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Revelations that Jean Vanier reportedly engaged in serial sexual misconduct have shocked the world. The pain gets even worse as the deepest implications of his predatory behaviour are considered.
The Globe and Mail recently reported on an independent investigation which unearthed convincing evidence that Vanier, the Canadian Catholic founder and spiritual leader of the international L’Arche movement, coerced sex from at least six women between 1970 and 2005.
L’Arche has long been renowned for the home and community it provides to people with cognitive impairment. For decades, it has served as a beautiful and powerful witness to the dignity and contributions of some of the weakest and most vulnerable members of society. Vanier himself, through his writings, his interviews, the retreats he led, and even his sheer personality, seemed to exude a warm, gentle sanctity.
His descriptions of the need for vulnerability, the possibilities of community, and the ways we can “become human” moved countless people into deeper holiness. His call to find a safe home within the family by relinquishing our own need to feel powerful and in charge offered a wonderful and aspirational example. He was a figure who easily became a surrogate spiritual director. It made him seem almost interchangeable with the work and spirituality of L’Arche itself.
Discovering that his soft-spoken admonitions to love were from a man who can now credibly be called a sexual predator has wounded his followers and admirers. (The sins of someone such as Vanier causing so many Christians serious doubt and spiritual discouragement is surely one of the reasons the Book of James says that those who teach will be judged more harshly.)
It is awful, indeed grotesque, to use a position of credibility and authority to pressure women into intimate unwanted sexual behaviour. But cloaking sexual manipulation, what many would now consider sexual assault, in explicit language of Christian faith unconscionably compounds the damage. It crushes the spirits of the faithful.
Christians—and, increasingly, the wider society—understand that people who do incredible good in the world can also commit terrible acts, often of a sexual nature. When Kobe Bryant and his daughter were killed shortly after leaving Mass, there was a lot of talk, including among his fellow Catholics, about all the great charitable work he had done. There was only passing allusion to the fact that he was an accused rapist.
Occasionally, there is a flurry of concerned discussion about the fact that Martin Luther King, Jr. was also credibly accused of rape. Scripture furnishes us the story of King David, who may not have raped Bathsheba, but certainly used his royal influence to procure her. Indeed, Noah—the pilot of the original Ark—was guilty of drunkenness and “nakedness”, whatever we take that to mean. The fact that even our heroes can fall—repeatedly—into sexual sin, including sexual abuse of the unwilling, is not news in a #MeToo world, and Christians understand that grace works in spite of our fallenness.
So, if Vanier had turned out to have a nasty need to force himself, however pseudo-gently, on women under his charge (including nuns), we would have been rightly horrified. But, taking a cue from his spiritual director whom L’Arche admitted years ago was guilty of sexual misconduct, he went even further. He presented sexual intercourse with himself as a kind of mystical experience into which he was inviting his victims. He offered “spiritual accompaniment” to women who had come to him because they were undergoing a crisis and thus were already vulnerable. He turned it into physical molestation. He pretended it was a kind of “care of souls.” Yet the same man who said, “To love someone is to show them their beauty, their worth, and their importance” reportedly told one woman whom he was trying to seduce, “It is Jesus who loves you through me.”
In other words, we are beyond a spiritual teacher being a moral failure. If that were the case, we could try to find some way to separate the teaching from the sin. This is what has largely happened with the ministry of Life Teen, founded by excommunicated sexual harasser Dale Fushek. Vanier, who seemed to write and speak about love with such wisdom and insight, justified his abuse of women with the exact same tone and language he might use to describe his ministry. In this way, it is closer to the sexual misconduct of the Mennonite thinker John Howard Yoder, who also explained away his creepy behaviour towards women on the basis of his public theology.
Vanier was worse than a hypocrite. His sins seem to discredit his entire thought and, with it, his entire work. How can we take his spiritual counsel seriously when we see what he used his spiritual counsel for behind closed doors? How can we hear his words about community being a place where we lower our walls and share with each other when we know how he invaded other people’s intimacy under the guise of mentorship? To think of the multitudes of people living in L’Arche—those innocent, childlike people, blissfully unaware of Vanier and his crimes—who now unwittingly exist in the shadow of these findings is sickening.
L’Arche deserves a lot of credit for seriously trying to get to the bottom of this by hiring an independent investigator and allowing his findings to be made public. It was good not to cover up the nakedness of the man who built the Ark. But what becomes of L’Arche now? With their founder’s words discredited like this, where do they go from here?
In cases of spiritual leaders who turn out to be unrepentant sinners, the first instinct is to separate the teacher from the teaching, as some attempt to do with Karl Barth’s long-term adultery with his secretary. In Vanier’s case, as we’ve seen, that might not be possible. The second reflex might be to dismiss the whole body of his work as tainted by his sin. This is what many, perhaps justifiably, want to do to the Legion of Christ. But looking at all the beautiful fruit of L’Arche, this is a painful option to consider.
Here is what makes Vanier’s wrong most painful of all: His public teaching was true. His simple but pointed advice on love and community was correct. Our lived experience rebels against this choice.
So, what is left? If we can’t get rid of the teacher or the teaching, I think all that’s left for us is to find a new place for Vanier within his own thought. In other words, we need to see him as the kind of villain he so astutely warns us against.
Take Mennonite thinker Howard Yoder again. Yoder argued that the world’s system of morality was not the same as Christ’s. Because of that, he could say, just because his repulsive overtures to women who were not his wife seemed immoral, he was really acting consistently with his theology. However, Yoder also argued for Christian nonviolence, arguing that violence was the way of this fallen world while nonviolence, represented by the slain Lamb, was the system of God’s new creation. And what was violence? Yoder said that violence is any form of violating someone’s dignity. He even tied violence etymologically to rape. By his own words, then, he convicted himself as working within the broken sinfulness of this world. It was the women squirming under his lustful gaze who were suffering from the beast, like Christ.
We could make an analogy to the clerical abuse crisis. Priestly child rape does not discredit the Mass. On the contrary, the Mass’ re-enactment of Christ, the Hostium—“Victim”—being violated, His nakedness displayed on the crucifix, by the slithering, Satanic forces of this age for our salvation, is an indictment of the pedophile priest performing the ritual. The bleeding Body that is present as the Eucharist identifies with the trembling, assaulted body of the priest’s innocent prey.
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And what of Vanier? He was moved to start L’Arche because of the poor treatment of inmates that he witnessed in a hospital in Saint-Jean-les-Deux-Jumeau in 1964. He recognized the dignity of the patients being disregarded but also that they were desperately lonely. As he left the asylum, he saw them gesturing to him, and recognized a question on their faces: “Will you come back? Do you love me?” This so affected him that he started a community for the sort of people who would normally end up in such a hospital. He was very aware that loneliness made people vulnerable, and that healthy, self-emptying community was the remedy for this. There is no reason to believe this wasn’t genuine. (The Globe and Mail notes that none of his “sexual partners” had intellectual disabilities.)
When Canada was taking steps to strengthen access to medically assisted dying, Vanier expressed his concerns about this in an interview with the CBC. “Now, there are people who are terribly lonely,” he pointed out. “They want to die. So what help is getting to people who feel lonely?” Yet, later in that interview, after constant badgering by the journalist, he admitted that he believed that someone in “intense pain” should have the “legal right” to euthanasia. In retrospect, this may have been the crack in his ministry that should have given us a clue that there was something crumbling inside of it. But it shows the tension we can now see even more obviously: He recognized the vulnerability of lonely people to danger and wanted to protect them from it… but not completely.
In manipulating lonely and confused women into perverse relationships, Vanier was becoming a representative of the same old unhealthy society that he warned against in his Massey lectures. Later published under the title Becoming Human, the lectures challenged a society that did not let vulnerable and lonely people be themselves, and be safe.
Vanier admitted, "Those of us with power and social standing have subtle ways of hiding our inner handicaps, our difficulties in relationships, our inner darkness and violence, our depression and lack of self-confidence." He recognized the dangers of authority even as he became just as disrespectful of others’ dignity. Perhaps it was a form of his self-awareness? Elsewhere in Becoming Human, he says that violence needs to be understood as an admittedly inappropriate form of communication and we need to listen to the message behind it. What was his own sexual violation of others saying? Did it come from his own fundamentally unfulfilled loneliness?
It may be hard to see how someone could be predatory and yet teach so beautifully about Christ. Yet we should remember the prophet Balaam from the Book of Numbers, who set out to curse Israel and who managed to successfully corrupt them, and yet who was so filled with the Spirit of God that, almost unwillingly, he pronounced blessings on God’s people that resonate throughout salvation history.
How such darkness and such light could flow from the same mouth will always be a mystery to us. But we can take solace and be affirmed in the necessity of L’Arche and its mission by recognizing that the great merit of Vanier’s teaching is how illuminating it is about, and how harshly it condemns, the failures of Vanier himself.
Henri Nouwen's spiritual walk was travelled on the road to Richmond Hill after two decades teaching in the Ivy Leagues. Learn more about his life and works through the words of Karen Pascall, Executive Director of the Henri Nouwen Society in Toronto.