The Head of L’Arche International, Stephan Posner, has spoken to The Tablet of his hopes that the organisation will continue to flourish despite devastating allegations of sexual abuse made against its founder, Jean Vanier.
A report based on an internal investigation, seen by The Tablet and due to be made public on Tuesday, reveals that Vanier was accused of inappropriate sexual behaviour by six women of various “ages, geographic origin and status – married, unmarried, vowed celibate”.
The identity of the women has been kept confidential but the summary report states that sexual activity with Vanier, who died in May last year aged 90, “was coerced or took place under coercive conditions”.
Mr Posner told The Tablet: “The considerable good [Vanier] did throughout his life is not in question”, but he said that L’Arche will “nevertheless have to mourn a certain image we may have had of Jean.”
He went on: “We have been shocked, annoyed, disappointed. But everyone I know in L’Arche goes back to their own experience, and says, ‘This is not what I have lived; and I still want to get up each morning and work for L’Arche.’ This is reassuring. That is all I can say.”
The report, commissioned by L’Arche International and conducted by GCPS Consulting, a UK-based expert in the investigation and prevention of sexual abuse, over the course of a year, highlighted six manipulative sexual relationships, some lasting several years, that took place between 1970 and 2005.
The women came forward independently of one another, but their testimonies are strikingly similar.
Very often, the report found, abuse occurred within the context of spiritual accompaniment, and sexual relations, involving “everything except intercourse”, were given “mystical and spiritual” justification by Vanier. One woman reports: “He said: ‘This is not us, this is Mary and Jesus. You are chosen, you are special, this is secret.”
The summary report states that the findings of the inquiry are “based on a ‘balance of probabilities’, and not ‘beyond any doubt’ standard of proof”.
While four of the six women brought their allegations against Vanier after his death, two came forward while he was still alive, the first in 2016.
Mr Posner told The Tablet, “After the 2016 testimony, we spoke to Jean many times. The woman who came forward had said that the abuse was in the context of a lot of mystical speech. Jean said that he couldn’t remember this, and that, while he could remember the woman, he had believed their relationship to be consensual.”
The woman in question, and the other five women, deny that their relationships with Vanier were consensual.
Vanier’s relationships with the women, with their mystical justification, may have their roots in his close bond with the Dominican priest Pere Thomas Philippe, whom he called his “spiritual father”. In September 1950, aged 22, Vanier arrived at L'Eau Vive, a centre created by Pere Thomas as a “school of wisdom”. In 1951, Pere Thomas was accused of sexual abuse by two women, and ordered to leave L'Eau Vive for good, and to break contact with those he had worked with there, including Jean Vanier.
The Summary Report states, “between 1952 and 1964, Father Thomas Philippe and Jean Vanier maintained a deep bond. Letters from this period [chiefly from Pere Thomas to Jean Vanier] report on the visits Jean Vanier made to him and how he helped him meet clandestinely with the women of L'Eau Vive.”
The letters, released after Vanier’s death, seem to indicate that “he shared sexual practices similar to those of Father Pere Thomas Philippe with several women”.
The L’Arche network, of centres where people with learning disabilities live and work alongside volunteers, numbers some 147 houses internationally.
Vanier was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work founding the network, and was awarded the prestigious Companion of the Order of Canada and, in 2015, the Templeton Prize. He was honoured by the Vatican on a number of occasions, including with the Paul VI International Prize.