L’Arche’s Mission Continues, Despite Devastating Revelations About Its Founder

North American communities for the disabled remain committed to their good work.

Sarah Ruszkowski and Eileen Schofield delight in going down a slide together at Cox Farm.
Sarah Ruszkowski and Eileen Schofield delight in going down a slide together at Cox Farm. (photo: 2015 photo by Dale Iglesia provided to the Register)

Jean Vanier, born in Geneva, Switzerland, to Canadian parents in 1928, founded L’Arche, an international federation of communities where developmentally disabled people live with their assistants. He had a doctorate in philosophy; he wrote more than 30 books. His awards included the French Legion of Honour and Companion of the Order of Canada. An asteroid was named after him, as were nearly a dozen Canadian schools.

And several weeks ago, less than a year after his death,  Vanier was revealed as the subject of credible accusations of sexual abuse.

The first hint of scandal around Vanier was raised by an unnamed woman in May 2016. Vanier admitted the relationship and asked the woman’s forgiveness. Then, in March 2019, a second woman came forward. Vanier died two months later.

Posthumously, the U.K.-based GCPS investigated Vanier’s life, at the request of L’Arche leadership. Ultimately, six women made allegations against Vanier, according to L’Arche International’s report.

In the aftermath of the devastating news, individuals associated with L’Arche in the United States and Canada are committed to moving forward with L’Arche’s mission: helping people with disabilities.

 

Shock and Sadness

At the Washington branch of L’Arche, Executive Director Luke Smith, speaking with the Register, described L’Arche members as experiencing “a mixture of emotions: the shock, the sadness” at the news. “… I think some people would say they’re angry.”

Jeremy Keong, a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Vancouver, was serving in the L’Arche Greater Vancouver community (“Shiloah,” in Burnaby, British Columbia) in February. He and a fellow seminarian were “disheartened and upset and shocked” by the news. “The assistants and other employees were also upset, and some were quite emotional, especially that first weekend after the news broke,” Keong told the Register.

According to Keong, the most affected people “were the ones who have been at L’Arche long enough to have met Jean Vanier when he came to visit the Vancouver community on various occasions over the decades. I saw many photos in the hallways that consisted of many core members [residents with disabilities] with Vanier. When the core members in my house were told the news, they expressed their dismay or disappointment, each in their own way, whether it was from a simple noise or short verbal response.”

Tina Bovermann, executive director of L’Arche USA, told the Register that the revelations are prompting further questions.

“We have no evidence today that would say that this is systemic in L’Arche; we have no evidence either, or any specific evidence, that anybody in L’Arche leadership or anybody in spiritual leadership within L’Arche would have been influenced [by Jean Vanier’s misdeeds]. But, of course, we are asking these questions.”

Bovermann noted that the “highly decentralized structure” of L’Arche may “create a bit of a buffer” against such influence. Different communities and countries adopt L’Arche “into their own context, economic context, social context, religious context or spiritual context” through a process of “inculturation,” she explained.

Smith, too, suggested a need to distinguish between founder and movement: “L’Arche was bigger than Jean, and Jean was very clear about that.”

Even as many within the L’Arche community are recovering from the shock of the revelations, they are attempting to make sense of how a man whose ideals were so noble could have fallen so low in his personal life.

“People simultaneously could understand that Vanier could have done this and found it incomprehensible,” said Keong. “I think the biggest source of confusion and hurt right now is the objective immorality of the acts that Vanier committed, as well as the lack of integrity that allowed those acts to be kept secret for so long, coming from a man who wrote and spoke so much about honesty, community and integrity.”

“At the same time,” Keong continued, “everyone at L’Arche understood that there are times in one’s life where one can listen to God and times where one can listen to the devil, and the words that Vanier wrote hold true, even if his actions at times did not line up with those words. The news was definitely a wake-up call, though, to how one can sometimes be tempted to put mere human beings on a pedestal.”

As Luke Smith put it, “Just because you safeguard one [type of relationship, as in his concern and care for the disabled] doesn’t mean that the other [abuse] doesn’t happen.”

All of this inevitably raises the question of how L’Arche can protect its weakest members. Smith observed that “core people, people with intellectual disabilities, are some of the most vulnerable people in our society: sometimes because of their own capabilities, in terms of communicating, but also in terms of how they are seen.” He pointed out that L’Arche is by design a place where they are empowered, treated with dignity and given choices often denied them elsewhere.

But no one doubts the need for official measures. Indeed, in the U.S., protection for those living in L’Arche communities is already in place. Bovermann explained that U.S. L’Arche communities are all “licensed service providers; they all comply with whatever their state or counties tell them to do.”

Bovermann says that L’Arche USA is also working on a mechanism to nationally streamline local reporting measures. But the organization will need to adapt further, based on its unique structure. In order to determine those adaptations, Bovermann has planned a listening tour “to see what’s bubbling up as [L’Arche members] are digesting the news. …  And we want to take the time to listen well; we want to take the time to sort of lean in and, at the same time, also start the process with external expertise on how we would do this well.” She said that best practices for working with the elderly and children may be good models, “but there’s really not that much out there in terms of safeguarding [in terms of safeguarding children/elderly persons with disabilities who may be unable to report abuse in the way that others could], so we will probably have to invent a couple of things.”

 

The Future for L’Arche

Despite the nature of the scandal involving Vanier, Bovermann has no fears for L’Arche as an organization. She speaks of this as “a refounding moment,” in which the principles that guide L’Arche are extended to the victims, as well as to the core people and, indeed, to all L’Arche members.

“What we’ve experienced is that our members, and to some extent the general public, as well, are really able to hold the tension of strong feelings, of feeling betrayed, of feeling bad, of feeling triggered, to some extent — there are lots of trigger points in this story — and at the same time offering nuance as they speak about Jean and offer nuance between the founder and the organization. Jean had a vision here, and he spoke about this vision repeatedly and throughout his entire life. But there are 10,000 people who live this vision, and that’s what’s alive today.”

Keong struck a similar note, saying that, despite the news, day-to-day life at L’Arche has meant “nothing but love and belonging at the Greater Vancouver community, and in fact, the upsetting news seemed to emphasize and encourage that bond. … I have nothing but praise for the L’Arche community, and I know they will continue to live out their mandate to help people live in community where they know they belong and are loved.”

As Father Raymond J. de Souza wrote, “The Great Fruit of L’Arche Came Despite Jean Vanier’s Sins.”

Luke Smith likewise holds fast to the worth of L’Arche’s mission, while acknowledging the possibility that it would be easy to “overidealize”: “We know that our mission remains, to make known the gifts of people with intellectual disabilities, to be a group, an organization, that responds to their needs, so that people who are often forgotten about, people who are often removed from conversations, are seen, and that in doing that we move toward a more human society.”

Sophia M. Feingold writes from California.

 

 

Biographical Clues

A 2019 biography might have shed some light on how and why Vanier may have veered from his mission into destructive, abusive behavior.

Vanier himself seemed to want to put distance between himself and the communities that mushroomed from the original L’Arche in Trosly-Breuil, France; by 1980, he no longer had official decision-making capacity in the organization. In a biography by Anne-Sophie Constant, Jean Vanier: Portrait of a Free Man, published in 2019, Vanier is recorded as saying that he “‘let go … when [he] realized [he] was no longer able to keep up’” (109). He was reluctant to have his biography written. “Yes, he recognizes that the story is surprising,” writes Constant. “Himself?  Of that he is less sure” (4). Vanier is reported to have said that “anyone who would call for him to be a saint must not know him very well.”

As Constant notes, Vanier was himself vulnerable due to his upbringing, particularly his parents’ remoteness. Jean and his siblings “lived in the nursery and saw their parents briefly in the evening before they left for various receptions” that Vanier’s father, Georges, was obligated to attend as a member of the Canadian High Commission in London (13). Jean was raised less by his parents than by his nanny, whom he said he loved more than his pious mother, Pauline, who, it seems, was depressive and, during one period, was “either emotionally absent or possessive” (13). The religious practice of Jean Vanier’s father, Georges, was (Jean said) “inspired more by fear than by love” (43).

When Jean was 13, Constant relates, he wanted to join the British Royal Navy, and his father consented. In military school, thousands of miles from his family and surrounded by Anglicans, teenage Jean was given a book of Catholic apologetics. “Crazy; it was crazy!” he said in retrospect. “I read, but I didn’t realize who God was. These days I would be given the Gospels to read!” (21).

Evidently, as his biographer reports, there were gaps in Vanier’s upbringing, emotional and theological.Then, in 1950, the young man found himself at l’Eau Vive, a center where young people could study Thomism in a contemplative context under luminaries like Jacques Maritain, Charles Journet and l’Eau Vive’s charismatic Dominican founder, Father Thomas Philippe, who was accused of unchaste behavior with adult women in 1952.

That description of l’Eau Vive that Constant provides sounds eerily like the inception of the Community of St. John, founded by Father Thomas Philippe’s brother and fellow Dominican Father Marie-Dominique Philippe — who was, like Father Thomas, later accused of unchaste behavior with adult women.

Father Thomas Philippe’s rationale for his actions is recorded in his letters, including letters to Vanier. Father Philippe espoused a heterodox mystical theology that physicalized the spiritual and literalized allegorical parts of sacred Scripture. Father Philippe’s mysticism filtered into his public teaching, to the point where Maritain and Journet criticized him “for associating the Virgin Mary to the spouse of Christ [sic].”

Father Philippe’s ideas were condemned by the Church; but Vanier failed to take the condemnation to heart — nor did he separate himself from Father Philippe. Indeed, he enabled the priest — and lied about his knowledge of the abuse — while committing similar actions himself.

Perhaps Vanier did not take doctrine seriously enough. His embrace of ecumenism in L’Arche made structural sense — one does not want forced conversions of the disabled — but Vanier’s words and writings sometimes smacked of indifferentism. Late in life, as recounted in the 2019 biography, he spoke of “two conceptions of the church: that of a church that must be very stable with a clear doctrine, a reassuring church, and on the other hand a more open church, a church of relationships” (150).

Vanier’s recognition of kinship with the disabled was remarkable in his work with that vulnerable population. Constant describes Vanier’s disabled friend Eric, “clammed up, howling and writhing … overwhelmed by darkness,” in whom Vanier “discovered a whole world of chaos and hate within [Jean] himself that he had carefully masked with his education and intelligence or buried in his work and activities” (126).

But the chasm between what Vanier preached and was seen to practice with his “core people” and what he did with those six women renders much of Constant’s biography unintentionally ironic. Privately, Vanier’s actions undermined what he publicly supported: human relationships, human dignity, celibacy.

Even publicly, mixed motives sometimes surface in Vanier’s writings. In Man and Woman God Made Them (1984, 2009) Vanier presents celibacy as a calling from Jesus, the mediator, who promises that the celibate will “become, in [his or her] turn, a mediator who reveals to others that they are forgiven and loved” (Constant, 28).

As a single man, chastity was his personal call, but, as the recent report found, he did not follow that call.

Constant quotes him as saying: “My deepest fear … is to be humiliated” (97).

Sophia Feingold