Jean Vanier – mourning a reputation

Around Easter last year Jean Vanier, the founder of the l’Arche communities for people living with intellectual disabilities, died, aged 90, and I wrote in this column: “Jean defined his vocation as ‘revealing the beauty of people who are wounded’.

Jean Vanier

It is the sort of sentence you will not find even in the best meaning of our laws.  In fact, many people will not even know what you are talking about.  Yet there it is: the cornerstone of l’Arche.  It is about helping people who are living with disabilities to discover their gifts and rejoice in them and share them with the world”.

This vision inspired me and many others and there are now 154 communities of l’Arche around the world. Those of us who knew Jean came to revere him as a great witness of the gospel and an inspiration in revealing what lay hidden in the lives of handicapped people.

But now, less than twelve months later, another picture has emerged, one that destroys the one we lived with for so long. After a painstaking process of investigation by outside professionals the present leaders of the International Federation of l’Arche have released a report which reveals that over a period of thirty years Jean had relations with women each of who ‘report that he initiated sexual behaviours with them, usually in the context of spiritual accompaniment. Some of these women have been deeply wounded by these experiences’.

If we mourned last year over the death of a great and holy man, we now mourn over the death of his reputation. His achievements were colossal but now they have to stand with this revision of the man himself.  How could this have happened? How could someone who was so sensitive to the sufferings of the poor and the disabled himself inflict suffering on people who were vulnerable? There are no grounds for saying he took advantage of disabled people. The women were not in l’Arche and they were adults so it could perhaps be said the relationship was consensual. This is not the view of the women who, courageously and individually, answered the questions the investigators put to them. They each felt manipulated by the spiritual context of their encounters with Jean.

Only today, by chance, I came across a letter of Jean to me in 1989. He was taking time out in a monastery in Belgium and he wrote, ‘Tonight I feel the joy of Jesus and want so much to give Him thanks for everything and I feel a great desire that we may know His goodness and love.’ When I first read those words thirty years ago I am sure I felt encouraged and shared his joy. Now, rereading them, I feel confused and deeply sad. I cannot begin to understand what has happened. Someone we looked up to had this secret life where he was hurting others.  The report commissioned by l’Arche concludes, ‘It will take more time and work, with help from outside L’Arche, to try and understand this part of our history and the roots of such behaviours’. Is it possible for a person to be imaginative, generous and devoted to others while at the same time be deviant and manipulative? What a question to try to answer.

1 March 2020              Lent Sunday 1

Gen 2:7-9; 3:1-7          Rom 5:12-19               Matt 4:1-11

Post published in: Featured

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *