, “Yes, yes. I’ll go write a book immediately!” Like I really had that experience that people had with Jean of a feeling that I had competence that I’d never even discovered, and that I could stand up and be a better person.

JENNA, narrating: That’s something I’ve heard a lot from people who knew Vanier. He was captivating. He made you feel seen. There was just an unnamable something about him that transformed an experience — that transformed you. Many people call it charisma.

Charisma is actually a theological word, rooted in the Greek word for “favor” or “gift.” Merriam Webster’s Dictionary notes that it was “used in Christian contexts to refer to a gift or power bestowed upon an individual by the Holy Spirit for the good of the Church—a sense that is now very rare.” But I think in Christian communities that equation of “charisma” with “giftedness” still lingers. And frankly, it leaves me feeling uneasy. All too often, charismatic leadership goes unchecked. Churches and organizations can easily become dependent on a charismatic leader, both financially and ideologically. If he goes down, we all go down with him. And then we can’t keep carrying out this important work in the world.

Last fall, I talked to Katelyn Beaty about my fears surrounding charismatic leaders. Katelyn is a Christian editor and author of the book Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits Are Hurting the Church.

KATELYN BEATY: I think we’re very aware that celebrity power can easily corrupt and lead to all sorts of abuses of power. And that’s not to excuse anyone’s culpability in that, but we as people who put people on pedestals are sometimes playing a role in creating the conditions that make it easier for them to hurt other people.

JENNA: One word that both of us have thrown around some, and I just want us to maybe define it a little bit more, would be charisma. What does charisma mean to you?

KATELYN: I think of charisma as a type of interpersonal power that doesn’t depend on a kind of title that signals to everybody, “I’m the most important person in the room.” It’s an interpersonal wooing effect that essentially, by how well-spoken you are, by how physically attractive you are, people like you. I think we can all just think of people who we’ve come across who when they walk into a room, the room lights up, everybody kind of stands at attention, like waiting to see what this person is going to say and do; they want to follow this person and be around them.

And charismatic authority has, in many segments of the contemporary church, outpaced more traditional institutional forms of authority. So it might be the case that a church leader has gone to seminary, has studied Greek and Hebrew, has had to do pastoral internships, while someone else can kind of skip seminary, and just have this natural ability to get up in front of a room and preach and can start a church. And actually the latter person is probably going to grow the bigger church.

[Music begins]

I think about how charisma can sometimes be mistaken for like 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. I don’t believe that great oratory skills are like the primary marker of God’s call on one’s life.

JENNA: Do you think that, um, Christians are uniquely drawn to charismatic leaders?

KATELYN: I don’t know that Christians are uniquely drawn to charismatic leaders. I think Christians might be lacking an awareness of how charisma operates in and among a community. So it’s not that they uniquely want a charismatic leader; it’s that they may be a bit naive about the way that charisma intersects with interpersonal power over other people.

JENNA, narrating: When we talk about spiritual leaders and abuse, one idea that you’ll hear over and over and again is that the esteem we hold for these leaders places them on a pedestal that primes them for abuse. That sort of reasoning would point toward a simple solution: Get rid of the pedestals, get rid of the abuse. If only it were that easy. But talking about the pedestals we place spiritual leaders on can sound like shifting the blame from the perpetrators to the community. I want to be clear: That’s not what Katelyn’s doing, or Tim, or Carolyn.

In my interview with Carolyn, she emphasized that the only person who is responsible for the abusive behavior of Jean Vanier, is Jean Vanier himself. She cites the public theologian Tanya Marlow, who writes, “It. Is. Not. A. Pedestal. To. Expect. Christian. Leaders. Not. To. Be. Sexual. Predators. Really, the bar is so very low on this one.” She’s right. Expecting Christian leaders not to be abusive is a low bar — and Vanier didn’t meet it. There’s nothing we did to make Jean Vanier become abusive. But I do think there’s something we can do to make it safer for people to come forward sooner. [music ends]

I want you to hear a quote from one of the women who came forward with allegations against Jean Vanier. This was published in L’Arche’s 2020 report. My colleague Betsy Shirley will read it.
“I was like frozen, I realised that Jean Vanier was adored by hundreds of people, like a living Saint, that he talked about how he helped victims of sexual abuse, it appeared like a camo uflage and I found it difficult to raise the issue.”

JENNA, narrating: When I spoke to Carolyn, I read her this quote from the report. I asked her what we — as members of churches or other faith communities — can do to make people feel safe to come forward if someone who we called a living saint hurts them.

CAROLYN: Well, first let’s quit calling anybody a living saint. Let’s just get rid of that word. We don’t need to use it for living people, ever. It just puts people alone. I don’t know what it does internally for someone to be called a saint, whether it limits their own growth, but I imagine it would put huge pressure on you to live up to it and never admit that you aren’t. But even more so, I think the greater danger is what you’re naming, that if someone needs to say there is serious wrongdoing and damage here, there is danger here, it makes it very hard for them to say that. People are invested in seeing this other person as a saint. I think whenever we start calling an individual a saint, we are creating huge risks for not only that person themselves, but for people around them who trust them.

[music begins]

I think we really have to get more and more uncomfortable with single charismatic leaders. I don’t mean we should think the worst of people, but I think we should recognize that they never stand alone, ever, never. Christians have a triune God, you know, nobody stands alone, not even God.

JENNA, narrating: As we talked about last episode, Vanier never stood alone in his founding of L’Arche. Yes, he had charisma. But he also had generational wealth and connections. Jean Vanier came from a privileged background, what the 900-page report described as “the military and governmental elite of Canada.” His father was a Canadian ambassador to France and was eventually named the Governor General of Canada, that was a position appointed by Queen Elizabeth II. His parents were also deeply involved with leaders of the Roman Catholic Church; they were very friendly with the pope at the time. The 900-page report included analysis of how these familial connections, within both French elites and the Catholic church, were instrumental to L’Arche’s success and helped Vanier as he was setting up the legal structure for L’Arche. One community member told the commission: “Everywhere we went [someone said to Jean Vanier], ‘Ah, I knew your mother!’” [music ends]

We can’t talk about charisma without talking about privilege.

Tina Bovermann, the executive director of L’Arche USA who you heard from last episode, was the first person to point this out to me.

TINA BOVERMANN: It strikes me, if I were to ask you, Jenna, name five charismatic people — or name three — who would those folks be?

JENNA: Well, Jean Vanier would come to mind now. Um, Henri Nouwen, Jim Wallis, to name a few —

TINA: So the first marker that I see, those are all men. So I’ve thought about this since 2020, and I’m trying to figure out, can I find a charismatic woman? Like one who not just I believe is charismatic, but who’s perceived as charismatic. And I’m sort of hard pressed to find one. So one of the qualifiers I think of charism or charisma, um, is it’s male.

JENNA, narrating: But maleness alone doesn’t equal charisma, Tina explained. Charisma means nothing if you don’t have the ability to leverage it.

TINA: Now in Jean’s case, of course, he comes from what I would call Canadian aristocracy, right? He was intellectually, relationally, socially, financially, and probably in all kinds of other ways, wealthy. All of that together, I don’t know what else to call that than privilege.

JENNA, narrating: Last episode we interrogated L’Arche’s origin story. We learned that Vanier lied about his main motivation for founding L’Arche. He didn’t primarily feel called by Jesus to start community with people with intellectual disabilities; in actuality, he felt determined to find a way to reunite a condemned group of mystical sex practitioners around Thomas Phillippe, an abusive man who he referred to as a slandered saint. Vanier succeeded in his deception for many reasons. Because he was charismatic. Because he grew to truly care about how people with intellectual disabilities were treated. And significantly because he came from immense wealth and generational notoriety. All of these factors camouflaged his abusive behavior.

INTERVIEW AND ARCHIVE CLIPS, montage: I realised that Jean Vanier was adored by hundreds of people… / beginning to be spoken of in terms that approach something like saintliness / …that he’d given all of his wealth away, all of his privilege… / …like a living saint / I can trust this, this is okay / …did this make him feel a sort of latter-day saint? / That he talked about how he helped victims of sexual abuse, it appeared like a camouflage and I found it difficult to raise the issue.

JENNA, narrating: It seems that this camouflage, which Vanier wore so effectively, was passed down to him from his spiritual mentor Thomas Phillippe. Vanier didn’t just inherit Phillippe’s abusive mystical sex practices; he also inherited his sheep’s clothing. The victim testimony you heard about Vanier’s abuse, rings eerily similar to how one woman described Phillippe. Here’s my colleague Betsy Shirley reading it:

Fr Thomas was such a “holy” man that it was impossible to make such accusations, and probably I was afraid and too weak for facing to defend my experience as truth.

The report puts it this way: “The reputation for holiness blinds some victims and dissuades them from speaking out … It really is because of their abusers’ reputation that the victims are unable to speak out.”

I do believe we’re beginning to peel back the camouflage of sanctity, but to do that, we’re going to have to keep challenging the lure of charisma and stop conflating privilege with providence. Success and interpersonal magnetism aren’t markers of elevated godliness — a level of godliness that would make us skeptical that this charismatic person could be capable of abuse.

There are also more resources available to survivors than there ever have been, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to come forward. Too often we’ve seen faith institutions prioritize the reputation of faith leaders over the wellbeing of survivors.

Coming up in Lead Us Not, we focus in on spiritual abuse. What does spiritual abuse actually mean and what impact does it have on a personal level?

RACHEL CLINTON CHEN: That’s what’s often so shattering about spiritual abuse, is it really cuts you off—not only from your sense of self, but your sense of self in relationship to God. Because these leaders don’t just represent like a human; to us they are conduits of God, for better or for worse.

JENNA, narrating: And how is spiritual abuse hurting Christianity as a whole?

RACHEL: We’re seeing this apocalyptic unveiling of these religious leaders who have been given a lot of power, a lot of authority, and are incredible at meeting people in their vulnerability. And we’re getting these horrific revelations that there has been profound harm. It’s not just a person, or one institution; it’s in the water, it’s a part of the culture.

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 by JP Keenan; factchecking by Mitchell Atencio. Tiarra Lucas designed our podcast cover. Our theme music is by Borrtex and by Yehezkel Raz.

In the shownotes, you can find a link to the Tanya Marlow piece Carolyn referenced. We’ll also include a link the CBC website where you can watch to Roy Bonisteel’s 1972 interview with Jean Vanier and Mother Teresa.

The excerpt from Peter Flemington’s documentary If You’re Not There, You’re Missed was used with permission of the United Church of Canada. Special thanks to Amanda Zalken, Laura Hallman, Erin Greeno, and all the archivists at the United Church of Canada Archives for helping us find that clip.

For bonus content, related resources, and notifications when new episodes drop, sign up for our free newsletter at sojo.net/podcast. There you can also find transcripts for each episode.

If you like our show, please rate us and leave a review. You can stay in touch with us between episodes on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter with the hashtag #LeadUsNot.