A respected Catholic figure who worked to improve conditions for people with developmental disabilities for more than half a century sexually abused at least six women during most of that period, according to a report released on Saturday by the France-based charity he founded.
The report produced for L’Arche International said the women’s descriptions provided enough evidence to show that Jean Vanier engaged in “manipulative sexual relationships” from 1970 to 2005, usually with a “psychological hold” over the alleged victims.
Although he was a layman and not a priest, many Catholics hailed Vanier, who was Canadian, as a living saint for his work with disabled people. He died last year aged 90.
“The alleged victims felt deprived of their free will and so the sexual activity was coerced or took place under coercive conditions,” the report, commissioned last year and prepared by the UK-based GCPS Consulting group, said. It did not rule out other potential victims.
None of the women had disabilities, a significant point given that the Catholic hierarchy has long sought to portray any sexual relationship between religious leaders and other adults as consensual unless there was clear evidence of disability. The #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements, however, have forced a recognition that power imbalances such as those in spiritual relationships can breed abuse.
During the charity-commissioned inquiry, six adult women without links to each other said Vanier engaged in sexual relations with them as they were seeking spiritual direction. The women reported similar facts, and Vanier’s sexual misconduct was often associated with alleged “spiritual and mystical justifications,” the report states.
A statement released by L’Arche France stressed that some women still have “deep wounds”. The report noted similarities with the pattern of abuse of the Rev Thomas Philippe, a Catholic priest Vanier called his “spiritual father”. Philippe, who died in 1993, has been accused of sexual abuse by several women.
A statement from L’Arche International said analysis of archives shows that Vanier “adopted some of Father Thomas Philippe’s deviant theories and practices”. Philippe was banned from exercising any public or private ministry in a trial led by the Catholic church in 1956 for his theories and the sexual practices that stemmed from them.
In a letter to the charity’s members, the leaders of L’Arche International, Stephan Posner and Stacy Cates-Carney, told of their shock at the news, and condemned Vanier’s actions. “For many of us, Jean was one of the people we loved and respected the most … While the considerable good he did throughout his life is not in question, we will nevertheless have to mourn a certain image we may have had of Jean and of the origins of L’Arche,” they wrote.
Other devoted fans and Catholic commentators voiced soulful disappointment at the findings. Some held up the case as a reason to bring long waits back to the saint-making process, to make sure candidates for canonisation hold up to scrutiny long after death.
JD Flynn, the editor-in-chief of Catholic News Agency, said the report’s conclusions hit his family particularly hard: Flynn has two children with Down’s syndrome, one of whom is named for Vanier. “This is devastating for our family,” he tweeted. “Please pray for us, and also for L’Arche.”
John Gehring, programme director at the US advocacy network Faith in Public Life, said Vanier attracted so many devotees because he was a “quiet refugee from that chaos” of the institutional Catholic church . “Part of why the Vanier news is so gutting, I think, is that he offered an authentic path into deep spirituality for many detached from the institutional church and disillusioned with clerical leaders who abused power,” he tweeted. “The truth is painful.”
Vanier worked as a Canadian navy officer and professor before turning to charity work. A visit to a psychiatric facility prompted him to found L’Arche in 1964 as an alternative living environment where people with developmental disabilities could be participants in their community instead of patients. The charity now has facilities in 38 countries that are home to thousands of people, both with and without disabilities.
Vanier, who was unmarried, also travelled the world to encourage dialogue across religions, and was awarded the 2015 Templeton Prize for spiritual work, as well as France’s Legion of Honor. He was the subject of a documentary shown at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival called Jean Vanier, the Sacrament of Tenderness.
The allegations against Vanier reveal a major gap in the Catholic church’s handling of sex abuse allegations, even for Vatican-recognised associations of the faithful, such as L’Arche. Because he was a layman, Vanier was exempt from the church’s in-house sanctioning procedures for abuse, which only cover priests, bishops and cardinals. For these offenders, the worst penalty the Vatican can impose is defrocking – essentially, making the priests laymen again.