Former president of Ireland, Professor Mary McAleese, has written to Pope Francis about Jean Vanier saying the recent findings of L’Arche’s investigation, which revealed him as “a spiritual and sexual abuser”, implicates the Vatican “in a way that demands explanation”.
In her letter, addressed to the Holy Father, she warns Pope Francis that a cloud of doubt hangs over the role of the Holy See in relation to its handling of the case of Vanier and his mentor Fr Thomas Philippe.
“I urge you to ensure it is dealt with as openly, courageously and honestly as L’Arche dealt with the investigation into its founder. L’Arche will learn from this but will the Holy See?”
In her letter, Dr McAleese, who is Chancellor of Trinity College Dublin wrote: “It is essential that the Holy See now explains how it came to so publicly commend a man whose predatory proclivities it was aware of. What steps if any did the Holy See take to interrupt the growth of the powerful cult of Vanier by warning the many good men and women who trusted him in good faith that he had an alarming past?”
Acknowledging that she personally was one of those who regarded Vanier as inspirational for decades, she said learning of his sexually and spiritually abusive conduct was “devastating”.
“Even worse was learning that the Holy See had been aware since the 1950s of his malevolent proclivities and those of his colleague Pere Thomas Phillippe.”
Stating her belief that L’Arche will recover and continue its “great work” thanks to “its own integrity which is more than capable of transcending the Vanier betrayal”, she continues: “I am not so sure about whether trust in the Holy See will recover so easily.”
Referring to the failures at papal, episcopal and Curial level regarding the protection of vulnerable children and the vindication of victims, Professor McAleese tells Pope Francis: “If however it transpires that the Holy See failed to act to protect members of the L’Arche community by alerting them to the known predatory activities of Vanier and Philippe I have to say that this will be my final line of least resistance.”
Mary McAleese, one of Ireland’s most publicly committed Catholics, adds: “I could not in conscience continue to support an institution capable of such gross negligence.”
She asks the Pope in her letter to clarify the Vatican’s role or roles in “this appalling affair” and says the Holy See needs to set out clearly its relationship since the 1950s with Vanier and Philippe and the organisations they set up.
“Now that both Philippe and Vanier have been unmasked the spotlight moves to the Holy See. What did it know and when and what did it do to prevent Vanier and Philippe living their grand lie? What did it do or not do which allowed Vanier to grow into the uncontested legend of folk saint and icon, a reputation which must have made it so very difficult for victims to come forward?”
Reminding Pope Francis that he himself publicly praised Vanier and spoke to him and of him in glowing terms just before his death, she notes that this was “at a time when the Philippe story was known and it was also known that Vanier was at the very least aware of Philippe’s predatory history”.
In December 2014, Mary McAleese wrote a piece on Jean Vanier for The Tablet to mark its 175th anniversary. It was part of a series in which 50 Catholics chose the person from the last 175 years whose life has been a personal inspiration to them and an example of their faith at its best.
The former Irish head of state wrote: “I can think of no better exemplar of the Catholic faith, lived and witnessed in joy, than Jean Vanier. He is 86 now and still teaching us to look to the fragile if we want to know our own strength, to the overlooked if we want to experience love.”
Jean Vanier founded L’Arche in 1964 to assist people with intellectual disabilities. It caters for 10,000 people in 39 countries.
L’ Arche International announced on 22 February that an inquiry carried out by GCPS, an independent UK consultancy, which specialises in improving procedures for the prevention and reporting of abuse, received “credible and consistent testimonies from six adult women without disabilities, covering the period from 1970 to 2005”.
The women each reported that Jean Vanier initiated sexual relations with them, usually in the context of spiritual accompaniment.
Jean Vanier died in May 2019 aged 90.