Brothers of Saint John issue shocking report on sex abuse by founder and some 70 others

La Croix International [France]

June 28, 2023

By Céline Hoyeau

Exclusive interview with Prior General François-Xavier Cazali after report reveals nearly 170 people were abused in the worldwide religious community over the past 35 years

The Brothers of Saint John, a worldwide apostolic religious institute founded in 1975 in France, has issued a damning report on the sexual and spiritual abuse committed by its late founder and more than 70 other members.

“To Understand and to Heal”, a historical, theological and psychological study of the community’s aberrations over the past 35 years, was released on June 26.

It reveals that 72 brothers – including Marie-Dominique Philippe, the French Dominican priest who founded the community –committed abuse between 1975-2022, out of the 871 who made profession in the congregation.

The report says some 167 members were victims of the abuse.

Though originally a French foundation, the Brothers of Saint John now have 40 priories in 21 countries around the world – including four in the United States, two in the Philippines and one each in England and New Zealand.

The group’s new abuse report was mandated at the October 2019 general chapter where delegates decided to set up an interdisciplinary commission “charged with establishing the links between the significant number of sexual abuse cases” committed by members of the community and the personal and family history of the founder.

François-Xavier Cazali, the priest who is the current Prior General of the Brothers of Saint John, spoke with La Croix’s Céline Hoyeau about how the new report was complied and what it means for the future of his community.

François-Xavier Cazali: This is the culmination of a major project, requested by the general chapter in 2019. This report was necessary because we had discovered the extent of abuse in the community, on the one hand, with the first report of the SOS abuse commission, and the existence of a prehistory of abuse on the other, with the results of the first work on the Dominican archives.

The aim was to discover whether there was a link, and if so, what it was, between this prehistory of Eau Vive, in which Father Marie-Dominique Philippe had been a serious accomplice, and what had happened in the community. This report provides essential clarity for us, because we want to be rid of this evil, and prevent it from happening again.

You called in outside experts, but you are the one leading the report and not an independent body. Why did you make this choice?

Involving outside experts in a joint commission was an obvious choice for us in the 2019 chapter. This principle of otherness is very important to us in the reform processes we carry out and in our various bodies.

However, we chose to involve brothers in the commission because we felt it was necessary to have their knowledge of the community from the inside. From the outset, the coordinator of the psychological and systemic study, Dominique Struyf, asked for the presence of a brother, also trained in psychology, in order to have an insider’s knowledge.

This presence was also important given that one of the main historical sources for the report is our archives, of which no historian had any prior knowledge. Another reason is that the report makes extensive use of testimonies from victims, with whom we were committed to confidentiality. Finally, we conducted this work for the benefit of our community, which is why we wanted to make it easier for them to take ownership of it, and to be part of the research process.

Were you afraid of entrusting the report to an independent body from outside the community?

The purpose of this report is not to reassure the outside world – on the contrary, I think that commissioning it and publishing it exposes us greatly. What other institution exposes its archives in this way, in so many details that are not to our glory? The aim of this report, as its title suggests, is to understand and heal. We are striving to be honest.

Our approach, our objective, has been first and foremost to heal our congregation. To achieve this, we felt it would be more effective to use a tone linked to brothers who had experienced this story from the inside. It gave a sort of guarantee to all members of the congregation, brothers and sisters, that they too were understood from the inside. There are many things in this report that will astonish the brothers, outrageous things we hadn’t seen before.

Among these is the observation that Father Marie- Dominique Philippe, long admired for his brilliant teaching, had in fact perverted the tradition of the Church and was not at the level he was thought to be…

Many brothers and sisters have realized that Father Philippe’s intellectual stature was exaggerated. The report helps to put this into perspective. This is not the last and final word; this report is intended to be supplemented by other work, both external and internal to the community. The theological part of the report is intended to be worked on with pen in hand, first and foremost by all those who were trained by Father Philippe, those who have had him as their master of thought: for them, it is necessary to revisit and discern between what enlightened them and what was perverted.

They need to discern and let go of the excessive authority, including intellectual authority, that Father Philippe had over the congregation. And for those who still adhere to Father Philippe’s teaching, this report is a warning that this thinking needs to be thoroughly critiqued.

Does this mean we have to rebuild the whole thing, make a tabula rasa?

No, because we have experienced authentic things together. This dark history is not the whole of our history; it’s a story within a story that’s worth being told.

How do you see yourself today in relation to the victims?

They play a vital role in the starting point of this report, because thanks to their testimony and courage, the community has been shaken and has been able to carry out this work on the truth. This report is an act of recognition of the wrong that has been committed and that we want to repair. It is also an opportunity to reiterate to the victims our request for forgiveness on behalf of the community.

For many, the truth of this commitment requires compensation. Will you pay?

We didn’t wait for the Commission for Recognition and Reparation (CRR) to make payments. It was on a case- by-case basis. Today, we’re in the process of signing protocols with the CRR. And we’re going to do everything we can to pay victims the amounts set by this commission.