Canadian bishops lament Vanier's misconduct, while affirming value of L'Arche

Jean Vanier in Trosly France May 2012 Credit Kotukaran via Wikimedia CC BY SA 30 Jean Vanier in Trosly, France, May 2012. | Kotukaran via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0).

The Canadian bishops' conference decried Monday the sexual misconduct of Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche International.

"It is with a heavy heart that the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) learned over the weekend of the shocking results of an independent inquiry, undertaken at the initiative of L'Arche International, to investigate allegations of abuse by its founder Jean Vanier," the bishops said Feb. 24.

The investigation detailed sexual misconduct by Vanier with six women without disabilities in the context of spiritual direction.

L'Arche is a community of individuals with intellectual disabilities and their supporters. Vanier also founded Faith and Light, an ecumenical association of prayer and friendship for those with intellectual disabilities and their families.

The news of Vanier's abuse "is all the more difficult and incomprehensible given that Mr. Vanier had a profound influence on the way people with mental and physical disabilities are perceived and treated today, and his writings have had a positive influence on people's lives within many different cultures and languages," the bishops reflected. "Nonetheless, any harm that was done cannot be excused."

"Victims of abuse suffer unspeakable harm and long-term consequences. The message of the Bishops of Canada to all victims-survivors is that abuse is an appalling manipulation of trust and is always to be condemned. In any form, it is unacceptable," the bishops said.

"The Bishops commend the courage of and pray for all victims-survivors who come forward with such painful experiences in order to seek justice and healing. Similarly, they laud the bold steps of L'Arche's leadership in initiating an independent inquiry into this question in an effort to seek greater clarity."

While Vanier's abuse has sowed seeds of distrust, the bishops said, it is important to pray for the victims, those involved with the communities, and for the organization moving forward.

The bishops said it will take time for healing to take place but stressed the value of this organization that is "devoted to helping the intellectually disabled and their families based on the principles of love, friendship, community, and the dignity of the person."

"The Bishops of Canada pray for the success of the important task that now lies before the leadership of L'Arche to rebuild trust through their rigourous safeguarding policies and practices in order that the organization's mission to the disabled may continue in Canada and abroad," the bishops said.

"As sins and injustices are denounced, there is also an urgent duty to remember and acknowledge the life-giving, selfless and compassionate ministry which the members, volunteers and leadership of the organization have brought to the lives of so many and for decades."

L'Arche commissioned GCPS, an independent U.K. consultancy specializing in the reporting of exploitation and abuse last April to investigate Vanier's link to Fr. Thomas Philippe, an abusive Dominican priest sanctioned by Church authorities in 1956, whom Vanier described as his "spiritual mentor."

The inquiry received "credible and consistent testimonies" from six adult women without disabilities that Vanier initiated sexual behaviors with them often "in the context of spiritual accompaniment" over the period of more than 30 years from 1970 to 2005, according to the L'Arche summary report of the investigation's findings.

This behavior follows the pattern of sexually inappropriate behavior demonstrated by Fr. Philippe, the report finds. The Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith confirmed and completed in December 2019 elements in the inquiry relating to the trial of Fr. Philippe, who died in 1993, and Vanier's knowledge of the misconduct.

According to archived letters studied in the report, the CDF directed in 1956 that Vanier be informed of the Church's condemnation of Philippe's conduct and "mystical doctrine."

Vanier denied in 2015 and 2016 that he had any knowledge of Fr. Philippe's abusive behavior.

Tina Bovermann, the executive director of L'Arche USA, said the independent inquiry has been a source of "pain and resolve."

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"Pain, because of the suffering of innocent lives. Pain, because of the hurt that it might create in you, members and friends. Resolve, because truth matters. Resolve, because the value of every person matters. Always. Unconditionally. Particularly when marginalized and silenced for many years," Bovermann said in a statement.

Until the late 1990s, Vanier oversaw the entire L'Arche organization, which grew into 154 communities and more than 10,000 members. He was a member of the Pontifical Council for the Laity.

Vanier died in May 2019 at the age of 90.

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