Episode 4: ‘This Isn't Some Holy Moment'

Donna knew something wasn’t right when Thomas Philippe came to her room. Cecilia hid the truth even from herself. Judy thought she just wasn’t “holy enough” to understand.

In this episode, three women who were sexually and spiritually abused at L’Arche by Jean Vanier and Thomas Philippe tell their stories. You’ll learn how each of them suffered, but also how they’ve worked together to find healing and justice. You’ll also hear from Rachael Clinton Chen, an expert who helps people recover from spiritual and sexual abuse.

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

Lead Us Not was produced, written, and edited by Jenna Barnett, with executive production and story editing by Betsy Shirley. Sound design and mixing by JP Keenan; fact-checking and additional producing 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 response@sojo.net.

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Episode Transcript

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

JENNA: Can we start by each person just saying their name and where they’re zooming in from?

DONNA VARNAU: Well, I’m Donna Varnau and I’m zooming in from Edmonds, Washington, north of Seattle.

JUDY FARQUHARSON: I’m Judy Farquharson and I’m zooming in from Toronto, Canada.

CECILIA MCPHERSON: I’m Cecilia McPherson. I’m in Beauvais in France.

JENNA: Awesome, Jenna Barnett here. San Diego.

[Conversation in the background]

JENNA, narrating: I spoke with Donna, Judy, and Cecilia via Zoom early in March. They share important connections and wanted to speak with me as a group. All three of them lived at the original L’Arche community in France, but that’s not when they became close. All three of them also suffered sexual and spiritual abuse at L’Arche. Cecilia and Donna were abused by Thomas Philippe, the Dominican priest who was serving as a chaplain to L’Arche and a mentor to Jean Vanier. Judy was abused by both Phillipe and Vanier.

When I started working on this podcast, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to interview Philippe or Vanier’s victims; many of them had chosen to remain anonymous, and I wanted to respect their privacy. But in the 900-page report that was released in January, some victims allowed their names to be included, so I reached out. And to my surprise, they were now ready to tell their story publicly.

[More conversation in background]

When I first spoke to Judy, Cecilia, and Donna, they told me not to be worried that interviewing them would be re-traumatizing for them. They’re doing ok now, they explained. In part, because they found each other. Here’s Cecilia:

CECILIA: Donna and I met in Trosly, so the first L’Arche community where Jean Vanier was, in 1973, I think, right, Donna? Something like that. We were the California Chicks — the California girls. Uh, so there was something, we had this sort of aura around us.

JENNA, narrating: The three of them have an easy rapport. Their tone, even as they speak about the abuse they experienced, has an approachable power to it. Presently, they live in three different countries, but they still talk on the phone with each other often.

DONNA: At times we talk about our children, our grandchildren, our life — what’s important to us. I feel I could tell Cecilia and Judy anything about my inner process and they would listen just beautifully and I would feel supported.

[theme music]

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 going to try to unpack what we mean when we talk about spiritual abuse. To some extent, all abuse has a profound impact on a victim’s spirit. But what about when abuse takes place in a religious or spiritual setting? What unique injuries does that create, and how do we work to heal them? To find an answer, we’re going to talk to Donna, Cecilia, and Judy, three women who’ve lived these questions. You’ll hear more about the spiritual sexual abuse each of them suffered, and you'll also hear about how they've worked toward healing and justice.

[theme music ends]

DONNA: I was reading St. Teresa Ávila, one of the great mystics of the Catholic church, and my cousin reminded me of her. And she told me that she lived in a community in France where they had a way of life working with mentally handicapped adults. And that the leader of that community was a living saint, and his name is Jean Vanier.

JENNA, narrating: This is Donna, talking about how she wound up at the first L’Arche community in the ’70s. She was in her twenties, living in France, and had just been attacked and mugged.

DONNA: And my things were stolen and I was bereft and decided I’d just go to the community to recover after that. So that’s how I ended up there.

I loved the beauty of the village, of the chapel. I loved the life of prayer. There was just so much that answered my inner yearning for solitude, for connection with God.

JENNA, narrating: While she was at L’Arche, she turned to Thomas Philippe, L’Arche’s chaplain, for spiritual guidance.

DONNA: And as I was speaking to him and I had, I had sat with him many times, his arm around my shoulders, like leaning into your grandmother. And as I was, um, speaking to him, I just noticed this strange thing, like his hand was on my left breast and I thought, “Oh, that must be because my heart is hard and he’s breaking up the stone around my heart.”

And then I noticed that my right hand was in his lap and he was actually had these white Dominican robes and he is pushing down on my hand and I’m going, “Oh no, that… I don’t know what’s going on,” but it, you know, so anyway, it ended. That night he came to visit me in my little room to see how I was doing.

And I realized, he had this look on his face that something in me knew immediately this wasn’t right. And he, he came to sit down beside me on the bed and I was very fortunate to know how to cuss in French. And I said, get the [vocalizes a bleep] out of here. And because a voice had said to me, dirty old man … Something was working inside that just knew dirty old man. This isn’t some holy moment.

I tried to tell people in the community of L’Arche, but it didn’t, I just … couldn’t. So I learned not to speak about it … it felt like I was almost mad, and I was very unstable. So I had to just get home.

JENNA, narrating: When I heard Donna tell her story, I was struck by how immediate her reaction to Philippe’s advances were. Something in her just knew “This isn’t some holy moment.” But coming to terms with an abusive experience isn’t always like that. Sometimes it takes years to name what happened as abuse. That was the case for Cecilia.

CECILIA: I was abused sexually by Thomas Philippe, the Dominican priest. I hadn’t realized that he groomed me for five years before he moved in on me. He, he moved in when I said to him, “I’m thinking about choosing celibacy as a life choice, and it will be more difficult for me to give up having a partner than to give up having children.”

And that’s when his proposition of praying together in the evening came along. Because he said it would be very special. Now, I’ve, I’ve forgotten a lot of it. I think this was my way of protecting myself. And what I did was I entered a mode of having a double life. At the time I was living in the, the guest house where visitors and new assistants were welcomed. So nobody realized that I was coming in really, really, really late…And I, you know, when I think back, think back about it, maybe somebody did know, but I even hid it to myself I think.

JENNA, narrating: Cecilia’s abusive relationship with Philippe went on for more than a year, until she took a trip to the U.S. and visited Donna.

CECILIA: I stopped in to see you in Los Angeles in 1980, and you asked me for all sorts of news about L’Arche, and then you finally said, “And Pere Thomas, Father Thomas?”

And I said, “I have a very special spiritual relationship with Father Thomas.” And Donna, what did you say, Donna? Something like —

DONNA: I said, “Oh, really? What are you doing? Praying together nude?!”[laughs] It just came out of me — like sarcastic. And she goes, [vocalizes a thumping sound] I had thrown a knife into her gut. I’ll never forget that moment.

CECILIA: Donna was in California and I was in France, and I think Americans were far ahead of us here in France with, um, being savvy about, about sexual abuse. And, how shall I say this? I was brought up kind of naively with regards to sexuality and sex.

So I came back to France and never went to see Thomas Philippe again in my life. I didn’t even go to see him, to yell at him, which I could have done, you know. But I just, I, I buried it all.

JENNA, narrating: Cecilia didn’t keep it buried forever. You’ll hear about that story in a few minutes, but before that, there’s one more story I want you to hear.

JUDY: My experience was I was abused psychologically, physically, and spiritually. By far the first was spiritually.

JENNA, narrating: Judy originally went to L’Arche in 1968. She was a French major in college, so she was living in France to perfect the language. Her mom recommended that she go to L’Arche to visit her cousin. The weekend she went to visit him, he wasn’t there, but she was quite taken by what she discovered. She ended up staying at L’Arche Trosly, the first L’Arche community, for 10 months.

JUDY: And I worked in one of the workshops and discovered I had a bit of creative ability in the mosaics, which was quite lovely to me. It was a very positive experience.

JENNA, narrating: Judy spoke about how she made connections with both core members and assistants. She fell in love with taking walks in the forest surrounding the community, and during her time off, traveled into Paris to explore. After 10 months in Trosly, Judy moved to India to live and work in the L’Arche communities there. That’s when the abuse began, but Vanier initiated the grooming much earlier.

JUDY: You know, it was very gentle, but I was feeling special and seen. Maybe a little bit of praying together, gestures starting, but nothing serious.

JENNA, narrating: But when Judy moved to India, things shifted.

JUDY: Jean would come once a year, and then there would be, we would meet up in secret … I was told I was special, I was chosen, I was, you know, this is … “People would not understand this. You can’t really talk about it because it’s so special.” And feeling totally uncomfortable always with the physical aspect of it.

JENNA, narrating: Judy’s referring to the mystical sex practices that Vanier initiated during prayer.

JUDY: It certainly set off a space of incredible confusion in my head. So where it went for me and why it took me years to even get into therapy or start to think about it, I perceived that I wasn’t spiritual enough to understand this gift because this is coming from Jean Vanier. He is a spiritual giant. Um, and that, and I just needed to pray more to, to really understand it. But I also felt unworthy. I felt he made a mistake. He really should have picked so-and-so ‘cuz you know I’m just not holy enough to get it. Obviously I’m not that spiritual cuz it doesn’t make me feel that great.

JENNA, narrating: Judy eventually went to Thomas Philippe to express her concern about Vanier’s actions. But Phillipe responded by doing the same practices. He began abusing her too.

JUDY: So at that point, here are these two spiritual giants. There’s this holy priest, and there’s Jean. So of course I must really be getting this wrong. That put me into a, a very, very dark place. I was just spinning.

JENNA: How did you get to a point where you no longer saw it as some sort of spiritual deficiency? How were you able to get to a place where you could name that?

JUDY: Well, I fortunately had very, very good close female friends. And I had started therapy. And so I guess I was starting to talk about it. And I was with one of my dearest best friends, and I’ll never forget this, we were crossing a busy street in Toronto and I had just started to tell her about, uh, what had happened at L’Arche — but in my sort of confused way, you know, “This is, this is a crazy thing that happened.” And when I said that, we stopped in the middle of the street, and she said, “That’s abuse. That’s abuse!” And she just was screaming it in my face, and cars are honking. And I said, “Oh, we have to finish passing the street.” So it was a very dramatic moment.

But it was her sort of like absolute, um, you know, saying this so clearly to me. And it was kind of like, oh, like the cobwebs, another cobweb came off. But it took me several years in therapy, I think, to, to, to turn it around: I was a victim; it wasn’t a deficiency in me.

JENNA, narrating: For Judy, navigating the aftermath of spiritual abuse was like clearing out cobwebs. With the help of therapy and an adamant, traffic-disrupting friend, Judy began wiping the cobwebs of abuse from her eyes. Cecilia and Donna also turned to metaphor and imagery to describe the aftermath of this kind of sexual, spiritual abuse. After being abused by Philippe, Donna was inundated with imagery of hell.

DONNA: I was just overwhelmed with visionary experiences of martyrs ... I don’t know if you know the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, but it’s just like, you’re in hell and there’s all these images and they’re “Argh.” It’s like there’s goblins and monsters and things that devour you, and it’s the worst image a child could ever have of going to hell. Like you never wanna go there. That’s how I felt. I know it’s a little dramatic, but I felt really overwhelmed by what was unleashed.

JENNA, narrating: Cecilia, after the abuse, also went underground, but in a different way.

CECILIA: I read an article once talking about how nuclear waste is buried, and I thought, for me, this was really the image of what I did to the story of what I lived with with Thomas Philippe — was that I buried it like nuclear waste — so that it was still inside me, but kind of pushed aside and buried.

JENNA, narrating: Rachael Clinton Chen is the director of teaching and care at the Allender Center, a nonprofit at the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. The center trains therapists, pastors, and other leaders to provide healing for those who’ve suffered from trauma and abuse. Rachael’s expertise lies at the intersection of spiritual abuse and sexual abuse. Early in our conversation, I asked her how she would define spiritual abuse.

RACHAEL CLINTON CHEN: To me it’s a distortion and exploitation of spiritual authority to manipulate, control, use, or harm others, mostly through shame and fear. It’s using vulnerability — it’s using really good things to exploit.

Spiritual abuse is always a distortion and exploitation of God’s power …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: In many ways, Vanier and Philippe were conduits of God for Cecilia, Donna, and Judy. So when Vanier and Philippe hurt them, they also hurt their relationship to God. Here’s Donna:

DONNA: It was my relationship with God and with myself that was very split. I was momentarily, for a number of months, maybe years, destroyed by that understanding that this sacred holy priest, the spiritual director to Jean Vanier … that this community was based on something that was totally against my Catholic conditioning. I know I felt suicidal. There was no God, there couldn’t be a God, uh, because his representative had just tried to molest me.

JENNA, narrating: That was how Donna felt in the 1970s. A representative of God had exploited her vulnerability — exploited her faith. It’s infuriating. In my interview with Rachael about spiritual abuse, she spoke about that fury.

RACHAEL: Jesus, his fury is really preserved for the religious leaders who are exploiting their religious authority — those of us with skills to set the table for vulnerability: good therapists, good pastors, good spiritual leaders. I don’t see many places where Jesus gets furious and actually says language like, “Woe to you! It would I be better for you to have a millstone around your neck and cast into a lake than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” Which, basically like, you should be brutally killed. If you have access to someone’s innocence, their vulnerability, their formation, and you exploit that, Jesus has some pretty powerful things to say about it. It’s such a wickedness.

JENNA, narrating: What Vanier and Philippe did was wicked. They were seen as living saints, holy men, representatives of God, and they took advantage of women who came to them for guidance — for spiritual direction. As Donna put it: How could there be a God when God’s representative tried to molest me?

But that’s not how Donna felt forever. Donna got out. She became a therapist. Through her work, she helps other survivors of spiritual and sexual abuse find healing. She hasn’t been officially affiliated with L’Arche for quite some time, but she has still played an important role bringing the truth to light:

In 2015, an investigation by the Catholic Church found that allegations of sexual abuse against Thomas Philippe were credible. They were damning, but not comprehensive. First, L’Arche shared a summary of the findings in a letter to its community leaders. And then a few months later, Jean Vanier publicly stated that while he had heard about some of Philippe’s actions a while ago — he doesn’t say when — he was not aware of their gravity. Vanier says that he weeps with Philippe’s victims, but then he spends most of the letter talking about how grateful he was for Philippe. Vanier ends the letter saying that only God can judge Philippe.

Donna didn’t learn about the investigation until it was over. Neither did Cecilia, who, if you remember, had kept the abuse she suffered secret, buried inside her like nuclear waste.

CECILIA: Nobody thought to ask me or to tell me about this. But I decided that I wouldn’t say anything because I was no longer in L’Arche and didn’t want to, uh, I wasn’t going to humiliate myself. So I finally contacted Donna and told her, this is what’s come up, and I’ve decided not to talk.

DONNA: Well, my inner Joan of Arc came out and said, “Cecilia, we have to help the others. We have, there’s so many who need to hear about this..” And I gotta tell you, Cecilia is a real trooper. Once she got on board, she went for it.

JENNA, narrating: She really did. And so did Donna. They contacted L’Arche and they got a hold of church officials to let them know that they had been victims of Philippe’s abuse. They decided they wanted to gather the victims together, to form a sort of support group. So in the fall of 2015, they did. A contact at L’Arche agreed to inform the victims who they knew about that this session was happening.

CECILIA: There were just four of us, Donna and me and two other women who came forward and who came to meet with us for an afternoon.

JENNA, interviewing: Where’d you meet?

CECILIA: Well, it was a spiritual center in the forest near Trosly in France. Donna had come to France and the other woman was from Germany—

JENNA, narrating: —and one other woman, who lived in Trosly, also joined them. The women — who had all been abused by Philippe — did more than offer support; at that first meeting in France, they also agreed to take action.

CECILIA: And at the end we, we decided that we would write to Jean Vanier. And we were pretty, we, we were pretty challenging because he’d come out with a really soppy letter, saying that…

JENNA, narrating: The letter Cecilia is referring to here is that one where Jean Vanier talks about weeping with Philippe’s victims, but then goes on about how great Philippe was.

CECILIA: Boy, we, we, we were really angry with him, and we wanted him to know it. So we wrote him a very challenging letter.

JENNA, narrating: Donna and Cecilia emailed me the letter they sent to him. They write, "Your letter of May 2015 feels like an unspeakable violence to us … Today, we are insisting that you make a public effort to tell the truth and make a true acknowledgement of the lack of moral authority you have brought to this situation." They ask Vanier to acknowledge that he’d known the truth about Philippe’s actions since the 1950s when Philippe was punished by the Catholic church. Vanier replied, but his answer wasn’t satisfying. He again reiterated the positive impact Phillipe had on his life and on L’Arche. He also continued to lie, saying that he was "shocked by these revelations."

CECILIA: He was, he wasn’t able to, you know, even years later, he was still never able to address anything.

JENNA, narrating: At that time, Cecilia and Donna had no idea that Vanier was also abusing women in L’Arche. But Judy had gotten a similar response from Vanier when she confronted him about the way he himself had abused her.

JUDY: So I went to see him and I was feeling very strong, but I was nervous. I was going to see Jean; like the man had presence, like he was huge.

And so I started to talk and, and realized my voice was getting a bit shaky, but I got my words out and, and he just had no response. Like when I said, “I just, I, I want, this has to stop. I know these other women who’ve, who’ve been damaged and are still, it’s probably, and it’s still continuing, and I want it to stop.”

So he simply said, “I’m sorry that that was your experience.”

JENNA, narrating: It’s infuriating how common these types of responses are. The wrong-doer will say, “I’m sorry if you feel that way. I’m sorry that you’re sad.” But they won’t simply say: “I’m sorry that I hurt you.” They’re deflections masquerading as apologies. A pseudo-sorry that assumes zero responsibility. It’s pathetic—and for victims, it can be damaging.

JUDY: Um, and I found that whole thing retraumatizing and um, that set me back somewhat. Um, and then he went on to talk about his mother… he reminded me that he was my godfather, and I left… He wasn’t able to take any responsibility.

JENNA, narrating: And though he had many opportunities throughout his life, Vanier never took responsibility. But in my conversation with Rachael Clinton Chen, she explained that we rarely get the apologies we seek from perpetrators. And she also noted that confronting your abuser is not always healing — or safe.

RACHAEL: It’s kind of that fallacy that we can only heal if we can contend with the person who harmed. And again, that, that is the ideal, but that’s not always the safe ideal. It’s not always safe to do that. And not everyone is actually capable of true repentance.

You know, I think we sometimes think of like restored relationship as the end all be all. And sometimes, that’s not. Sometimes it’s actually, I don’t ever wanna be in a relationship with you again. Um, and that’s part of the loss of this. So yes, I do think, I see this often: that people have to continue a healing journey even when the person who harmed them is no longer here to speak for themselves, to give more insight as to why they did what they did. Because when we’ve experienced harm, we’re always wanting to understand how someone could do this. And I think the hardest part is sometimes having to accept: We may never know. And even if we did know, it would not make it feel any better. Sometimes it might make it feel less terrifying and sometimes it makes it feel more terrifying.

JENNA, narrating: I get that impulse toward seeking reconciliation. So much of Christianity is about forgiveness, that it can prime us to seek reconciliation at all costs. But how can you reconcile with someone who can’t admit that what they did was wrong? Rachael emphasized that survivors can still restore their relationship with God, with their sense of self, with their communities. And she had some ideas about how folks can find healing after spiritual abuse:

RACHAEL: You know, as cheesy as this sounds like rituals of letter writing, that you invite a small group of people who you trust and know, you know, almost like a witness statement, right? Like if you were gonna get to go to a court of law—a victim impact statement in some ways.

And there might need to be like multiple iterations of that. Because the truth is there’s always like the, the harm that played out, but then there’s the debris that has to be contended with, right? So the impact isn’t just “You did this thing and here’s what it did,” it’s “You did this thing and now I have trouble sleeping and I’ve struggled to connect in community and I don’t trust people in power. And my body is, I’m dealing with autoimmune disorders.” So it’s, you know, I, I think getting to do the work that might be ongoing work with a trusted community, to heal, you know, whether that’s a, a therapeutic community or religious community, a friend group, um, a survivor group.

And they tell the story, we spend time unpacking what is the debris, where does this still cost you?

And there is something powerful when others bear witness to the harm we’ve experienced who are trustworthy and who suffer with us, and don’t just say “It’s not your fault,” and don’t just say, “You’ll get through this” and “God’s gonna turn this around.” But who move toward us, and who offer like a kind face to us in places where we actually bear tremendous shame.

JENNA, narrating: Essentially, Rachael’s recommendations mirrored everything that Judy, Cecilia, and Donna did. All the ways they showed up for each other, and by doing so, showed up for all the survivors of abuse at L’Arche: They gathered together to support each other. They created a support group — a safe space. They wrote letters. One of those letters provided release, even if the response was unsatisfactory. Another letter would spark a movement.

In the final episode of Lead Us Not, you’ll hear about that second letter. You’ll hear how Judy became the first person to come forward to L’Arche with an official allegation about Vanier’s abuse, and how Donna and Cecilia supported her in that endeavor.

Lead Us Not is a podcast from Sojourners magazine. This episode was produced, written, and edited by me, Jenna Barnett, with executive production and story editing by Betsy Shirley. Sound design and mixing by JP Keenan; fact-checking and additional producing by Mitchell Atencio. Tiarra Lucas designed our podcast cover. Our theme music is by Borrtex and by Yehezkel Raz.

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