L’Arche Leaders Rethink Their Community Model in the Wake of the Vanier Report

Deeply shaken by the recent revelations surrounding their founder Jean Vanier, the leaders of L’Arche are setting up new internal structures while redefining their founding narrative.

L'Arche International community is shown in action.
L'Arche International community is shown in action. (photo: Courtesy photo / L'Arche International )

It is time for the leaders of L’Arche to look ahead and make decisions: They are currently working to rebuild a sustainable future for their federation five months after a 900-page report shed light on the extent of psychological and sexual abuse committed by their founder, Jean Vanier — who died in 2019 — on at least 25 women.

In the damning report, six experts explored the mechanisms by which Vanier and his spiritual mentor, Dominican Father Thomas Philippe, held sway over their followers for decades. The authors also revealed that the creation of L’Arche in France in 1964 was originally intended only as a “screen” to allow Vanier to circumvent Vatican canonical sanctions imposed against Father Philippe during the previous decade and continue the activities the priest had developed through his spiritual center, L’Eau Vive, which the report described as a cult. 

L’Arche, conceived as a faith-based nonprofit solidarity network that enables people with intellectual disabilities to live in community with people without disabilities, has developed throughout the world and today has more than 150 communities on five continents.

The 2023 report, commissioned by L’Arche leaders in November 2020, followed a previous investigation, published in February 2020, that found that Vanier — who until then was surrounded by an image of holiness throughout the whole world — had engaged in sexual misconduct with at least six women, all of them adults without disabilities, single, married or consecrated.

This more recent work, carried out by an independent and multidisciplinary commission, is considered by some observers to be unprecedented in its scope and degree of expertise on the phenomenon of sectarian aberrations and their grip in Christian communities.


Drawing Meaning From the Ordeal

“While we are collectively in an unfinished process of grieving, we felt the need to learn from our history, to make this ordeal fruitful,” Stephan Posner, international leader of L’Arche, said in an April 5 interview with the Register, a few days after a working session of all L’Arche leaders was held in Rocca di Papa, Italy. It was the first such meeting since the report was published.

“We were able to share our feelings after reading the document, with a sincere desire to understand what it was about the way L’Arche operated that allowed abuses to take place without being seen,” he said, underlining that if new elements concerning the management methods of the various houses were to be called into question during this analysis process, the matters would be made public.

Posner also reported that during these recent discussions, several members of the organization expressed “a sense of pride” in belonging to an organization that “is committed to seeing the cleanup work through to the end.”


New Leadership Model 

The international leader of L’Arche reiterated the announcement made in January that a new safeguarding audit was being implemented in all L’Arche communities and will be renewed every three years. In addition, there will be longer-term work on issues of governance and authority, as well as on methods of supervision and guidance of all those involved in the life of the federation. The phenomenon of idealization in the context of a spiritual relation is also going to be addressed.

These reflections will initially take concrete form in a new leadership model to be introduced among the various communities in the near future. This is a theme that has already been addressed by the L’Arche community in the United States, which in a few months will be proposing a leadership curriculum based entirely on community organization, also avoiding certain terminologies related to faith.

“Although concepts like vulnerability or mutuality are extremely important, the faith-based terminology can generate ambiguity in a context of leadership and management,” Tina Bovermann, the leader of L’Arche in the U.S., told the Register, adding that their ultimate goal is to institutionalize safeguards in fields where L’Arche “hasn’t done so well over its 60 years of existence.” 

Bovermann also highlighted that procedures and policies around recruiting and training leaders were being revised in order to foster clear structures of accountability between the board of directors and members of the various communities.

In this challenging yet vital process of reconstruction, the members of the federation also seek to learn from other communities with charismatic founders who have gone through similar crises. This is the case, for example, with the Focolare Movement, cited by Sylvain Brabant, a Canadian member of L’Arche’s International Stewardship Board. He told the Register that contact has been made with the Italian movement to study its response to the revelations of sexual abuse committed over decades by Jean-Michel Merlin, a prominent French lay member, and to assess the possibilities of moving forward together. 


Telling One’s Own Story

In Canada — where public places such as parks and libraries named after Jean Vanier, an iconic figure in the country, have been renamed following the posthumous revelations about him — the need to move away from the dominating shadow of L’Arche’s founder and to redraw the contours of its founding story is pressing. 

“Of course, it is not a question of erasing the past, but of finding a way to reread the history of L’Arche together, with all the people welcomed in our homes, in our communities, which, despite everything, continue to develop, in order to be better rooted in the present while looking to the future,” Brabant said.

This approach of distancing itself from a form of idealization of a tutelary figure to refocus on the movement’s mission, and on the experience of each person locally, is seen by the members of the federation as a deepening of its specific charism. 

For its international leader, Stephan Posner, being in community with people with intellectual disability, who have a particular experience of what is broken or irreparable, is an encouragement to simply embody and live that part of humanity which ultimately expresses what is most alive in us. 

“I was particularly touched by the reaction of our community leader in Japan, Gen Sato, who, upon hearing the revelations about Jean Vanier, said, ‘Ah, I won’t be able to tell his story anymore ... from now on I’ll have to tell mine,’” Posner recounted, with the belief that such a statement most effectively sums up the state of mind that inhabits the many communities at the moment.


Serving People Today and Tomorrow 

And this mission of radical and unconditional commitment to the vulnerable and marginalized by society, to tell their story to the rest of the world, has eminently prophetic overtones at a time of unprecedented divisions throughout the West.

It is also the deep conviction of Tina Bovermann, for whom L’Arche, with its mission to “cross differences, to build bridges towards the other, has something to say that goes beyond serving people with disabilities.” 

“At a time when people tend to live more and more in homogeneous contexts, grouping together with people who think and believe the same way, L’Arche is a school of life where we can learn to build a more united society around the essence of being human, even in disagreement,” Bovermann pointed out, adding that L’Arche’s mission “will remain relevant as long as its values and desire to be as close to truth as possible remain its North Star.” 

At the same time, it will be a matter of the federation continuing to serve “not the people of yesterday, but those of today and tomorrow,” taking into account that the needs of people with disabilities are also changing with the times and require a continuous deployment of openness and creativity.

French founder of the Communaute de l'Arche (Arch community) Jean Vanier gestures during a press conference in central London on March 11, 2015, in which he was announced as the winner of the 2015 Templeton Prize.

New Report Details Abuses of L’Arche Founder Jean Vanier

Composed of six researchers from different backgrounds, the independent commission sought to understand the context and sectarian mechanisms that enabled Vanier, as a great spiritual figure, to use his power to take advantage of young women.