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Response to Investigation of Jean Vanier

Editor’s note: In February 2020, L’Arche International released the results of an independent investigation that it commissioned into Jean Vanier, who died in 2019. The investigation determined that the L’Arche founder, Catholic philosopher and humanitarian engaged in manipulative sexual relationships with at least six women from 1970-2005. None of the women had disabilities. The report also concluded that Vanier was complicit in covering up similar sexual abuse by his mentor, the late Father Thomas Philippe.

Krista Tippett interviewed Vanier in 2007 and On Being has featured L’Arche’s work creating communities centered around people with disabilities. In this response — recorded “thinking out loud” in the On Being studio — she reflects on the moral questions and meaning raised by these discoveries. The transcript has been lightly edited for readability.

I’ve thought a lot across the years about how in the modern West we use this language of “body, mind, spirit” and have insisted that these are different parts of us that are distinct and that we can keep in separate compartments. But one of the places that always completely falls apart — and it’s happened a lot recently with all the reckonings and revelations in our society — is whenever sexual abuse and the violation of the body, especially in a sexual context, is discussed. You almost always see language like “soul stealing.” That level of violation is clearly something that touches the very core of us. And of course, when the violation and the manipulation happen in the context of spiritual direction, or with somebody who is very explicitly entrusted with your soul, it’s just that much more horrifying. 

So it’s in this sense that I think about the women who came forward. And there are probably more. There may be many more. The extent of that violation of trust and dignity, and care for the soul — as well as the body — is so terrible, so saddening. 

There is part of me also that is steeped in theology and knows these traditions as one of the primary places we have to think about the human condition. And there are no saints. We make saints. But if you look at the Bible, there are no saints on pedestals in the Bible. Sometimes there are people with great gifts who also have great, great failings. Given what we have been learning in our society, what we are uncovering in our society — which we could have uncovered a long time ago, but we’re now just looking, we’re looking at things straight on — this is a fact about human beings. 

In this sense I’m using the language of “shocking” sparingly. Because I want to be reality-based about what we’re up against. This matter of the violation of bodies, of sexual abuse and violence, of manipulation, whether there was “intercourse” or not — this just gets at the heart of how complicated we are and how dangerous we can all be to ourselves and others. I hold that together with what I said before: that in some ways there is no violation I can imagine that is more reprehensible or feels — I don’t want to use the language of “unforgivable,” but that is language that comes to me right now. Then the other place my heart is just hurting is wanting to send so much love to all the people in the communities of L’Arche, which so transcend their founder. They even transcended their founder when we thought he was a modern-day saint.

I sat down with Jean Vanier. We did a show with him a number of years ago, which was incredibly beautiful and important to me. But before I sat down with Jean Vanier, in the very early years of the show, we did something we called a “radio pilgrimage” to L’Arche. We went to one of the communities in the U.S. in a small town in Iowa. It was one of the most beautiful, life-giving experiences I have ever had. And when I say that, I’m thinking of the faces and the voices and the lives of the core members and assistants. This is the way L’Arche works. It’s community centered around people with mental and intellectual disabilities. People who in Jean Vanier’s lifetime — and he did help change this — were sent away into institutions. They weren’t treated as fully human and weren’t loved and cared for. 

So when I think of that community in Clinton, Iowa, and I think of the 50th anniversary celebration I attended, which was a gathering of people from communities from all across the U.S. — you know, Jean Vanier wasn’t there. It was all those people. I saw at that gathering, just a couple of years ago, all these 21-year-olds who were spending several years of their life in this community. 

And what we’ve just learned about Jean Vanier takes nothing away from that. 

This is a moment, as much as to grieve and rage and ponder what we’ve learned about him, to also wonder at what was created so far beyond him. And to be present to the beauty that this takes nothing away from. To be present to how that community — that network of far-flung communities — is now having to retell its origin story with a lot of confusion and pain and hurt. I don’t know what this means, but I really want to be there for them. I want them to know that I see that distinction. That we’re capable of seeing that distinction.

And I guess that comes to the third piece of my reaction to this. This is a distinctively terrible moment, it’s a distinctively terrible set of revelations, it’s distinctively disappointing. I always expected more of Jean Vanier than I expected of Harvey Weinstein. But even as I say that, I think part of our growth edge as a society is in asking, What move are we called to in the light of seeing these revelations of a reality that was there all along? How do we start to grow out of this? How do we start to distinguish between a Harvey Weinstein and a Jean Vanier? And I offer that as a question. Should we? How do we hold what is certainly in the moment of discovery unforgivable together with what is generative and is interwoven with that outrage?

In this case, it’s the generativity of the communities that bear Jean Vanier’s name and that were created through his vision. This is really tricky and maybe impossible with somebody who is no longer with us. He is not alive for this reckoning to happen. This is one of the mysteries: how can somebody be so good in some ways? Which I actually still believe he was. He was good in so many ways. He was wise. He was articulate about truths of humanity that many people don’t know how to put words around. And at worst, there was also an evil at play. But I don’t know how to assess that. How that worked in him has no bearing on the fact that, for the women who were involved, you have nothing but grief and wanting to figure out how to be present. But I don’t think erasing our memory of the good that happened in spite of his flaws, the monumental good that other people carried forward in spite of his flaws — I don’t think that serves those women either. It doesn’t serve us as a society. There’s been so much about this moment we’re in which is very reactive. I don’t condemn that. I don’t judge that. I do it too. But in terms of what we do with these things we’re learning about other people and ourselves and our culture, reactivity alone doesn’t serve us. 

If this were just about Jean Vanier, if this were just about his life, if his books were just about his life, if his legacy were just about his life — but it’s not. It’s about a lot of other people, too, who actually have lived what he taught with incredible dignity and beauty and grace and truth. The discernment underway for me is around that.

And I’ve said this already but I’ll circle back to it. One of the complicated but I think potentially really educational dynamics of this particular terrible, terrible disappointment is that it stands absolutely in tension alongside the enduring beauty of the L’Arche communities that were created out of what Jean Vanier began. So how do we make sense of that, and what does that teach us, also about healing beyond this kind of breach?

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