Sam Wells 26 February 2020
An internal investigation by the L’Arche community has found that six women suffered profoundly for several decades from assaults and manipulation by Jean Vanier, a man they revered. My thoughts and prayers are with the victims. This is a terrible discovery for past and present members of the community, and all who care about the movement.
I don’t have a lot of heroes, but Jean Vanier was one of them. Near the top of the list. It turns out that while he was doing so many beautiful and true things, he was also doing many deeply ugly and profoundly shameful things.
Jean Vanier took advantage of his charisma, his spiritual authority and others’ investment in the L’Arche movement to manipulate and coerce six women into sexual activity. He did so repeatedly over a period of 35 years. He took away the dignity and well-being of people who had given their life to God alone. He discredited and undermined the witness of extraordinary communities of hope. And when confronted with the truth, he again and again denied or evaded it.
When a person gives in to temptation, falls in love with the wrong person, finds themselves trapped in commitments they can’t honour, and acts foolishly or regrettably, we say to that person, ‘I trust you’ve done your best to make amends and learned from this.’ But what Jean has done isn’t simply a mistake. It’s systematic sexual assault over several decades, misuse of devotion and prayer for self-serving ends, and poisoning beautiful communities through lies and exploitation.
Jean did immense, immeasurable good. But life isn’t a balance by which you bargain to offset your mercies against your crimes. The truth is, his great deeds make his evils worse. He led people to trust and believe in him with all their heart. Now those people are overcome with anguish. Sin is where you know you’re doing wrong and either can’t stop yourself or try to put it out of your mind till it catches up with you. Evil is where you’ve actually persuaded yourself what you’re doing is right and good. The things Jean did to these women were evil things, because he not only hurt and humiliated them, but made out it was godly, and solicited their silence to protect the movement – and did so for 35 years.
In the face of this devastating news, many of us who knew Jean well and admired him deeply will be bewildered and despondent for a long time. In addition to our concern for the six women and our dismay at how a person could do such deeply troubling things, we may wonder about the future of L’Arche. Where may we find comfort?
The truth sets us free. If we were holding on to what proved to be lies and deceit, we are better off with the truth, however horrible that truth is. Six women can finally live in the truth after decades of oppression. We uphold them, honour their courage and lament their suffering.
The Spirit works even when human lives are a travesty of the kingdom; and the Spirit’s work will finally prevail. L’Arche is full of beautiful and true things. Those things are still beautiful and true, even as it transpires L’Arche’s founder was far from being the exemplary person we thought him to be. Jean did evil things; but he was not himself evil. None of us are. Christ’s work on the cross and the Holy Spirit’s work today are about turning evil into good. Jean spoke much about brokenness. It turns out he was much more broken, and caused much more brokenness and damage, than we realised. In prayer we ask the Spirit to turn our own brokenness not to hurt and harm, but to gentleness and goodness.
L’Arche is not destroyed by the discovery that its founder did terrible things. It’s a community founded not on strength, but on weakness. L’Arche is deeply wounded by these discoveries. In our dismay we realise we cannot rely on one another to be bearers of the wonder of God. Which means in our grief and sadness we depend, even more than before, on God alone.
Here is a prayer we might say.
God of sorrow and mercy,
your Son Jesus Christ was betrayed, denied and deserted
by those to whom he had entrusted his life.
You know our ability to damage one another and disgrace you.
Visit those who carry pain and guilt from the sins of others.
Walk with any who feel the night of despair and disillusionment will never end.
Meet us in our hurt, anger and sense of betrayal.
Renew us in our desire to be examples of what your Spirit can do.
And show us your love, that will not let us go. In Christ our crucified Lord. Amen.