By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Ten years after Jean Vanier founded L’Arche in northern France, the Sisters of St. Francis in Clinton founded a L’Arche community in Clinton in 1974 to serve as a bridge between people with and without disabilities. Its mission is to “Make known the gifts of people with developmental disabilities, revealed through mutually transforming relationships….”
Vanier’s extraordinary dedication to fostering the inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities so that they have a sense of belonging led Bishop Martin Amos of Davenport to travel to France in 2013 to present the humanitarian with the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award.
Today, L’Arche Clinton and its 152 sister L’Arche communities in 38 countries on five continents grieve over news that their once-beloved founder violated the principles he espoused — most especially embracing the inherent value of every human being.
On Feb. 22, L’Arche International announced that an independent investigation by GCPS Consulting, a UK-based group with expertise in the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse, concluded that Vanier had sexually abused six women without disabilities.
L’Arche International reported that investigators found credible, corroborating accounts from various alleged victims all of whom “describe similar events, providing sufficient evidence to establish that Jean Vanier engaged in manipulative sexual relationships with at least 6 adult (not disabled) women. This number does not presume that there were no other cases, but takes into account spontaneously received testimony.” The occurrences of abuse took place between 1970 and 2005, the investigation found.
In its own news release L’Arche USA noted that for “at least a decade before the founding of L’Arche, Jean Vanier was made aware of the fact that Father Thomas Philippe, his spiritual director, had emotionally and sexually abused adult women without disabilities. This abuse happened in the context of Philippe’s spiritual direction in 1951/1952.” While the Vatican in 1956 banned Father Philippe from exercising any public or private ministry, Vanier “repeatedly and publicly stated that he did not know why Philippe was convicted. We now know that Jean Vanier lied. He was aware of his mentor’s behaviors.”
L’Arche USA said Vanier “subscribed to Philippe’s theology, which the Catholic Church deemed heretical” and shared his mentor’s sexual practices with several women. “The inquiry found no evidence that these specific relationships were not consensual.” However, Vanier “enabled Philippe to be involved in the L’Arche community in Trosly until his death in 1993, and thus potentially failed to prevent further abuse.”
The Catholic Church convicted Father Philippe a second time, in 2014, for 14 cases of emotional and sexual abuse of adult women without a disability in the 1970s and 1980s, L’Arche USA said. “Jean Vanier had heard from some of the survivors” but “did not pursue or report these allegations of sexual abuse. Jean Vanier was thus complicit in covering up Philippe’s abuse.”
Vanier’s alleged “manipulative sexual relationships and emotional abuse” of women between 1970 and 2005, usually occurred “within a relational context where he exercised significant power and a psychological hold over the alleged victims (none of whom had an intellectual disability). These allegations have been brought forward by six courageous adult women,” L’Arche USA stated. “The inquiry has found the allegations to be credible. Independently from one another, the witnesses describe similar occurrences, which had a long-lasting and negative impact on their personal lives and subsequent relationships.”
“We are shocked and saddened by this news,” said J. Devin Land, PhD., L’Arche Clinton’s Community Leader and Executive Director. “The findings cause us great disappointment and grief. L’Arche Clinton condemns the actions and inactions of Jean Vanier, which are in complete violation of the principles that L’Arche Clinton represents today. We also express gratitude for the courage of the women who gave their testimony.”
L’Arche Clinton currently has 15 core members (individuals with developmental disabilities), and approximately 30 employees, including administrative staff, and a dozen or so regular volunteers, Land said. “Our conversations with core members will convey the truth about what we have learned in a way that is suitable for each core member’s understanding and personal experience.”
Land also said that L’Arche Clinton is now “reaching out to our community friends and supporters through our normal lines of communication to let them know the results of the inquiry, and to let them know where we stand on the results.”
Vanier’s name does not appear anywhere on L’Arche Clinton’s website, including under the heading Our Founder. “We removed references to Jean Vanier from our website in recent weeks,” Land said.
Meanwhile, L’Arche Clinton continues to work to protect the community from abuse through its policies and trainings. The community will also participate in L’Arche USA’s safeguarding initiative, Land said.
Bishop Amos, now retired and living in the Diocese of Cleveland, expressed shock and sadness about Vanier’s deviant actions. “I don’t even know how to react. It is such a far cry from the man we met and the work he had done. But the L’Arche community did the investigation and it seems reliable. I feel sorry for the communities, especially those we visited in France.”
However, the good work of L’Arche remains. “What was so striking to me about the L’Arche communities in France and in Clinton is the extra-ordinary love and respect that are present,” Bishop Amos said. “If the whole world could act like they do it would be wonderful. But, I guess we need to wait for heaven for that to happen. I’m glad we have them as a witness to what could be.”
Bishop Thomas Zinkula, who now leads the Davenport Diocese, and Kent Ferris, who oversees the Quad City Pacem in Terris Coalition, also praise the work of L’Arche communities — here and abroad — for setting an example of being Christ-like to each other.
“I’m very proud of the work and ministry of the L’Arche community in Clinton. I’m looking forward to visiting with them in the middle of March to share a meal and participate in a Lenten activity,” Bishop Zinkula said. “It’s always a joyful experience when I’m with them.”
“At L’Arche, dignity matters: we believe in the inherent value of every human being. We are determined to reflect on what we believed to be true about L’Arche’s founder and L’Arche’s founding story,” the statement said. “While many questions will yet be answered in the coming months and years, we stand today on the side of those who have been harmed,” said the statement, made by Tina Bovermann, National Leader and Executive Director of L’Arche USA.
L’Arche safeguarding initiative
Continuing efforts to ensure the well-being of all of its members across the world, led L’Arche International to launch a comprehensive safeguarding initiative in 2018. In the United States, this initiative includes:
• A broad audit of all related policies and procedures
• A review of the onboarding and training modules for the organization’s staff and members
• A Safeguarding Commission to firmly anchor safeguarding within the organization’s governance structures
• A unified and easily accessible process for reporting misconduct
L’Arche’s members are held to high standards as they are invited to care for one another and share daily life. Please let L’Arche know if you witness, learn of or experience misconduct in any L’Arche setting, including any kind of abuse, violence, harassment, or neglect. You may anonymously file a report by sending an email to iReport@larcheusa.org. Your complaint will remain confidential (within the limits of the law). Only the qualified third-party reviewers will have access to the submitter’s name, if they chose to provide it.