Reconciling good and evil of Jean Vanier?

Colleen Dulle

I keep a photo of Jean Vanier on my desk. It is painful to look at today.

I’ve written almost completely uncritically about the founder of L’Arche several times at America: I called him a “revered spiritual master and prophetic voice” whose messages “always bear repeating” in a review of his last book; I wrote America’s obituary of Jean Vanier; I teared up on camera while talking with Tina Bovermann of L’Arche USA about Vanier’s life.

Now, L’Arche has released an internal report detailing credible allegations of sexual abuse against Vanier by six non-disabled women.

The report says that Vanier initiated sex in the context of spiritual direction and offered “highly unusual spiritual or mystical explanations used to justify these behaviours.”

This kind of behaviour echoes the sexual abuse perpetrated by Vanier’s spiritual mentor, Father Thomas Philippe.

The new L’Arche report also shows that Jean Vanier lied about how much he had known about accusations against Father Philippe.

Ms. Bovermann, the L’Arche spokeswoman I interviewed just after Vanier’s death, spoke to my colleague Michael J. O’Loughlin about the abuse allegations against Vanier: “I can’t wrap my head around it,” she said.

Nor can I.

I don’t mean that I disbelieve the women who brought these accusations forward.

The public excerpts of their testimonies were harrowing, and I trust the thoroughness of the third-party investigation.

What I mean is that it is difficult for me to reconcile Vanier’s abuse with my long-held image of him as a saint.

I was introduced to Jean Vanier’s thought as a senior in college, when I was stressed about my impending graduation to “the real world.”

Would I make enough money?

Would I move up quickly in my career? Would people think well of me?

One night, I sat with my friend Katie, who had recently returned from a year at a L’Arche community in Ireland.

In response to my anxieties, she asked if I’d ever heard of Jean Vanier.

She explained to me his idea that, while society tells us we will only find happiness by climbing the ladder of wealth and prestige, true Christian happiness comes from climbing down the ladder, choosing to give up power and money in order to live in community and solidarity with the poor and outcast.

The idea was a revelation. I chewed over it for hours in my prayer and writing and tried to apply it, however poorly, in my decision-making.

I deeply wanted the true happiness Vanier pointed to.

I read his books and listened to his interviews slowly and meditatively and urged others to do the same.

After he died, I hung a photo of him on my desk.

Like many, I believed he was a saint.

Part of me wonders now if I was foolish, if I should have known better than to valorize any Catholic this way after watching Theodore McCarrick’s precipitous fall from grace in 2018 or even watching St. John Paul II’s record on sexual abuse be called into serious question after hearing the crowds chant “Santo Subito” in 2005.

If such widely respected men could commit decades of abuse or turn a blind eye to allegations, why should I have believed Jean Vanier could not do the same? Continue reading

  • Colleen Dulle is the assistant producer of audio and video at America.
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