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Jean Vanier, Sex Abuser

Jean Vanier, celebrating the Templeton Prize in 2015

This is a hell of a blow:

A respected Catholic figure who worked to improve conditions for people with developmental disabilities for more than half a century sexually abused at least six women during most of that period, according to a report released on Saturday by the France-based charity he founded.

The report produced for L’Arche International said the women’s descriptions provided enough evidence to show that Jean Vanier engaged in “manipulative sexual relationships” from 1970 to 2005, usually with a “psychological hold” over the alleged victims.

Although he was a layman and not a priest, many Catholics hailed Vanier, who was Canadian, as a living saint for his work with disabled people. He died last year aged 90.

“The alleged victims felt deprived of their free will and so the sexual activity was coerced or took place under coercive conditions,” the report, commissioned last year and prepared by the UK-based GCPS Consulting group, said. It did not rule out other potential victims.


During the charity-commissioned inquiry, six adult women without links to each other said Vanier engaged in sexual relations with them as they were seeking spiritual direction. The women reported similar facts, and Vanier’s sexual misconduct was often associated with alleged “spiritual and mystical justifications,” the report states.

Read it all. 

Fortunately, none of these relationships were with disabled women. It could have been worse. But this is an incredible thing to find out about this beloved man. And to read that he traded on his image of saintliness to get into these women’s pants — it’s just revolting. The BBC reports:

The women included assistants and nuns, according to Canadian newspaper the Globe and Mail, which first broke the story.

Vanier was also a member of a small clandestine group which subscribed to and participated in some of the deviant sexual practices of disgraced priest Thomas Philippe, the L’Arche statement said.

The practices were founded on so-called “mystical” or “spiritual” beliefs that had been condemned by the Catholic Church, it added.

Vanier described Philippe, who died in 1993, as his “spiritual father”, but publicly denied knowledge of the practices.

A “clandestine group” of religious perverts. You just never know, do you? I wish I had something deeper to say, but after all we have learned about the insidious nature of sexual abuse and exploitation, what can be said? I mean, my God, Jean Vanier!

Writing in America, the Jesuit magazine, Colleen Dulle talks about how hard it is to reconcile what she knew of Vanier with these revelations (though she does believe them):

Mourning and grappling with the upsetting paradox of Jean Vanier has made me angry, but I am trying to resist letting it drive me to despair. I can no longer in good conscience call Jean Vanier a saint, nor will I hypothesize about any conversion he may have had before or after his death, but I cannot accept the disturbing truth about him as proof, as some have understood it, that sanctity does not exist. Rather, I think it challenges us to consider our own and others’ simultaneous capacity for profound goodness and evil, to seek models of holiness away from the world’s spotlight and to pursue holiness ourselves far from the spotlight, at the bottom of the ladder.

Here’s a link to the full report from L’Arche, which deserves credit for commissioning the investigation and making it public. From the report, this quote from the archives involving a 1956 investigation of Fr. Thomas Phillippe, Vanier’s spiritual father:

Then he began theories, to try to convince me, […]: the lost woman of Hosea, the sacrifice of Abraham, the glorious mysteries, the transcendence of the prophetic mission (of his mission) regarding the norms of morality. He asked me, most insistently, to bind myself to him by an act of absolute faith in this mission and in himself. I replied that I could only make an act of faith in God alone, and trust in creatures only insofar as they were God’s instrument for me […]. He explained to me that it was not for me to make this discrimination, that he was an instrument of God, and therefore at present and directly moved by God […]. He said that I lacked strength, that I had to get used to it gradually, that all this was a great honour to Our Lord and to the Blessed Virgin, because the sexual organs were the symbol of the greatest love, much more than the Sacred Heart -. And I said, “but that’s blasphemy! “Then he took up his theories again, saying that when one arrives at perfect love, everything is lawful, for there is no more sin.”

Here’s a question: Jean Vanier won the 2015 Templeton Prize for his work in spiritual advancement. Should it be revoked? I think not. The work Vanier did in serving the disabled stands on its own. The Templeton Prize, as I understand it, is given chiefly for great works. It is assumed that the doer of great deeds is also a great man or woman, but it is not necessarily so. I would feel differently if Vanier had abused disabled people, for those where the ones he was honored for helping. I just don’t think we should be in the habit of taking away honors and prizes in every case, when we have learned that the honoree was dishonorable.

Here is a link to Jean Vanier’s remarks when he received the Templeton Prize. How difficult they are to read now, knowing what we know about him. And yet, they are true, and profound, and important! Excerpt:

In L’Arche some of the people we welcome have deep anguish and even violence. They are difficult to live with in community. We have to be patient and to believe that their true self will gradually emerge. We also have to be patient with ourselves as well, and believe that if we try to love and become open to a spirituality of love, our own true selves will also gradually emerge. If we love, if we truly love other people and believe in them, then they are transformed, and we also will be transformed. Community then is a place of healing, of transformation, and of humanizing people. It’s a place where we are commissioned to grow in love, and in forgiveness, and this is real work. If you don’t want to be transformed and to grow in love, then don’t partake in community! When we find the strength to accept people as they are and to meet them in their secret being, they open us up to love.

Solzhenitsyn had it right: the line between good and evil runs down the middle of every human heart. What a great and terrible truth!

UPDATE: Lee Podles, one of the most important Catholic commenters on the sex abuse crisis, comments:

Jean Vanier is an extreme example of the male ability to compartmentalize life. Women have better integrated personalities and perhaps brains.

Mark Gungor claims men’s brains are full of little boxes, with one topic in each box; men make sure the boxes never touch. Women’s brains, Mark maintains, are more like balls of wire, with everything connected to every other thing and emotion running along the wires. This is why, he contends, men can only do one thing at a time and why women can multi-task and remember everything.

Or we can say that men have a wall with many boxes: one for family, one for sex, one for work, one for religion etc. Men open only one box at a time. An Orthodox Jewish member of Murder Incorporated was asked how he could square his religion with killing, He replied, That’s religion the other is business. Sex especially is kept far away from the other boxes, especially religion.

Vanier’s case is a little different, He kept his religious box away from orthodox Christianity. He was a heretic, influence by the teachings of his spiritual director, the Dominican Thomas Philippe, who was condemned by the Holy Office in the 1950s. Philippe apparently taught that those in a state of perfect love could not sin – Augustine’s Love, and do what you will. However, Philippe interpreted this to mean that any act of a person in the state of perfect love, including actions condemned by the moral law, was not sinful. In the brief accounts I have found of Philippe’s teaching, it appears that he taught a blasphemous and sacrilegious form of bridal mysticism to justify sexual encounters. Vanier recently approved of euthanasia. Both sexual abuse and killing are not sinful if done by a person in perfect love.

According to my hazy memories, Church authorities in previous centuries had discovered and condemned such groups, and I believe the heresy was called Quietism. But I am sure that heresy fanciers among Rod’s readers can give a fuller background.

According to the accounts so far, Catholic authorities acted properly. Philippe was severely restricted, but he violated the restrictions and continued to counsel Vanier and the small group he had established. The Church has no police force and could not imprison Philippe. Vanier lied about his continued contact with Philippe. Vanier’s sexual abuse and his lies were discovered only recently. L’Arche investigated and published the report.

“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” Including our own. Only the blood of a slain God can wash away our corruption.

I am thinking of the dear old Protestant man in our community, a man whose precious wife made pies, and who was himself a model of tenderness and compassion. He died when I was little. Later, when I was older, I found out that the old man, a deacon in his church, was a child molester who deeply damaged his children. I never in a thousand million years would have imagined that. But it was true. Much later, when I started covering the Catholic scandal, and learning about the effects of abuse, I understood that the self-destructive things that the old man’s daughters did in adulthood are par for the course for victims of childhood sexual abuse.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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