By Kathy Berken
By now you have likely heard the devastating news about L’Arche founder Jean Vanier. L’Arche International’s requested independent investigation revealed that Vanier had a decades-long history of sexually abusing adult women who approached him for spiritual direction (six gave credible testimony). To be clear, he did NOT abuse any persons with disabilities.
If you’ve read my columns and/or my book about my 10 years in the L’Arche community in Clinton, you know that all of us associated with L’Arche greatly loved and admired Jean Vanier. Understandably, we all felt incredible shock and disbelief upon learning the news of his secret behavior.
The Catholic Messenger’s detailed front-page story (Feb. 27) also provided commentary from L’Arche Clinton’s Community Leader. Father Ron Rolheiser wrote a difficult column about Vanier (March 12) admitting that while Vanier did reprehensible and sinful things, he still did a lot of good for people with disabilities and their families. I agree, and also think that we are misguided when we place people on godly pedestals and, after discovering their failures, take them down with more vengeance than we would someone with less notoriety.
I knew Jean Vanier, having spent sufficient time with him on numerous occasions when I was at L’Arche Clinton. He even wrote the foreword to my book. Plus, as a survivor of 10 years of childhood sexual abuse, I’ve always thought I had good radar for perpetrators. Surprisingly, I never felt even one smidgen of suspicion about Vanier and his behind-closed-doors behavior. In all the years I was with L’Arche, and after, I never heard a negative word about him. Ever.
That makes the news so much more devastating. Jean wrote me a couple of personal letters when I was going through cancer and chemo in 2000. When I saw him in California at his retreat a few months later, I spent a few minutes talking privately with him, kneeling next to him in the auditorium, holding his hand, thanking him for the letters, telling him how much I appreciated his care and where I was on my medical journey. On a few other occasions, I spoke at gatherings where he was being honored.
Jean was always kind, gentle, generous and unassuming. That was in public. I wasn’t privy to his private life and, as Father Rolheiser said, I don’t want to know any more.
But here’s the thing. I am frankly disheartened to learn that many L’Arche leaders have decided to remove Jean Vanier’s name and image from our founding stories in printed material and on websites. Many will trash his books. My own publisher is moving my book to out-of-print and reshaping it as an e-book without any reference to Vanier. Don’t get me wrong; I fully understand why. But to make him disappear altogether just seems harsh. Can’t there be asterisks and footnotes instead of pretending he never had anything to do with L’Arche?
This leads me to begin a journey of forgiveness. I want desperately to understand so I can move on. I want to know what he was thinking, what motivated him to act in such an abusive and manipulative manner. I want to know why he lied to authorities regarding his knowledge of his mentor Father Phillipe’s own abuse of women, behavior that Jean copied in secret.
Jean Vanier is gone, and we cannot have a sit-down, face-to-face, heart-to-heart conversation with him to ask him directly, “Why, Jean, why did you do this? What was going on in you that brought you to do these things to these women? Why did you lie? Help us understand so we can follow Jesus — as you always taught us — and offer some kind of compassion and forgiveness.”
(Kathy Berken is a spiritual director and retreat leader in St. Paul, Minnesota. She lived and worked at The Arch, L’Arche in Clinton (1999-2009) and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch.)