05 November 2020, The Tablet

Jean Vanier: L'Arche founder's double life left admirers confused and betrayed

by Ronan Sharkey

Jean Vanier

Jean Vanier: L'Arche founder's double life left admirers confused and betrayed

Jean Vanier pictured in 2008
Photo: CNS, Nancy Wiechec

 

Since it was revealed in February that the founder of the L’Arche communities had had manipulative sexual relationships with women over several decades, this many admirers have been wrestling with a sense of confusion and betrayal. Just who was this man they thought they knew?

When Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche communities, died aged 90 in May 2019, the world’s press, secular as well as religious, was unreserved in its praise for an exemplary life that witnessed to the transforming effect of living with and learning from people with learning disabilities. Many of those who followed the funeral on their screens must have imagined that he would soon be beatified.

It was not to last. Less than a year later, a report commissioned by L’Arche’s inter­national leadership revealed that this supposedly celibate man had, over several decades, initiated sexual relations with women who had come to him for spiritual guidance and direction, in at least one case attempting to justify his actions by saying that “it’s Jesus who loves you through me”. None of these women had learning disabilities, and the complaints were not numerous; but each admitted to having felt coerced into accepting unwanted sexual advances and suffering lasting psychological pain. Many who had expressed admiration for Vanier nine months earlier were outraged. In articles and letters to the press, he was suddenly vilified as a monster, a sexual predator in pseudo-spiritual clothing.

For those of us who had known Jean Vanier personally, sadness at his death was replaced by incomprehension and in many cases a sense of betrayal: how could this gentle, wise and (we thought) incomparably free man have led a double life? And how could he have imagined that acts like these would not become public knowledge, ruining his reputation and threatening that of the movement he founded?

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