Report Finds L’Arche Founder Jean Vanier Sexually Abused Women

Jean Vanier, in file photo dated Wed. March 11, 2015.
AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis
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Editor’s note: The Banner has a subscription to Religion and Faith (AP/RNS) and occasionally re-publishes articles of wide Christian interest, according to the license. Under this license, The Banner published news of Vanier’s death in May 2019 and now runs this story to appropriately inform our readers. The following story has been edited for length.

Jean Vanier, a respected Catholic figure who worked to improve conditions for the developmentally disabled for more than half a century sexually abused at least six women during most of that period, according to a report released Saturday by L’Arche International, the charity he founded.

The report said the women's descriptions provided enough evidence to show that 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 and other Christians revered and respected Vanier, who was Canadian, for his work with people living with disabilities. He died last year at age 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 by L'Arche last year and prepared by the U.K.-based GCPS Consulting group, said. It did not rule out potential other victims.

None of the women was disabled, a significant point given 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 Saturday by L'Arche France stressed that some women still have "deep wounds."

The report noted similarities with the pattern of abuse of 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." In a trial, led by the Catholic Church in 1956, Philippe was banned from exercising any public or private ministry for his theories and the sexual practices that stemmed from them.

In a letter to the charity 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.

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.

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