Jean Vanier at a Templeton Prize press conference in London March 11, 2015. / Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images

CNA Newsroom, Feb 1, 2023 / 07:35 am (CNA).

A new independent report commissioned by L’Arche International and released on its website Jan. 30 has shed light on the magnitude of psychological and sexual abuse committed by its famous founder, Jean Vanier, who died in 2019.

Founded in the French commune of Trosly-Breuil in 1964, L’Arche is an international federation gathering networks of community where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together. The initiative has inspired thousands of faithful around the world, allowing it to expand to 38 countries on five continents through 150 different communities. The shockwaves caused by the revelations about its founder were all the greater because he was often regarded as a saint.

While a previous report issued in February 2020 revealed Vanier’s sexual misconduct with six women in the context of providing spiritual direction to them, this new investigation found that between 1952 and 2019, at least 25 women — all of them adults without disabilities, single, married, or consecrated — experienced “at some point of their relationship with Vanier a situation implying a sexual act or intimate gesture.” 

The more than 900-page report, the result of a two-year investigation, also looks into the actions of Father Thomas Philippe, a Catholic priest who died in 1993 and whom Jean Vanier considered his spiritual mentor. Philippe was also the subject of a parallel investigation by the Dominican order, which will be published Wednesday.

Stephan Posner and Stacy Cates Carney, leaders of L’Arche International, wrote in a letter to the federation’s members that they were “appalled” by the report’s findings. The leaders wrote that “we once again condemn, without reservation, the actions of Jean Vanier and Thomas Philippe which are in total contradiction with the elementary rules of respect and integrity of persons, and contrary to the fundamental principles of our communities.”

Composed of six researchers from different backgrounds, the independent commission sought to understand the context and sectarian mechanisms that enabled Vanier, as a great spiritual figure, to use his power to take advantage of young women. His relationships with those women, according to a synthesis provided by L’Arche, “all fit into a continuum of confusion, control, and abuse.”

The report stated that “while some people described themselves as ‘victims’ or ‘survivors’ of an abusive relationship, a few described themselves rather as consenting partners in a transgressive relationship … justified by mystical-sexual beliefs inherited from Philippe.”

Investigators also looked into Vanier’s complicity in Philippe’s actions, covering up his spiritual and sexual abuses for decades, despite the Vatican’s canonical sanctions against the religious and his brother, Marie-Dominique Philippe, who was also a Dominican, as early as the 1950s.

Among the most shocking revelations of the report is the fact that the foundation of L’Arche had as its primary objective to serve as a “screen” against Rome’s sanctions against Philippe and to continue the work he had been developing through his spiritual center L’Eau Vive, which the commission described as a sect.

The researchers, however, concluded that “L’Arche as a project and as an organization has nothing to do with a sect, and that while the original sectarian nucleus did form a microsystem at the heart of L’Arche, in the light of the facts of abuse identified by the commission, it did not seem to have developed beyond the [French] mother house in Trosly-Breuil.”

Contacted by CNA, Father Christian Mahéas, chaplain of L’Arche in France for 16 years until 2020, expressed his deep pain and dismay at reading the new report and the details of the abuses committed by Vanier.

Mahéas, whose priestly vocation flourished through his mission at the service of L’Arche and its members with intellectual disabilities, accompanied Vanier the last five months of his earthly life and was beside him when he died.

“I find it very disturbing that a man as seemingly free as Jean Vanier could have remained under the influence of Father Thomas Philippe for so many years without standing up to him,” he told CNA. He said that Vanier had been under Philippe’s thumb since he was 20 years old and that Philippe had shaped Vanier’s entire spiritual development.

According to Mahéas, the aura of holiness that surrounded Vanier, and Philippe before him, was likely to aggravate the sectarian aberrations in which he engaged.

“This warns us against the all-too-common temptation to canonize people during their lifetime by putting them on a pedestal,” he said, also underlining the extreme prudence that spiritual guides must show toward their flock, always taking care to respect the inner freedom of each person.

“There is a path, a work of purification and conversation to live in the Church and this is all part of it. It is a matter of continuing our mission in this sense without losing sight of the innumerable fruits borne by L’Arche in its service to the least of this world, and which are to be dissociated from its founder,” Mahéas continued, expressing his appreciation for the strong support the federation continues to receive from Christians around the world.

“It would be a great shame if people who need to be welcomed by L’Arche were to suffer the double punishment of being rejected by society in principle, and now rejected a second time because of this case which concerns its founder only. What a tragedy that would be!”

In their official communique that accompanied the release of the report, the federations’ leaders also announced that a new audit will be undertaken in 2023 in all the communities of L’Arche and that from then on audits will be scheduled every three years to protect its members against all types of abuse in the future.

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