Sojourners [Washington, DC]
February 3, 2023
By MITCHELL ATENCIO and BETSY SHIRLEY
Earlier this week, a commission of French scholars released the results of their two-year investigation, nearly 900 pages of information, on sexual and spiritual abuse by Jean Vanier, his mentor Thomas Philippe, and their mystical-sexual sect that played a role in the founding of L’Arche, a worldwide organization that supports people with intellectual disabilities.
The report includes historical, sociological, psychological, theological, and religious analysis, drawing from more than 200 hours of interviews and numerous documents from the archives of two L’Arche communities, L’Arche International, the French Dominicans, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, Vanier’s personal archives, and more.
Notably, the commission had access to private folders Jean Vanier had labeled “NFA — Not For All,” which included received letters, documents, and notes of Vanier’s from 1950 to 1960. He had asked for the folder to be destroyed at his death, according to the report, but the person to whom he entrusted this task decided not to do so. The report thanks the “vigilance of L’Arche international” for access to the folders, which included 340 letters, the bulk of which are from members of the sect to Vanier.
More than just an accounting of Vanier and Philippe’s abuse, the report offers a clear timeline and analysis of the secret intentions and motivations named by the two men and their accomplices. It also offers a look at the many figures who attempted to hold Vanier and Philippe accountable, or rein in their abuse.
Below are key takeaways from our initial examination of the full report.
Editor’s note: The sixth and final takeaway includes descriptions of sexual violence.
1. Vanier and Philippe went to great lengths to hide what they were doing.
In 1952, in response to allegations of his abuse and false mysticism, Philippe was forbidden by Catholic authorities from communicating with members of L’Eau Vive, the philosophical school he had founded, of which Vanier was a member. But despite this, Vanier helped Philippe pass letters to L’Eau Vive and facilitated meetings between Philippe and other members of the sect, including meetings with women in the sect where they continued their mystical-sexual practices.
According to the report, “Vanier and his master quickly become experts in the art of secrecy and dissimulation. T. Philippe thus manages to send 64 letters to J. Vanier between April 1952 and 1956.” In another instance, the two organize a secret meeting at a hotel, and Philippe instructs Vanier to prepare him a disguise, “overalls, such as what mechanics or motor-bikers wear … big enough to be possibly worn over the cassock.” He also asks for “a leather balaclava, like the ones they [bikers] sometimes wear to protect themselves from the wind,” according to the report.
In the NFA folder, the commission found that when Vanier wrote to other members of the sect, he used an elaborate set of pseudonyms and abbreviations, which scholars were largely able to decode.
2. Vanier hinted at the connections in his public work — even in L’Arche’s name.
Despite the secrecy and caution that Vanier and other members of the sect exhibited, the report found that Vanier would occasionally hint at his mystical-sexual beliefs. In a 1954 letter to his parents, Vanier connects the name of L’Arche (The Ark) to L’Eau Vive (Living Water) where Vanier was “initiated” into Philippe’s sect.
“Noah’s Ark taking on all the small animals to save them, floating on L’Eau vive (the Holy Office must not know)!” Vanier writes. In Vanier’s formulation, L’Arche is “floating,” “resting,” and “sustained” by L’Eau Vive and its mystical-sexual beliefs, according to the report.LISTEN: Sojourners’ new podcast ‘Lead Us Not’ on spiritual and sexual abuse
A critical analysis of Vanier’s spirituality found that, in his 1994 book Jesus, the Gift of Love, he writes on the “mystery” of Jesus and Mary’s “holy communion” — terminology that would have been overlooked by general readers, but would have held special significance to those sharing Vanier’s mystical-sexual beliefs, which were rooted in incestuous enactments of union between Mary and Jesus:
“Today we know this relationship is at the centre of [Thomas Philippe’s] spirituality, in its incestuous form! Of course, J. Vanier refers only to a “divine communion” between Mary and Jesus, but we can highlight all of the vocabulary that maintains the mysterious atmosphere which makes it possible for the “initiated” to understand this excerpt differently than other readers do.”
3. L’Arche leaders learned of allegations against Vanier earlier than 2016 but were asked to keep these allegations private.
The report begins by acknowledging “punctually and discreetly, women have tried on various occasions to report the abuse they have suffered” at the hands of Vanier and Philippe, to various church authorities. In 2013, Colin Maloney, then chair of the board of L’Arche International, talked with two other L’Arche leaders about alleged relationships Vanier had with two different women, though the report notes it’s unclear whether Maloney, who died in 2020, was aware of allegations of abuse in these relationships.
The report details how L’Arche leaders were first contacted with an allegation of Vanier’s abuse in December 2014, by a woman who “demands that she remains anonymous and that her testimony remain confidential.” The commission writes:
“Asking L’Arche not to do anything with her testimony, she explained that she contacted L’Arche with the sole aim of warning the leaders that they would be dealing with other testimonies concerning J. Vanier in the months or years to come. This testimony, if it is understood by the L’Arche officials, placed them in a delicate position. It was not until the beginning of 2016 that the first usable situation appeared.”
L’Arche leaders, wishing to respect the request, wait until 2016 — when they receive a new report of abuse — to begin confronting Vanier about his actions and his relationship to Philippe’s practices. In an interview with the commission, Eileen Glass, former international deputy-head of L’Arche, said Vanier “never denied that relationship. But he always maintained that he thought it was a good and acceptable way to relate.” In that same interview, Glass recounts Vanier’s unwillingness to acknowledge his status and power:“I sat with [Vanier] and he said: ‘people say that I’m powerful, but I’m just me’. And I said to him: ‘I understand when you say you’re just you because, you know, people do that to me in a way too’, I said: ‘but you’re Jean Vanier and you have profile and you have influence and you have authority. Like, of course, you’re powerful!’ But he never got that. He never could acknowledge what that meant.”
According to the report, “one may wonder why, when in the summer of 2016 J. Vanier admitted to having had a mystical-sexual relationship of the same nature as those of T. Philippe, the questioning was not taken further,” though the report emphasizes that in 2016 many archives were still not accessible to L’Arche leaders, and “at that time, no one had a clear and complete overview of the extent of the system of abuse of which J. Vanier was only one part.”
The report concludes this section by noting how Vanier’s reputation and power made it difficult for L’Arche as an institution to question him:
“All of this also demonstrates the clout that J. Vanier still has at this time and the leaders’ in completely detaching themselves from him. The desire to confront him and obtain answers from him is obvious, but in certain respects it resembles a form of negotiation in which one advances with caution and respect, faced with a man who seeks to say as little as possible.”
4. The Catholic Church knew Vanier was still loyal to Philippe, and Pope John XXIII personally intervened to try to get Vanier to break ties with Philippe.
In the 1950s and again in the 1970s, Jean Vanier was thwarted in his attempts to pursue ordination in the Catholic Church. Among the reasons Catholic leaders give for not moving Vanier forward was his apparent continued loyalty to Philippe, despite the 1956 sanctions. As early as 1956, the Holy Office referred to Vanier as Philippe’s “[number-one] spiritual son and continuator of the Father” and his “most fanatical disciple,” according to the report.
Quoting from commission member Antoine Mouges’ master’s thesis, the report recounts a time when Pope John XXIII tried to convince Vanier to break with Philippe in 1959:
“During a private audience with the Vanier parents and their son Jean in Pope John XXIII’s private apartments in July 1959, the Pope, alone with Jean in the elevator, told him, “You must leave Father Thomas”. Jean recounts that he left with a wounded heart, but internally peaceful: “I knew I was too tied by Jesus to Father Thomas to be able to leave him. For me, Father Thomas was a presence of Jesus. To leave it would be unfaithful to Jesus and what he wanted from me.”
5. What we know about the women Vanier abused
The report is careful to precisely identify Vanier’s actions as abusive. According to the introduction, they use the word “abuse” “in its sense of ‘unjust use of power of a sexual nature causing harm to the person who suffers it.’” But they are careful to note that not all of the women identified would define their relationships as abusive, and some wouldn’t identify as victims or survivors. They also write that they strongly assume there are more women who were abused by Vanier.
In the introduction, the commission writes that the current state of investigation had yet to find any intellectually disabled victims, but that “[o]n this crucial point we must be careful.” The psychologist of L’Arche in Trosly-Breuil conducted a survey among 25 “people with a disability who have been present in a shelter or living centre for more than 10 years in within the community of Trosly-Breuil” and that “[n]one of the people received expressed having been the victim of sexual abuse by Jean Vanier.”
In outlining the methodology and ethical approach that guided their word, the commission writes that “the confidentiality preferences of each interviewee were strictly respected.” Though many of the victims chose to remain anonymous, three of the victims—Madeleine Guéroult, Michèle-France Pesneau, Judy Bridges Farquharson—consented to having their names used. The commission dedicated its work to them for their “courage to speak out to denounce the abuses they had suffered.”
The report found that all of the women in an “abusive or transgressive relationship” with Vanier were adults (most between 20-35 when the relationship began), “without a disability,” Christian, and with “high cultural capital;” they included women who were single, married, or had taken religious vows. Many of the women had sought spiritual advice from Vanier for “significant and painful personal or family problems.” The commission interviewed eight of the women, and it found that 14 of the women were or are still members of L’Arche, and others are close to L’Arche communities.
The commission recounts the effects of the women coming forward with their testimonies of abuse. The report found that the women “contribute to the creation of a collective awareness of the existence of common and repeated abuse strategies,” and an awareness specifically among Vanier and Philippe’s victims:
“Several women who recognise themselves as victims meet in a discussion group to share their experiences and support each other. Two women who had been abused supported a third woman by writing a letter to the leadership of L’Arche International to testify and ask for reparations.”
6. An account of the abuse
The fourth section of the report “deals directly with the cases of control, assault and sexual abuse in L’Arche.” The report seeks to answer whether sexual abuse in L’Arche was systemic and what allowed the abuse to multiply and remain secret.
The report found that Vanier’s abuses from the 1960s to 2010 and beyond typically progressed gradually with each woman, and in the context of spiritual accompaniment. The nature of the abuse falls on “a continuum of sexual violence marked by the experience of control, abuse of authority and, more generally, by the confusion of the spiritual, emotional and sexual spheres.”
Vanier frequently engaged in these abuses in L’Arche community spaces, according to the report, including his rooms and offices in the Trosly community. While Vanier and the people he abused would sometimes schedule the accompaniment meetings themselves, he often scheduled them through his secretary, “sometimes late at night.”
“Over time, proximity and tactile gestures gradually intensify during prayer and accompaniment,” the report reads. Vanier’s abuse included “’passionate, voluptuous kisses on the mouth of increasing intensity,’ and caresses on the erogenous zones of both parties, especially the female breast.’”
The report finds that recurring themes in Vanier’s actions were “partial nudity, the absence of intercourse … as well as the spiritual justification for sexual aggression.”
Philippe’s abuses from the 1970s onward took place primarily at La Ferme, his home in the first L’Arche community in Trosly. The report found Philippe’s abuse caused partial traumatic amnesia in at least two instances. Judy Bridges Farquharson, one of the women to first report Vanier’s abuse to L’Arche, told the commission of a time she visited Philippe to tell him that Vanier was abusing her; Philippe responded by abusing her, causing her to suffer memory loss:
“I was left feeling even more confused, alone, feeling no one would understand. I left Trosly and L’Arche soon after and never spoke about my “secrets” for many years until I started therapy.” — Judy Bridges Farquharson
Mitchell Atencio is associate news editor, sojo.net. Follow him on Twitter @mitchellatencio.
Betsy Shirley (@betsyshirley) is the editor of sojo.net.