Introducing: Lead Us Not
It’s an all-too-familiar story: A charismatic Christian leader, revered for his work and teaching. Then, explosive allegations he’d engaged in manipulative sexual and spiritual practices. But this isn’t a podcast about another good guy who turned out to be a bad guy; it’s about the rest of us who are left to wrestle with the aftermath—and ensure abuse like this doesn’t happen again.
Lead Us Not is a new podcast from Sojourners, hosted by Jenna Barnett. The series explores the legacy of Jean Vanier, a Christian leader once regarded as a “living saint” for starting L’Arche, a global network of communities promoting the dignity of people with intellectual disabilities. But nine months after Vanier’s death, a different story emerged.
You’ll hear from past and present L’Arche members, scholars, theologians, and activists all trying to understand: When trusted leaders commit sexual and spiritual abuse, how do our communities move forward? And if an abusive person shapes our faith, how does that distort our understanding of God?
Credits: Lead Us Not was produced, written, and edited by Jenna Barnett, with sound design and mixing by JP Keenan, cover design by Tiarra Lucas, and executive production by Betsy Shirley.
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TIM MOORE : There was something about his presence that transformed how you received what was being said.
JENNA BARNETT: 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.
NARRATION, Jenna Barnett: Jean Vanier was the founder of L’Arche, a network of of communities around the world where people with and without intellectual disabilities live together as equals. Before he died in 2019, Vanier referred to L’Arche as a “school of love,” and for starting that school, he gathered a lot of admirers, including Tim, who you just heard from a moment ago … and including me. But nine months after Vanier’s death, L’Arche released a report that changed everything.
ARCHIVE CLIPS, montage of news anchors: Jean Vanier’s near saintly reputation now in question / … He has been accused of sexually abusing six women, this from an internal report from L’Arche… /… after findings conducted by Vanier’s own charity suggest he engaged in manipulative sexual relationships that took place from 1970 to 2005… / …but it does say they were all adult, non-disabled women. It said these women that did not know about each other’s experiences, reported similar facts, associated with highly unusual mystical and spiritual explanations used to justify his behavior, and it continued...
NARRATION, Jenna: There are about 150 L’Arche communities in at least 35 different countries around the world. Every one of them has had to grapple with Vanier’s abusive behavior. This isn’t just a podcast about a good guy who turned out to be a bad guy. It’s a story about the people who looked up to him, who lived in the communities he founded, who read his books, who let his wisdom shape their lives.
INTERVIEW CLIPS, montage: I mean it felt like, um, in some ways a death, like a horrific death. / I can’t say that I was shocked. I was disappointed more and I was frustrated cause then I had to reconcile this great miracle in my life with something sordid. / I want to scream … or laugh or cry. There’s no one feeling, right? We couldn’t protect people in our community and that makes me sad. / I can’t detach myself from my family of origin, whether I want it or not, right? An organization can’t do that either. / You can take the book off the shelf, but you can’t revoke the influence that the book has already had on generations of folks.
NARRATION, Jenna: Whenever I read about the abuse of spiritual leaders, an awful cocktail of sadness and anger settles in. But when I learned about the allegations against Jean Vanier, I felt scared too. Vanier had a progressive, inclusive theology. He was supposed to be different. The news of his abuse left me with a lot of grief and a lot of questions. I wasn’t the only one.
INTERVIEW CLIPS, montage: How could you speak with such truth and yet have committed such horror? How could you not see that as abusive? Why’d you keep it a secret? And then of course, then you start to pull on that string: Or was it a secret? And, and did other people know? Was there a cover up? / You have to wonder, you know, are these people really the authority on Christian pacifism or are they just really masterful perpetrators of evil? / And for some of us we questioned, like, man, does this mean, everything I did is just meaningless? / What do we do with the legacy? What’s our self-understanding now? Do we burn it all?
NARRATION, Jenna: We’re going to try to answer those questions. This is Lead Us Not, a podcast from Sojourners magazine. I’m Jenna Barnett and I’m one of the thousands of people whose lives was changed by Jean Vanier. Over the past year, I’ve spoken with more than a dozen former and current L’Arche community members, and also scholars, theologians, and activists, all to try to understand: What do we do when the people we called living saints turn out to be secret perpetrators? Reporting on this story taught me what it looks like for a loving community to pick up what’s broken and try to build something new.