Update: It's Worse Than We Thought

A just-released 900-page report has revealed that the scope of Jean Vanier's abuse was far more extensive and insidious than previously known. In light of this news, host Jenna Barnett changes plans for this episode and talks with Sojourners' Mitchell Atencio, who reported on this news for sojo.net. You'll hear a short summary of what we learned, plus tips for reading and processing upsetting news.

We'll be back next week with a full episode. Meanwhile you can read Mitchell's reporting on the new revelations about Jean Vanier at sojo.net/larche-report-2023 and check out his tips on “How To Read the News Without Sacrificing Your Mental Health.” 

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Episode Transcript

 JENNA BARNETT, narrating: Hi there, listeners. This is Jenna. I'm at my home in San Diego, and the past 24 hours have been rough. Early on Monday morning, an independent commission released an 868-page report on Jean Vanier, his spiritual mentor Thomas Philippe, and the founding of L’Arche. It wasn't full of good news.

Through my reporting for this podcast, I'd learned that L’Arche was planning to release some kind of report that would add new details to what we knew already about Jean Vanier’s abuse. But I didn't know exactly when it would be released or exactly what we'd learn. Now I know.

I had a regular show planned for today, but given this new report, I decided to change plans. Instead, I'm gonna share a few updates from my colleague, Mitchell Atencio, who published a story on sojo.net about the news. Next week we'll be back with the full episode, digging into the report more in-depth and also talking about how it changes what we know.

Okay, here's Mitchell.

JENNA: Thanks for being here, Mitchell. Could you say what the biggest takeaway from the report?

MITCHELL: Yeah. Vanier founded L’Arche primarily as a coverup for this mystical sexual sect that he and others belonged to.

JENNA: And when you say cover, what do you mean by that?

MITCHELL: Well, the report found that Vanier’s desire to better the lives of intellectually disabled people was genuine, but that it wasn't the primary intention of the first L’Arche home. They found that his first goal was to bring together this group of people who were following his mentor, Thomas Philippe and Philippe's perverted theology. Um, essentially they needed some sort of official public cover to hide this secret and abusive mystical sex stuff they were doing.

JENNA: And I, I hesitate to ask this, but when you say mystical sexual stuff, can you kind of give me a … just a rough idea of what you mean by that?

MITCHELL: Yeah, we're all still reading through this report, which is almost 900 pages, but from the general conclusion, it says that both Vanier and his mentor Philippe enacted quote, “incestuous representations of relationships between Jesus and Mary” end quote, and these were relationships they enacted often with women who are coming to them for spiritual direction.

JENNA: That's terrible, Mitchell. Um, what are, what are the other takeaways from the report?

MITCHELL: Well, when we first learned of Vanier’s abuse back in 2020, we were told of six women that he's sexually and spiritually abused. But now we know that the number is at least 25. The report says that they strongly suspect there may be even more.

JENNA: And what do we know about these women?

MITCHELL: We don't know a lot. The commission was able to interview some of them for the report. We do know that none of those 25 women were intellectually disabled members of L’Arche or what L’Arche calls their core members. We also know that some of the women would not describe their relationships with Vanier as abusive, but that all of them would say they were controlling or transgressive — and many of them would describe it as abusive.

JENNA: Okay, thanks for clarifying that range. Do we know if these sorts of abusive situations are still going on at L’Arche?

MITCHELL: Yeah, that's another good takeaway to note. The report didn't find evidence of anybody who adheres to these mystical sexual beliefs still associated with L’Arche, and they find that the abuse didn't really spread throughout L’Arche communities beyond that first initial home in France.

I think it's important to note that L’Arche is working on a restorative justice process for any of Philippe and Vanier’s victims. There's not much we know about that right now, and I'm sure we'll be asking questions about it in the future, but L’Arche already has set up, and has had set up since 2017 a process of what they call safeguarding to try and both, uh, hear accusations of abuse and then try to repair the harm that was done and prevent harms in future.

And they've also joined an independent commission that was set up by the French Catholic Church to work on reparation to those who have been abused by clergy and lay leaders. And I think those will be interesting things to follow in future.

JENNA: Thanks. I'll definitely be following any updates on those. Anything else that stuck out to you?

MITCHELL: Vanier’s unwillingness to be honest. He was approached several times before his death, from 2016 onward, he had ample opportunity to come forward or come clean, to make amends, to answer a lot of the questions that we now have about his intentions. And he would've known that his letters and personal archives were gonna be turned over to L’Arche leaders, so it was a really intentional choice on his part to lie about this when these L’Arche leaders were first asking him.

And another thing that is weighing on me is just the, the insidious of all of this. Tina Bovermann, the executive director of L’Arche USA, told me that it was insidious and strategic, um, how Vanier and Philippe behaved. And I, I think those two things are sticking with me.

JENNA: Yeah, definitely insidious. All of this is really heavy, Mitchell. When you have to report on things like this, what do you … what do you do to kind of help yourself process and deal with the weight of it?

MITCHELL: Yeah, it's a little funny: A few months ago I wrote an article about how to read the news and protect your mental health, and I think that article could have been, uh, advice also on how to write the news and protect your mental health.

I know a lot of people over the last several years have really been, you know, grappling with this, and, um, for me, I've really treasured my bike rides home from the office. It's about an hour. I don't listen to any music or any podcasts. I just spend the whole time getting my body moving. Having this, you know, bilateral stimulation, as the therapists I've interviewed would refer to it, that that helps the body process…

JENNA: What was that? Bi-bilateral …?

MITCHELL: Bilateral stimulation. It's when. Both halves of the body moving, so like in bike riding —right, left, right, left, right—or going for a walk. It was what Hillary McBride told me was an important part of helping the body process tough emotional things.

JENNA: Yeah, we carry this stuff, uh, not just in our head, but, but everywhere in our body.

MITCHELL: Yeah, in our nervous system. Um, if I could turn the question to you, how are you processing all of this? What's been, what's been weighing on you as we've done all this reporting?

JENNA: Honestly, Mitchell, I'm very pissed right now at Vanier, and…

MITCHELL: ..it's hard not to be!

JENNA: Yeah, it's weird being pissed off at a dead person. But L’Arche had a beautiful founding story. He, he heard a call, right? That's what he always said: “I heard a call once, I saw this plight,” and now as the report says, we've learned, there was no call. There was no call. He saw the pain and he saw an opportunity. To use that as a screen.

So I'm just grappling with what it means that something can have such bad soil at the start and then still produce somehow this really important fruit, because I do still believe in the work that L’Arche does in the world.

So Mitchell, it's been a lot to process and thanks, thanks for being one of the people I process with it. I know you've got a lot of stuff you gotta get back to.

MITCHELL: Yeah. Thanks Jenna. Um, I really do appreciate the time to talk through this with you, to hear your process both as a person and a journalist, and I'm looking forward to the rest of the episode.

[musical interlude]

JENNA, narrating: Last week in the first episode, I said this show is gonna try to answer a key question: What do we do when spiritual leaders we once trusted turn out to be spiritually and sexually abusive? Given what we learned today, that question feels bigger. The stakes feel larger. Vanier wasn't just abusive. He founded L’Arche first and foremost as a cover for his abuse.

I'm gonna go finish reading that 900 page report and then I'm gonna work on the next episode of the podcast. And in that episode we're gonna talk to Tina Bovermann and other members of L’Arche, and we're gonna talk about how we tell our founding stories.

I'll leave you with one last thing: As I sit with this report, my mind keeps drifting to a conversation I had a month ago with Carolyn Whitney Brown. You'll hear more from her in coming episodes. Carolyn used to live at a L’Arche and she also has written multiple books related to L’Arche and Vanier. When I told her that this podcast was gonna try to focus on healing, she said something poignant: “Before we can start healing,” she explained, “we have to know what the injury is.”

This 868-page report does a lot to diagnose the injury. And today, the wound feels pretty fresh.

If you'd like to share with us how you're processing the news, feel free to send a voice memo or email to response@sojo.net. This is heavy news. Take care of yourselves and take care of each other.