Episode 5: The Letter That Changed Everything

When prominent spiritual leaders are abusive, their violence hits like an earthquake. At the epicenter are the people they abuse … but even those of us hundreds of miles away still feel the effects.

In this final episode, we turn to the wider community that was impacted by Jean Vanier’s abuse — people who didn’t know Vanier directly, but who read his books, were inspired by L’Arche’s model of community, or served as volunteers. What do we call the kind of harm these people experience? And how do we heal from it? You’ll hear from ethicist Karen Guth about different options for responding to tainted legacies and from spiritual abuse expert Rachael Clinton Chen about the “shrapnel” of spiritual abuse.

And you’ll hear the story of how Judy Farquharson — with the help of Donna Varnau and Cecilia McPherson — helped clear the path for other victims of Jean Vanier to come forward.

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

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

You can find transcripts for each show and related links at sojo.net/podcast. If you like our show, please rate us and leave a review. You can stay in touch with us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter with the hashtag #LeadUsNot.

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.

Episode Transcript

JENNA, narrating: Hey there listeners, before we get started, if you have been enjoying this show and want to support Sojourners, the best way to do that is to visit sojo.net/lun and become a subscriber of our award-winning magazine. In each issue, we explore current topics of faith, social justice, politics, and culture, with bold commentary, compelling reporting, and gorgeous original artwork. As a listener of this show, you’ll get a $10 discount when you use the link sojo.net/lun. Thanks so much for your support.

This podcast deals with issues of spiritual and sexual violence. Please use care when listening.

Jenna: Hey, um, are you able to look up if you have a book by a certain author?

Store clerk: Yeah. Who are we looking up?

Jenna: Jean Vanier. The last name is spelled V-A-N-I-E-R.

[audio background of Jenna looking for books]

This is me last spring in a used bookstore in San Antonio. As I was digging into my work on the podcast, I wanted to reread one of Jean Vanier’s most well-known books: Community and Growth. My own copy was 2,000 miles away in storage. When I moved away from New York City during the pandemic, I hadn’t been quite ready to get rid of my Vanier books, but … I also hadn’t really wanted to bring them with me.

[more audio of Jenna looking for books]

Store clerk: Ok, there’s a book called Finding Peace. I don’t know if it’s … I guess it’s religious?

[more audio of Jenna looking for books]

After going to two different used bookstores, I found two Vanier books: Finding Peace and Community and Growth. Both were well-worn. Whoever sold them back to the store, had clearly spent some time with the text. I don’t know anything about the last owners of these books, but I’ve wondered about them a lot. I imagine them learning in 2020, that Vanier was abusive, and feeling shocked and hurt. I imagine them grabbing the Vanier books off their bookshelf and for a second, considering burning them, but not being able to do it. So instead, they drive to the bookstore and wait for an employee to tell them how much these books are worth. The employee flips through the books and offers them two bucks. The books sit on the shelf for a couple years until finally, I come around.

[audio of Jenna purchasing the books]

Here’s the thing: I never could get myself to re-read those books. I’ve found myself stuck — not able to throw them away, but also, not able to open them back up.

After spending this year interviewing more than a dozen L’Arche community members, both past and present, I’ve discovered I’m not the only one holding their Vanier books in purgatory. The question of “What do I do with his books?” came up in just about every conversation I had. I’ve learned that asking this question is really just a tangible way of asking the bigger, more important question: What do we do with his legacy?

[theme music begins]

This is Lead Us Not, a podcast from Sojourners magazine that explores: What do we do when the people we once called living saints, turn out to be secret perpetrators? This is our final episode. We’re going to talk about where we go from here, especially if you’re someone like me: Someone who was, from a distance, deeply inspired by Vanier and then deeply impacted by the news of his abuse. When our heroes fail us in unthinkable ways, what do we keep from their legacy? And what do we discard?

[end theme music]

Sometimes, when I ask that question — what do we discard? — I mean it quite literally. Vanier published more than 30 books in his lifetime, some of which became national bestsellers. In the spring of 2022, I spoke with EunSung Kim, Bethany McKinney Fox, and Matt Ponder. EunSung and Matt were L’Arche assistants in Washington, D.C. Bethany volunteers at a L’Arche community in California. In 2019, Vanier endorsed her book Disability and the Way of Jesus. I want you to hear the similarities in how EunSung, Bethany, and Matt dealt with the immediate aftermath of the 2020 abuse revelations.

EUNSUNG KIM: I mean one of the first things I did, I came home and I took down his books and actually boxed them away.

BETHANY FOX: You know, as soon as I found out, I took all of his books off of the bookshelf and put them in a bag.

JENNA, interviewing: Why not just throw them away?

MATT PONDER: It wouldn’t help anyone if I just threw away any resemblance of Vanier and said that, “Hey, we’re just gonna start over on a clean slate.”

BETHANY: Like I had a lot of notes in Community and Growth. And so it’s like my own engagement with the text. So just preserving that aspect of my own history.

MATT: It takes courage, I think, to be able to face the truth of our lives and even the truth of the hero figures that we’ve had in our lives. I was deeply influenced by Vanier, and that will always be a part of me.

BETHANY: There’s still so much that Jean Vanier represented that is still so close to my heart and I’m not ready to throw everything in the garbage.

EUNSUNG: I just couldn’t read his words at that point in time, but maybe someday I can without like, hating him?

JENNA, narrating: I think it makes sense that in the immediate aftermath of an abuse revelation, we want to do something concrete. We want to take the book off the shelf, but … then what? Karen Guth is an ethicist who is uniquely suited to answer that question. She’s an associate professor of religious studies at the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., and in recent years, she’s focused her work on understanding how humans grapple with what she calls “tainted legacies.” The tainted legacy that really jump started her research, was that of John Howard Yoder, one of the most important theologians of Christian pacifism, and also, a man who sexually violated more than 100 women.

KAREN GUTH: I remember actually I gave a paper at a conference. Um, I think it was in 2007. Where one of the scholars in the audience asked me how I could give a paper on Yoder’s pacifism without acknowledging his sexual violence. And I mean, I was stunned. Totally shocked. And I’m sure I did not answer the question well, but the truth is that I hadn’t heard anything about his sexual violence.

JENNA, narrating: After the conference, she went back and reviewed the literature to learn how she could have missed this. But she couldn’t find anything. Though Yoder’s abuse had been reported as early as 1992 and in-depth reporting about his abuse was made public in 2013, scholars have continued to write about his contributions to the field of Christian pacifism without acknowledging his abuse.

KAREN: At first it was just about Yoder for me, but then I realized the more I thought about it, that this was in fact a much larger problem, um, that really occurs throughout human history, but that hasn’t really been theorized in philosophical or religious ethics.

JENNA, narrating: So Karen decided to create a framework of her own. Her research into tainted legacies ultimately revealed that people tend to respond in a couple different ways. Quick note: When I spoke with Karen over Zoom, our internet connection was a bit unstable, so you may hear a couple blips in the audio.

KAREN: So the first response that I’ve noticed is you have what I’m calling “deniers.” There are always people who don’t recognize that the legacy is tainted, right? You know like, I could see this happening with Michael Jackson, “Oh they’re just allegations.” “Oh, but his like cultural status and his impact on music is so great that there’s just no way that we can, you know, stop listening to his music.”

If I’m being really charitable, I might say maybe deniers like are really good at recognizing the pervasiveness of human sin and, and you know, it’s so pervasive that they’re like, you know, everything’s tainted, so why even bother making distinctions? I don’t see much benefit in that response, I guess that probably won’t be surprising.

JENNA, interviewing: I’m with you there.

KAREN: The second type I call separationists, I think this is a pretty common response. So these are folks who wanna posit really neat distinctions between thinker and work. They improve on the denier position because they’ll acknowledge that thinkers or an institution’s legacy is tainted, but they deal with it by just separating them. You say something like, “Well, Yoder was a really good theologian, but a really bad person.” That’s a classic separationist approach.

JENNA, interviewing : I’ve never been good enough about compartmentalizing my life for that to make sense for me. [laughs]

KAREN : Me neither.

JENNA, interviewing : And especially given how much community was so part of many of these moral leaders’ lives that, well they were intentionally bringing their personal life into their work life. So how could a separation even really exist?

KAREN: And there’s no concern for the wellbeing of survivors there either, right?

JENNA, narrating: The next category is the abolitionists.

They’re similar to the separatists in that they’ll acknowledge that thinkers and institutions are tainted, but they respond by rejecting the text or revoking the authority of the tradition. So for them, the risk of reinforcing whatever the negative ideology or actions are, you know, the burden for victims is just too much to risk engaging it. So this is like taking Yoder off the syllabus, uh, removing names from buildings that’s been happening at a lot of, um, colleges and universities. I think it usually comes from a place of like deep caring and compassion for those who’ve suffered.

JENNA, narrating : Karen would say that my impulse to just burn all of Vanier’s books is part of this abolitionist response. Out-of-sight, out of mind, right? But Karen also acknowledges that this approach has its limitations. It gets rid of the artifacts of an abuser's tainted legacies — the books, the monuments, the school buildings — but it fails to grapple with the ways that leader has impacted society that can’t be erased.

KAREN : You can take the book off the shelf but you can’t revoke the influence the book has had on generations of folks.

JENNA, narrating : I could throw away Community and Growth, but I can’t throw away the influence Vanier has had on my understanding of what Christian community should look like. Karen identifies other ways of responding to tainted legacies, but the response that she finds the most compelling is that of the reformer. The reformer acknowledges the indelible influence the leader has had on society and then interrogates how that influence may have been harmful. The reformer asks: What are the cultural factors that gave rise to his legacy? What are the impacts of that legacy, and how can we build a better one in its place? The reformer approach really pushes you to think structurally: So, if someone like Vanier was instrumental in creating L’Arche or spreading a theology of vulnerability, what in that organization or theology do we need to re-examine?

KAREN : Addressing the structural injustices that have led to these kinds of violations is not an easy thing. It’s never ending; it will never be done.

JENNA, narrating : Each episode you’ve heard me pose the same question: What do we do when someone we called a living saint turns out to be a secret perpetrator? In a lot of ways, this podcast was my journey to discovering what to do with the tainted legacy of L’Arche and Jean Vanier. That journey began by confronting the truth of what Vanier did — how he started L’Arche first and foremost as a way to reunite a condemned group of mystical sex practitioners. I also learned the importance of decentering a single voice when we tell origin stories, and God knows I’ll never call anyone a living saint ever again. Finally, I talked with some of the survivors about the abuse they suffered and their own path to healing. But there’s still one question that’s been nagging at me. In the last episode, I talked to Rachael Clinton Chen about spiritual abuse and how it affects victims. But how does spiritual and sexual violence impact those of us who weren’t directly abused?

I never met Jean Vanier, but when I learned that one of my spiritual heroes was actually abusive, I was devastated. And that devastation confused and frustrated me. I didn’t know the guy, so how come, even years after his death, his actions still had the ability to hurt me? And my conversations with other L’Arche community members showed me I wasn’t the only one feeling this way. Vanier didn’t abuse them, but he still hurt many of them — even the ones who never met him. So I asked Rachel: Is that also spiritual abuse?

RACHAEL CLINTON CHEN: Just because that sexually abusive experience didn’t happen to you, the spiritual leadership did, whether it’s from afar or in proximity. So when there is this kind of harm playing out, it doesn’t matter if you weren’t harmed in some of these specific ways, you were still harmed spiritually. And that is the debris and shrapnel of spiritual abuse when it’s coming from such a prominent leader. Because the ramifications are so vast and so pervasive and are kind of like a tsunami that can just take out. So yes, it is spiritual abuse. It’s a spiritually abusive experience. Even if you could say like, “This person didn’t know me from Adam, like I’ve just been reading their stuff and following them.” And it may not be the same volume as someone who was at the epicenter, but it’s never helpful to, you know, get in like the trauma Olympics.

JENNA, narrating: When prominent spiritual leaders are abusive, their violence hits like an earthquake or tsunami. There are those at the epicenter, people like Donna, Judy, and Cecilia. And then there are those of us hundreds of miles away, who still get hit with the heavy waves.

RACHAEL: We’re seeing this apocalyptic unveiling of these religious leaders who have been given a lot of power, a lot of spiritual authority, and who are incredible at meeting people in their vulnerability — and we’re getting these horrific revelations that there has been profound harm to people who trusted them deeply.

JENNA, narrating: Rachael said that when we confront this kind of widespread abuse, it’s tempting to just throw everything away — sort of like what Karen Guth described as the “abolitionist” response. But Rachael, like Karen, saw the long-term limitation of this approach. In the immediate aftermath of a grand disillusionment, it can be wise to put distance between yourself and anything that reminds you of the leader who turned out to be a perpetrator. For me, this type of avoidance has been a critical Band-Aid, but after some time passed, once I wasn’t so raw, it was time for me to interrogate the wound.

RACHAEL: Lament has to become a part of any healing process because there are things that will be lost. And that doesn’t mean, again, that we can’t recover things that we need to be able to take with us. But they may come back to us in a resurrected form. When I’m working with people who’ve experienced this kind of harm, sometimes I say, “Hey, it’s okay if we gotta put the spiritual language aside for a season, if we’ve gotta, you know, set down some of these former practices that have deeply shaped you.” It doesn’t mean we’re setting them down indefinitely. It just might mean you need a season to restore some safety in your body and to find some other ways to pray. Other ways to receive spiritual nourishment that, again, allow you to grow your discernment back, your trust back in your own self.

But I mean the heartbreak in that there are things that will be lost that were deeply meaningful to us, that we may never get back in quite the same way. I mean, I believe in a God who brings beauty out of our ashes and who has promised to make things new, but we know in trauma studies that newness is not without evidence of the wound.

JENNA, interviewing: I’m struck by what you said about, uh, things coming back in a resurrected way — and it may not look the same. And I even think about the resurrection story when Mary Magdalene saw Jesus in the garden and didn’t recognize him. You know, even Jesus when he came back resurrected, he must have been different, felt different, looked different. Like there must have been something a little bit different.

RACHAEL: You’re right. That sense that Jesus didn’t look the same. And I don’t think any of us look the same on the other side of a recovery process, of a healing process. What feels tragic to me is when the harm has the capacity to steal and to destroy things that are actually precious to us. Sometimes, it takes time to be able to go, “What, what actually will need to die indefinitely and what might be able to be recovered and come with me?”

JENNA, narrating: I’m not quite the same on the other side of this podcast. Some things, I’ve had to let go. For a season, because of my distrust in charismatic faith leaders, I’ve had to sit out Sunday church services. But I know that won’t last forever. In other ways, I’ve undoubtedly changed for the better. While I still believe in the power of vulnerability, I’ve also become a champion of clear, firm boundaries. And after talking to so many loving members of L’Arche, I believe even more deeply in the power of community, as messy as it is.

I realize that this podcast has probably posed more questions than it’s answered. Maybe that’s why, over the past year, I’ve turned time and time again to a quote from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. He writes: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves.” Before starting this podcast, I didn’t love these questions. Back then, I was asking the questions on my own. It turns out that the healing only comes when we ask these questions aloud — together.

I want to leave you with one more story, and really, it’s the story that set all this in motion — both the devastation of what we now know about Jean Vanier as well as the opportunity to ask these questions that lead to healing. And that’s the story of how Judy Farquharson, with the help of Donna Varnau and Cecilia McPherson, helped launch L’Arche’s investigation into Jean Vanier’s sexual abuse.

In the last episode, we learned that Donna and Cecilia were both spiritually and sexually abused by Thomas Philippe, Jean Vanier’s mentor and the chaplain of the first L’Arche in France. After Philippe’s abuse was made public in 2015, they worked together to try to find and support other women who had been abused by Philippe at L’Arche. But they never guessed that Vanier had also abused women at L’Arche. Here’s Donna:

DONNA VARNAU: I was very taken with this issue. I was furious that women and vulnerable people were being treated this way. I was like a detective … in revealing the truth of L’Arche. So every morning I meditate and I was quieting my mind and just very still and in popped this image of Judy Bridges.

JENNA, narrating: Donna and Judy had briefly met each other at L’Arche Trosly decades prior. They’d had a couple conversations then, but they hadn’t been in touch in any way since.

DONNA: And I remember seeing her in the image coming out of being with Pere Thomas and I just watched her, and she’s wearing all white and it just struck me. That’s all. It just stayed in my mind. And then, a voice said to me, “You need to find her.” And I didn’t know how to find her. I didn’t even know where she was, but I just kind of followed my inner prompts. And uh, Facebook was the first one. And I was fortunate to be able to send her a message and she wrote back and said, “Oh, you found me. I’ve been waiting, I’ve been waiting.”

I said, “Oh, another Thomas Philippe victim.” She said, “So, so you were also a victim of Jean Vanier?” And I said, “What?! No, Thomas Philippe.” And she says, “Oh no, I was a victim of Jean Vanier.” And, and I was absolutely stunned, ’cause I still held him on, on a pedestal as being the great saint. And uh, and then she started telling me her experience.

JENNA, narrating: After talking with Donna and Cecilia, Judy ultimately decided to tell L’Arche about the ways Vanier had abused her and how that abuse impacted her life. She wrote it all down in a letter under the pseudonym “Myriam.” Donna and Cecilia wrote cover letters to add their support to her testimony. In 2016, Judy sent the letter to L’Arche. By Judy’s own request, her letter was not made public. As you may recall from past episodes, at least one woman had previously shared an account of Vanier’s abuse with a senior L’Arche leader, but that woman didn’t want her story to be shared in any way. Judy was the first victim who allowed L’Arche to begin investigating her claim. When I asked her if she’d be willing to read some of that letter for the podcast, she agreed. Here’s Judy reading from that letter:

JUDY, reading: It is a story of sexual and spiritual abuse, an abuse of power. Jean and later Pere Thomas were my spiritual directors. I am not alone with the Pere Thomas part of my story as I am aware that many women have given their testimonies about their experiences with him. I also do not feel that I am alone with the Jean Vanier part either, even though I have never spoken to anyone who has shared my experience. But I believe that I was only one of many impressionable young women who went to Jean for spiritual direction, some of whom also went out to other third world countries as young inexperienced assistants around that time. I am not interested in any public disclosure of my story but I think it should be known within L’Arche, as I believe it is now — and has been for a long time — a systemic problem that needs exploration. I hope that by bringing this to light it will be easier for others to speak of their experiences, in the knowledge they are not alone. Only then can true healing begin.

JENNA, narrating: Almost seven years have passed since Judy wrote that letter. Her testimony prompted L’Arche to launch an investigation against Vanier. Judy’s instincts were right: She wasn’t the only one who Vanier hurt. And each of these victims are in a different place on their healing journey.

JUDY: My goal was to create a pathway for other victims to come forward and, and to have a place to, to be heard and perhaps get help if they need it. Like, I just have always carried these nameless other women. Now we know there’s 25; I suspect it’s more, but I’ve always carried them in my heart not knowing who they were. And, uh, and I wanted, I wanted things to change within L’Arche. I wanted this never to be able to happen again and I wanted there to be safeguards and this would lead to a pathway for other people to come forward.

JENNA: It certainly did.

JUDY: Yeah.

JENNA, narrating: I’ve printed out a copy of Judy’s letter. And I’ve also printed out the letter Donna, Cecilia, and two other survivors wrote to Vanier. It hasn’t felt right for me to throw out Vanier’s books. It would feel like I was throwing out the truth: This abusive man had an impact on my life, whether I like it or not. But keeping his books just as they are feels just as wrong. So I’ve placed Donna, Cecilia, and Judy’s letters inside the pages of my old copy of Community and Growth. No doubt they are the most important pages in the whole book. After all, Donna, Cecilia, and Judy have taught me far more about community and about growth than Vanier ever did.

[music begins]

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

This podcast wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the entire Sojourners staff, especially the editorial team who offered encouragement and took on extra work while we were making this podcast. That team includes: Rose Marie Berger, Liz Bierly, Heather Brady, Josiah R. Daniels, Zachary Lee, Julie Polter, Jim Rice, Candace Sanders, and Joey Thurmond. Special thanks to Rose for giving me the inspiration for what to do with my Jean Vanier books.

I wanted to thank all the L’Arche folks, past and present, who talked with me, but whose interviews we didn’t wind up using in this show. Your words helped shape this story and my own healing journey.

And of course, special thanks to Judy, Cecilia, and Donna for bringing the truth to light and for sharing their stories with the podcast.

You can find transcripts for each show and related links at sojo.net/podcast. 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.