The Pillar [Washington DC]
February 24, 2023
By Luke Coppen
Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, is accused of abusing women for decades – even while many Catholics considered him a living saint. How does L’Arche move forward?
When Laura Giddings first shared the news of L’Arche founder Jean Vanier’s abuse with her community in Tacoma, Washington, she felt a mixture of embarrassment, anger, and resentment at having to be the bearer of such a painful message.
It was 2020, less than a year after Vanier’s death at the age of 90, and an independent inquiry commissioned by L’Arche had concluded that the man seen then by many as a spiritual giant sexually abused six women between 1970 and 2005.
A winner of the Templeton Prize and recipient of the French Legion of Honor, the Canadian Catholic was synonymous with L’Arche, a network of 154 communities in 38 countries welcoming people with intellectual disabilities.
For Giddings, the executive director of L’Arche Tahoma Hope, the publication of a new report on Vanier this January brought back memories of 2020.
“Although the shock factor is not as great, and it’s taking more time to process all that is in the report, there are little details that stick in my head and make it harder to dismiss the findings as long ago and far away,” she told The Pillar in an email interview.
“For example, that Jean continued the abusive behavior until the year he died. That he lied about it, flat-out, to people I care about who loved and trusted him. And not only did Jean not show any remorse, but he didn’t seem to understand the damage he had done even when confronted by women he abused.”
“So yes, I continue to feel anger and resentment and sadness for those who were most affected.”
Three years on from the sudden collapse of Vanier’s saintly reputation, other L’Arche members struggle to find new words to express their sense of horror and betrayal.
“It’s just gruesome,” said Tina Bovermann, executive director of L’Arche USA, in a phone interview. “I mean, there’s nothing else to say about it. It’s gruesome. It’s shocking.”
The new report, produced by a team of academics commissioned by L’Arche, runs to almost 900 pages (65 in summary). The study commission report, as it’s known, is entitled “Control and Abuse, An investigation on Thomas Philippe, Jean Vanier and L’Arche (1950-2019).”
The document says that at least 25 women who were involved in relationships with Vanier between 1952 and the year of his death “experienced an accompanying situation involving a sexual act or an intimate gesture.”
The study describes in painstaking detail how Fr. Thomas Philippe, a French Dominican priest, came to serve as Vanier’s mentor, helping him to fashion a destructive double life.
Philippe — the brother of Community of St. John founder Fr. Marie-Dominique Philippe — established a group called L’Eau vive (“Living Water”) in France in 1945. Vanier joined the organization as a young man and was initiated into Philippe’s deviant “mystico-sexual practices” with female members.
Vanier took over as manager of L’Eau vive in 1952, after Philippe left following complaints about his behavior. When Rome imposed canonical sanctions on Philippe in 1956, the Canadian defied a prohibition on communicating with the priest, hoping to be reunited with him and his “mystic sect.”
The researchers raise the disturbing question of whether L’Arche was founded — in 1964, in the village of Trosly-Breuil, northern France — “to serve as a screen for the activities of the group of ‘initiates.’”
There is even a suggestion that the organization’s name, meaning “The Ark” in English, had a hidden meaning for the group. Writing to his parents, Vanier described L’Arche as “Noah’s Ark taking on all the small animals to save them, floating on L’Eau vive (the Holy Office must not know)!”
As Vanier’s fame grew, he often gave a polished account of L’Arche’s founding. But challenging his narrative, the report says: “Contrary to what is said about the founding of L’Arche, there is no ‘revelation,’ no cry heard, no vocational call defining the founding moment. The primary intention … was to gather around T. Philippe, whose ‘liberation’ they had been waiting for ever since 1956 and for which they had put their plans for the future on hold.”
“The ‘mystical-sexual’ beliefs they received from him are the cement that unites them and pushed them to rebuild a work. This work was originally only necessary to create an official support, a ‘screen,’ for their reunion.”
But the study commission concludes that the “original sectarian nucleus … did not seem to have developed beyond the parent house of Trosly-Breuil.”
Throughout his life, Vanier was closely associated with the Catholic Church, frequently meeting with figures such as Mother Teresa and John Paul II. (He received a phone call from Pope Francis shortly before his death.)
L’Arche has long been affiliated with the Church because of Vanier’s Catholicism, but the organization is not formally Catholic — and while the faith figures into its history, and its present, L’Arche today incorporates people from a variety of religions, or none at all.
L’Arche does not appear on the list of associations compiled by the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Laity, Family, and Life, and its constitution does not mention the Catholic Church.
As L’Arche Tahoma Hope puts it, “L’Arche was founded in the Roman Catholic tradition, but with communities in 36 different countries throughout the world, each community tends to reflect some version of the predominant faith tradition of their country. Most communities in the U.S. are rooted in a Christian tradition.”
“While each community identifies itself with a particular faith tradition, and is rooted in prayer, all L’Arche communities welcome people of any or no faith and support each person in deepening in his or her own personal spiritual journey.”
‘I could arrest him for that’
The Pillar spoke with several members of L’Arche in the U.S. about the impact of the Vanier revelations. All of them said that it had affected their work and communities.
“Our founding story is inextricably linked with how Jean Vanier inspired hundreds of people in the Pacific Northwest,” explained Laura Giddings. “There are four L’Arche communities in Washington and Oregon as a result of retreats Jean gave — no place else in the United States has as many communities as close together. We need to take another look at how we tell that story.”
“In Tacoma, we are also blessed with long-term community members who knew Jean well and counted him as a friend and mentor. We want to support them in processing the anger, betrayal, and sadness that they feel. Not only for the women involved, but for not noticing or being aware themselves of what was going on in secret.”
She continued: “I’m hearing some staff express that they are second-guessing their own commitment to L’Arche; that their relationship to L’Arche’s identity now feels ‘unanchored’ and more complex than before. They are asking a lot of good questions about the nature of authority, about charismatic versus inspirational leadership, and about power dynamics in our relationships with core members.”
“Core members” are people with intellectual disabilities who are at the center of L’Arche communities, which also include live-in assistants. As part of its commitment to uncovering and grappling with the truth about Jean Vanier, L’Arche has sought to communicate the two reports’ findings about Vanier to its core members.
As part of its efforts, the organization has produced a three-page summary of the 900-page study, which presents its conclusions in just 16 sentences, accompanied by illustrations.
To convey that none of Vanier’s victims were core members, for example, the brief summary document has a drawing of a person in a wheelchair with a big red X across it.
A podcast series called “Lead Us Not”, produced by Sojourners, recently offered an insight into core members’ responses to the scandal. In the first episode, writer Jenna Barnett spoke with Charles Clark, a core member at a L’Arche community in Virginia.
On the day she met with Clark, he was dressed as a Texas Ranger, complete with gold badge. She asked him what he would say to Vanier if he was still alive.
“I’d say, you done a bad thing — abused people,” Clark replied. “I could arrest him for that.”
“You’d arrest him for that?” echoed Barnett. “Oh, yeah,” he said.
Luke Smith, executive director of L’Arche Greater Washington, D.C., was present for the conversation between Barnett and Clark. He told The Pillar that when the Vanier revelations first emerged, “our primary thinking through of how we were going to share this news was with core members.”
“They were the first people we told as a community,” he said via Zoom. “They were the people who we really centered the messaging around.”
Smith suggested that the approach needed to vary from person to person, as some core members saw Vanier as a figure of continuity in a sometimes fast-changing environment, while others were barely aware of him.
“That has continued in terms of our response this year,” said Smith. “It’s thinking: how can we best share this news with core people? How can we best engage core people in this news, recognizing that a number of core people don’t want to talk about it? You heard in the podcast, Charles spoke about how he would arrest Jean…”
Smith said the rhythms of daily life at L’Arche helped community members to cope with the fallout.
“I’m not speaking on behalf of core members, but my sense in community is that we’ve moved on from Jean,” he said.
“I think that one of the most beautiful things about L’Arche is the fidelity to the mission that core people bring, bringing awareness of ‘Well, I’m here. These are the people I love. This is what I believe in. It is my experience of community. It is my experience of making known the gifts of people with intellectual disabilities, of being welcoming. And I’m going to continue doing that.’”
L’Arche USA’s executive director Tina Bovermann also highlighted the resilience of local communities.
“You read [the new report] and then you sort of fall into a hole because it just touches on the dark sides, the shadow sides, of humanity and the human condition,” she said. “And then we find our way back up and we reinvest in the mission of L’Arche today. We see the experiences today. We see the celebration and the joy, the grief, the life, and that’s where the mission is. L’Arche is not Jean and Jean is not L’Arche.”
Laura Giddings said that her community was wrestling with how to talk with core members about the latest report.
“It doesn’t feel right or just to leave them out of the conversation, since everyone else is talking about the report,” she said. “They have the right to hear and understand what happened, especially given that L’Arche will be talking about this report for some time to come, and it’s not clear yet what changes may take place based on the findings.”
“Yet, we also need to take care that we remain fact-based and able to offer honest reassurances that our community is safe for them and for our assistants, who core members care deeply about. We don’t want them to come away with a sense that sexuality itself is wrong. It’s also an opportunity to reinforce concepts of boundaries and consent.”
She added: “We plan to share with core members in a way that each person can take it where they need to — similar to how we’ve shared with staff. So, we’re planning for everything from indifference to needing in-depth, one-on-one conversation with a trusted individual over time.”
‘There are no longer any images of Jean on the walls’
The reckoning with Vanier’s vast, contradictory legacy began as soon as the first report was published. Schools named after him have been renamed. L’Arche has reevaluated and redesigned its safeguarding measures. Members told The Pillar that the changes were tangible. They spoke of a rapid process of “professionalization.”
Tina Bovermann said that L’Arche USA was embracing a new way of training leaders.
“We are developing a totally new leadership curriculum, which very intentionally is based off a model that is not coming from the faith-based world,” she explained.
“And not so because we’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It’s not about letting go of L’Arche’s spirituality or anchor in faith, but because so much of the language that we have within L’Arche now has a very ambiguous meaning.”
“And we want to be very intentional that we develop new mechanisms and new language, that we reclaim language and discard language in line with where L’Arche stands today.”
Bovermann said that pressing questions included “What do we discard? What should have maybe never been there? Where do we reclaim and renarrate? And what do we build today, apart from how the founding story has been and who the founder was?”
The 900-page report carefully scrutinizes the theological language employed by Vanier, a prolific writer and speaker. It highlights ambiguities and hidden meanings in his favored concepts, such as “communion” and “accompaniment,” tracing seemingly innocuous terms back to the distorted thinking of his mentor Thomas Philippe.
Bovermann noted that “communion” was “of course a beautiful concept and it’s really at the heart of what L’Arche’s mission is.”
“And yet,” she said, “clearly at least in Jean’s teaching and writings, though, the theologian of the study communion tells us that there were hidden meanings and undifferentiated sort of understandings of the notion of communion.”
“We don’t want to just do away with that notion, right? Within Christianity and theology, there are many, many, many interpretations of what that means. And there are many reference points that we could go to. So that’s probably more of a term that we want to reclaim and we renarrate for ourselves, so that we don’t fall into the trap of whatever Jean, or more so the Philippe brothers, have created there for themselves and others.”
Laura Giddings said she didn’t think “that L’Arche should, can or will ever be the same” after the reports.
“At a national level, we are looking at healthy leadership models that ask us to hold authority more collaboratively and in a less centralized way,” she noted. “In my community, we are getting more connected with disability rights leaders and self-advocates to help us overcome lingering paternalistic attitudes or any sense that those without disabilities in L’Arche treat or think about those with disabilities as anything less than full human beings with rights and gifts to share with the world.”
“One thing I appreciate about the icon crumbling — it allows the rest of us to step into a new narrative space where a variety of diverse voices can now be heard. It allows us to let go of an image of leadership that is unrealistic and damaging for both leaders and followers.”
She added that her community was also “sensitive about L’Arche language and traditions that the report refers to that now feel a bit tainted — from the logo and name, to the term ‘accompaniment.’”
“We no longer refer to any quotes by Jean or use his writings for study,” she observed. “There are no longer any images of Jean on the walls. This is a loss and creates gaps we don’t know how to fill yet. Whether this will remain true indefinitely is unclear, but for right now we take seriously the responsibility to not put those triggers out there for people who live, work and visit here to encounter.”
Luke Smith described the process that L’Arche is undergoing as “a refocusing.”
“It’s the people who are living the mission now, it’s our story now that is important,” he said. “What happened in, for our context, ’83, when we [L’Arche Greater Washington, D.C.] were founded, or ’64 in Trosly — it is important to remember that. But what happened on Aug. 16, what happened on whatever day it was when someone came to the community, that is part of the founding story. That is the founding story that impacts most core people in their daily life.”
This miracle that came out of something bad’
In a Jan. 30 letter to members, L’Arche International leaders Stephan Posner and Stacy Cates-Carney said that the latest report marked “an important moment” as the organization prepared for a major assembly and to launch a new charter.
“What justifies L’Arche is not its founder, but the life of its members, with and without disabilities, at the service of a more human society. This task of re-reading our past will help us remain faithful to this commitment,” they wrote.
As L’Arche is an international federation that includes communities in vastly different settings, some branches are likely further along with the reckoning process than others.
But should L’Arche as a whole go beyond devising new safeguarding procedures, refining its language, and issuing a new charter? Should it opt for a thorough rebranding — adopting a new name, for example?
L’Arche members told The Pillar that there had been some internal discussion of a more radical overhaul, but there were differing points of view.
Tina Bovermann said it had been “a bit of a shock” to learn that the name “L’Arche” itself had “somewhat of a double meaning, or had a meaning to the hidden group, this hidden sect, and had a meaning to everybody else.”
“L’Arche is an international federation. The brand, the logo, the name are used by thousands and thousands of people in the world and by more than 150 communities. So I do think that the question is there,” she said, stressing that there was no official word on the matter.
“That obviously doesn’t do away with all the more substantial cultural sort of questions that we are dealing with,” she added. “But we will see. I don’t know. We will see how, probably first and foremost, our own people, maybe even our people with intellectual disabilities, relate to the name ‘L’Arche’ going forward.”
Bovermann underlined that thinking through what needs to change — and what doesn’t — was unlikely to be a fast process.
“We’re not a big corporation that is going to do a rebrand and then that’s done. That’s not the posture here,” she said. “What we want to do is sit with what we’re learning and figure out how it sits in our souls and beings and bodies, how it sits within the communities, how it sits within assistants, how it sits within people with disabilities, core members, and then go from there.”
She said that first and foremost, there was “a task of listening,” which would be followed by “the task of planning,” and then “a task of doing.”
“I think it’ll take some time if we want to do it well,” she commented.
Laura DeMaria, who serves on L’Arche Greater Washington, D.C.’s board of directors, said that, for her, “L’Arche is this miracle that came out of something bad.”
“I feel like that’s kind of the story of how God works,” she said, speaking via Zoom. “It’s kind of never over. He’s always able to bring the good out of something that’s bad.”
She recalled that she had “cried all day” when she first heard about the Vanier scandal in 2020. “But at no point did it make me think L’Arche is this tainted thing, that no good can come out of, and it needs to be broken down and the core members need to go live in other places, or something, kind of not at all,” she said.
“And it isn’t because I don’t believe that what he did wasn’t serious, because it was very serious. It’s more a matter of, that just has nothing to do with us: it’s not the way that we view other people. It’s not the way that we welcome people into the community. This relational aspect of L’Arche is completely separate from the bizarre, twisted relational thing that Vanier and those in that group came up with.”
DeMaria suggested that L’Arche did not need a total rebranding for two reasons. The first was that it would be “almost like admitting defeat.”
“To say: ‘Yes, L’Arche is Jean Vanier. Vanier has been proven to be a predator. Therefore L’Arche is bad. Therefore it has to change.’ I don’t think that that’s true,” she explained.
“These revelations are not intrinsic to who L’Arche is and what we do, and the relationships that exist there. So changing the name, it kind of admits defeat.”
Second, there is a practical issue: L’Arche has been known by that name for decades and people will always think of it that way, DeMaria said.
“I think instead it’s a time to reclaim and proclaim the goodness that L’Arche is and that there’s still a lot of value for what L’Arche is in this world, and to not run away or move away from that, but acknowledge and celebrate the good, and hold that up and say: ‘Despite this thing, we are still who we are, and it’s a beautiful, wonderful thing.’”
Along with other members, DeMaria suggested that the world needs L’Arche as much as — or even more than — before.
“One of the big reasons why I love L’Arche so much is because it is such a place of peace,” she said. “The whole world has been through something very tumultuous, just this turmoil for the last few years. And everyone’s always looking for some kind of a peace. You can find that in L’Arche.”
“It doesn’t change that L’Arche is kind of this sign of what’s possible, of these very, very different people, people with and without intellectual disabilities, living together. And so it’s something to learn from.”
“Not only that, I hope that this experience can help other people learn about moving through something that’s difficult as a community and coming out on the other side of it. I think there’s a lot of good to be learned from this as well.”
DeMaria stressed that she didn’t want to sound naive or overly optimistic, or come across as diminishing the suffering of the women abused by Vanier.
“But it’s not the end of something,” she said. “I think it’s the beginning of something, and a time for people who recognize the goodness of what L’Arche is to come participate and be involved and meet the community, and see what we’ve done and see how it can apply broadly in the world and in relationships, and to any effort toward a thing that resembles peace, which the world really needs right now.”
Luke Smith, the executive director of L’Arche houses in the D.C. area, predicted that parts of the 900-page report would “take years to unpack.”
“We as a community made this commitment in 2020 to keep sitting with the news,” he said. “The worst thing, I think, would be to say, ‘Well, this happened and we’ve got to move on.’ What can we learn from it and what can we experience from it?”
“We’re really good at being responsive to the changing needs of our members, of saying ‘This isn’t what we’d normally do on a Monday; this is what we’re going to do today.’ As a community, that practice of being responsive, of recognizing the need and changing and being in mutually transforming relationships, is the baseline.”
“So that, for me, is one of the ways in which this news kind of propelled us forward. There’s always an opportunity for us to change. There’s always more understanding of who we are: the internal work that we can do personally, the internal work we can do as a local community. It’s always a moment to say we’re going to move forward.”
“Similarly, the study commission report is a further opportunity. For us to say, this is what we need to reflect upon, this is what we need to understand, this is the reality of who we are today. We need to sit with that and recognize that the mission of L’Arche, I would argue, is more needed today than it has ever been. Because of the reality of the life that we’re living, the world that we’re in: people with intellectual disabilities are further being marginalized. The pandemic highlighted that.”
Smith suggested that while the two reports would always be part of L’Arche’s story, “it’s not the story.”
“The story of L’Arche will continue and is centered around core members,” he said. “Someone celebrated their birthday on Saturday, and I was at planning meetings last week for people to set their goals for the coming year, and we had a Valentine’s Day party in which it was wonderful that my children got to be bingo callers and we got to play bingo… Those are the moments of L’Arche and the reasons why I’m here, and the reasons why we choose to come together to see the unique and sacred value of each person.”
Smith also expressed hopes that L’Arche could one day share its experience with other communities whose founders have been revealed to be abusers — an all-too-common experience for 21st-century Christians.
“There are 900 pages of the report, and to do to do well by the women who were abused, to do well by other people who are deeply impacted by this news, we owe each other and ourselves the time to process it and to make sure that we do change, that we do respond to what is in that and we sit with what is required from it,” he said.
“I think that’s really important to remember because we are an intentional community. We’re an intentional faith community. We have to be intentional about our response. And I know we are being intentional about our response. And I think that there’s some wisdom there for the rest of the world to consider.”