La Croix International [France]
May 6, 2023
By Michael W. Higgins
A comprehensive investigation into the L’Arche movement demonstrates that Jean Vanier fostered a psychologically crippling and spiritually depraved environment
A little over three years ago, L’Arche International published its preliminary findings on allegations of sexual abuse and other transgressions against Thomas Philippe, OP, and Jean Vanier, the principal figures in the L’Arche movement. The organization noted at the time that “the stakes are high for L’Arche, following the death of its founder and revelations which mark a break in its history, there is a need to reread the past…. An in-depth study is to be carried out to gain a better understanding of the personality and input of Jean Vanier and the relationship dynamics at work between the founder and those who knew him”.
That in-depth study, “Abuse and Hold: An Investigation of Thomas Philippe, Jean Vanier and L’Arche”, was released in January. It’s a nine-hundred-page document comprehensive in scope, scale, and methodology. Its main conclusion is made plain in the accompanying cover letter, in which L’Arche admits “our institutional responsibility for failing to spot these abuses, report them and forestall them. At the same time we feel that our founder’s adherence to the doctrines of Thomas Philippe and the reproduction of his practices, their concealment and the lies that followed, constitute a serious breach of trust towards L’Arche and its members”.
Trying to offer “an enlightened understanding of the alleged facts”
The commission that L’Arche charged to undertake the investigation consisted of six researchers from several disciplines: history, sociology, psychiatry, psychoanalysis, and theology. They were assisted in their work by a group of experts from diverse fields and positions of authority. The investigation covered the period from Vanier’s birth in Geneva in 1928 to his death in Trosly in 2019. The commissioners held 119 interviews with eighty-nine individuals and examined fifteen books written by Vanier in order to get as complete a picture as possible of the thinking behind his behavior, and they made clear that “by publicly reporting the results of its investigation, the intention…is to make available to all solid elements, rigorously sourced and cross-checked, capable of offering an enlightened understanding of the alleged facts”.
Understanding Vanier’s spiritual and sexual abuse of multiple women associated with L’Arche ﬁrst requires underscoring his relationship with the controversial and disgraced Dominican Mariologist, Thomas Philippe.
Philippe’s “Marian maximalism” originated in an intense experience in 1938 in a convent chapel in Rome in front of the fresco Mater Admirabilis, an affective experience of divine enrapture resulting in private revelations and mystical graces that would determine the direction of his theological thinking and ministry. It blurred the distinction between the mystical and the erotic, rationalized sexual behavior—often deviant and clothed in the language of Marian devotion—and facilitated his predation on young and vulnerable women, religious and secular, all behind a screen of avowed sanctity.
Vanier fell under Philippe’s inﬂuence almost from the moment he ﬁrst met him in 1947. Throughout the 1950s, Vanier cemented his relationship and dependence on Thomas, initially as a student of his esoteric Thomism, but eventually as an initiate in his secret society of Gnostic libertines glossed as devout votaries of Mary and her son. No less a French Catholic luminary than Jacques Maritain judged Philippe’s Marian spirituality “mad”, writing in a letter to Charles Journet that his “mannerism of wanting to make the Holy Virgin her Son’s bride infuriates and shocks me”. As the L’Arche Report notes: “The mystique of T. Philippe is based in particular on the afﬁrmation of incestuous sexual relations between Jesus and Mary during their earthly
A sordid story that reads like a mélange of ﬁction and fact
Philippe would actually be investigated by the Holy Ofﬁce in 1956, found guilty of and condemned for sexually abusing women, compromising the sacrament of penance, and arranging for an abortion—all of which was camouﬂaged as mysticism. Vanier, however, saw the Vatican’s censure as an injustice, expressive of the Church’s blindness to the mystical genius of his “spiritual father” and issued only to assuage disgruntled Dominicans unhappy with Philippe’s teachings. He worked behind the scenes to enable the quiet and hidden ﬂourishing of what the report commissioners identify as a “perverse mystico-sexual and toxic nucleus”.
Philippe and Vanier were so deeply intertwined that in a 1975 document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith noting the punishment of Philippe “for serious offenses of a pseudo-mystical nature (di natura pseudo mystica)”, Vanier is called “il piu fanatico dei discepoli P. Philippe” –the most fanatical of Fr. Philippe’s disciples. As late as 2009, Vanier recalled how “listening to him and in his presence, I had a taste for God, to love Jesus and Mary I felt transformed in his presence. This shows how deeply Jesus used him to enter into me”.
Nevertheless, the L’Arche study makes a point of distancing the sins of the spiritual son from those of the father:
“In Jean Vanier’s case, there was no perverse organization with the resulting pleasure of destroying, humiliating or reducing others to manipulated objects. He was, however, trapped by the absolutization of a Love that excluded him from any idea of Evil. He was a prisoner of his adoption of Thomas Philippe’s delusional ideas and system of abuse.”
The study also makes clear that the abuse was not related to pedophilia; nor did it involve people with disabilities. The commissioners raise the issue of a possible homosexual relationship between Philippe and Vanier, but they conclude that homosexuality was not a deﬁning feature of the abuse allegations.
Philippe’s perﬁdy was deep-seated, long-lasting, and intricate in its rationalization. Evidence of his behavior dates back to his collaboration with Mother Thérèse de l’Enfant Jésus of the Nogent Carmel in the late 1940s. His sexual predations there and at other Carmel convents are chronicled at length not only in the L’Arche study, but also in the Vatican investigations, the archives of which were available to the commissioners.
The sordid story reads like a mélange of the ﬁction and fact that you ﬁnd in the notorious case of alleged demonic possession, collective perjury, and sexual hysteria in the French Ursuline convent of Loudun in 1632, with its seductive priest Urban Grandier,novelized by Aldous Huxley, rendered on the stage by playwright John Whiting, and ﬁlmed by Ken Russell.
“A little heap of secrets” targeting vulnerable women
Philippe was practiced and proﬁcient in his operations, disguised as they were as mystical moments of grace. They were laced in the ascetical language of the Carmelite masters and embedded in a culture of secrets”.
The vulnerable women were drawn mostly from a socially elevated and well-educated sector, spiritually and sexually naïve, emotionally fragile, and utterly trusting.
The principal members of the predatory cell included Philippe’s equally dissolute brother and fellow Dominican, Marie-Dominique—codenamed Did or Didier—as well as Anne de Rosanbo and Jacqueline d’Halluin. It is the latter who initiated Jean Vanier on the Feast of Corpus Christi.
The sexual proclivities of the predators run the usual gamut, but in Jean Vanier’s case in particular they are often justiﬁed as chaste sexuality because of the absence of coitus. Vanier persistently, and tragically, furthered the mystic-erotic legacy of the Philippe brothers—their sister, Mother Cécile, a Dominican prioress, functioned as a religious Ghislaine Maxwell, servicing the sexual appetites of her siblings as well as herself—and in so doing Vanier enabled a psychologically crippling and spiritually depraved environment to continue.
This raises the pertinent question of how Vanier managed to function so freely and without suspicion for decades. The study establishes his flawed theology by examining his many books, orations, newsletters, publicly available correspondence, addresses to both religious and secular constituencies, and transcribed interviews. His exegesis of the Gospel of John is riddled with inaccuracies and eccentricities. On many points of theology he operates at best on the fringe of the ecclesial community. His spirituality of covenant and communion is interlaced with his peculiar nuptial fusions, and his enthusiastic incorporation into the patterns of his spiritual master betray his disturbing Gnostic tendencies.
The commissioners write that Vanier for “many years passed as a most saintly man, the living embodiment of the Gospel, a man whose charisma was there for all to see, a ‘starets,’ the lodestar of the Catholic renewal of John Paul II’s pontiﬁcate.” We now know that his strategy of holy self-effacement was really a concerted strategy of self-erasure.
Certainly, Vanier basked in the light of Catholic celebrity. And the ascendancy of the ecclesial communities that ﬂourished during the Wojtyla papacy in no way diminished the special place in the spiritual constellation accorded L’Arche and its co-founder.
However, many of the new communities—one indeed founded by Marie-Dominique Philippe, the Community of St. Jean—have had their share of scandals and are under Vatican investigation.
“A perverse toxic nucleus within the Catholic Church”
The commissioners do not hesitate, however, to remonstrate with the Vatican when they see egregious displays of official approbation:
“Given the many people who suffered from Thomas Philippe’s spiritual and sexual abuse, directly or indirectly via followers who shared his delusion and reproduced his actions, and in the first instance his brother Marie-Dominque and Jean Vanier, this can be described as a perverse toxic nucleus within the Catholic Church. The photograph of these three men received by Pope John Paul II speaks volumes about their ability to infiltrate, seduce and deceive, whereas the Vatican was supposed to be aware. It also speaks volumes about the dysfunctions of the ecclesiastical institution.”
Think Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ and the Regnum Christi Movement. The sexual crimes, predations, rapes, pedophiliac assaults, and emotional abuse inﬂicted on fellow Legionaries, seminarians, family members, and others by Maciel are a matter of record resulting in the end with his being sentenced to a life of prayer and penitence by Pope Benedict XVI. Various investigations and reports followed Maciel’s death in 2008 as the Vatican sought to reform the order. What was unearthed was shocking: in addition to his long record of sexual abuse, Maciel enjoyed the conﬁdence and support of both Pope John Paul II and his long-serving secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, in no small part due to Macieil’s ﬂooding the Vatican with generous gifts and troops of fervent priests.
The L’Arche study recognizes that “the institutionalization of charismatic authority…could constitute a breeding ground favourable to the development of conﬁgurations of control and the perpetration of abuse,” and that certainly applies to Maciel and his co-abusers in the Legionaries. But the L’Arche commissioners conclude that the toxic microsystem, the “perverse mystic-sexual nucleus” that developed at the heart of L’Arche, the parent house in Trosly-Breuil, did not appear to extend into the L’Arche network of homes elsewhere.
The disclosures of manipulative emotional behavior and sexual abuse by Philippe, Vanier, and the other initiates cut to the very root of L’Arche’s identity, and have unsettled many in and outside the community. Its survival is not imperiled by the study, however, given that the commission operated with the “conviction that exposure [of the abuses] in full light is the essential condition for their extinction” and that we should not lose sight of a verifiable truth that “as head of L’Arche Vanier developed actions with quantified benefits for people with disabilities. To use a Buddhist musing, a flower grows out of the mud—or precisely—despite the mud.”
As Hazel Bradley of L’Arche UK wrote of L’Arche as a federation with these words views: “[We are] re-weaving our story together, to recreate a garment of color, life, and hope…discarding what is not of God, and building on what is. It is never too late to begin again.”
Michael W. Higgins is the Basilian Distinguished Fellow in Contemporary Catholic Thought, University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto (Canada), and Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Sacred Heart University, Fairﬁeld, Conn. (USA). He is currently writing a book on Pope Francis for House of Anansi Press. This article was originally published by Commonweal.