The Leadership of Jean Vanier Gerry OShea
I read recently about the enthralling and poignant story of Jean Vanier, who started L’Arche, a French name memorializing the biblical ark, where people with intellectual disabilities find a warm welcome and the promise of a vibrant and supportive life.
Jean was the son of the governor-general of Canada, and as his biographer, Anne-Sophie Constant, wrote, “he was a child of privilege who had danced with princesses, dined with politicians and philosophers and circled the world twice.”
In 1964, his spiritual adviser, Fr. Philippe, a Dominican priest, took him on a tour of the psychiatric facility where he was acting as chaplain. There he discovered what he called “an immense world of pain.”
Asylums in those days were notorious for overcrowding and abuse, functioning more as prisons than treatment centers. They were cauldrons of misery instead of places of compassion and hope.
Vanier explained that he heard a heartfelt call from heaven as well as from the inmates of these asylums to do something to dispel the darkness surrounding so many of the places where people with mental disabilities were confined.
He bought a broken-down house in Trosly/Breiul, located in the region of Picardie in France, and he invited two men from one of these institutions to live with him. His caring programs grew from there in leaps and bounds.
Vanier travelled around the world telling people of the L’Arche communities, which included, as equals, people with mental disabilities and live-in staff and volunteers. New communities sprung up in Canada, India, Australia, Haiti and beyond – all committed to providing a humane environment for their clients.
His Christian commitment was a major feature of Vanier’s thinking. He led spiritual retreats that became very popular in this area. He spoke with conviction about how the spirit had led him to found L’Arche to provide a place of caring and love for a deprived population that is often denigrated and disrespected in societies where fancy possessions are valued more highly. He scolded Christians for diminishing their primary commitment to “the least of the brethren.”
Mr. Vanier presented himself as a modest man who when he was introduced to give a lecture would usually start off by declaring that “I feel uncomfortable when people say nice things about me.” Still the world did notice his great work for these marginalized members of society.
He was awarded membership in the French Legion of Honor as well as the Companion Order in Canada and he was presented with the prestigious Templeton Prize in America. Before he died in 2019, Vanier was often called a living saint, and after he passed away, Pope Francis sent his condolences with the prayer that God would welcome him into heaven as his faithful servant.
The sad denouement of the story of this man who did so much good in his life was revealed by the Board of L’Arche just nine months after his burial. They published the results of an external examination that revealed that Vanier had instigated “manipulative sexual relationships” that were clearly “emotionally abusive” with six nondisabled women, all L’Arche assistants, while they were receiving, of all things, spiritual direction from him.
We should honor Shakespeare’s wise reminder to stay off our high horse in criticizing the faults and weaknesses of others because “the web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together.” Indeed! This valid insight affirming non-judgementalism applies to ordinary human faults like lying or lechery, but the way this guy leveraged his power to engage in coercive sexual experiences with vulnerable women, under the guise of spiritual counseling, qualifies as bottom-floor degradation.
Moralists would rightly accuse him of blasphemous conduct when, as part of his creepy seduction, he frequently assured his victims, “this is not us – this is Mary and Jesus. You are chosen, you are special, this is secret!”
The allegations, deemed credible by the inquiry team, span more than 30 years, from 1975 to 2005. Yet a shadow of sexual exploitation hangs over L’Arche from even earlier. The Dominican, Thomas Philippe, who introduced Mr. Vanier to the plight of intellectually disabled people, was stripped of his religious authority in 1956 for sexually and spiritually exploiting women.
After the shocking revelations were made public in 2020, Tina Bovermann, the president of L’Arche USA, raised a red flag about the guises of leadership evident in all aspects of life from politics to religion, wondering about the place in a mature society for a charismatic leader. No doubt she had her dead boss in mind.
I thought of the now-defrocked Cardinal Theodore McCarrick whose gifted personality brought him to the top of the ecclesiastical table, and Pope John Paul 11 – another man blessed with an abundance of charisma – defended him even after he was told in person of his maliciousness by one of his victims.
A close female observer expounded on the genesis of the cardinal’s acceptance as a chancer and manipulator when she wrote: “He was charming. He was self-effacing. He was completely disarming – and he ran that game on everyone. He ran it on his colleagues, donors and young boys. “
Lord Acton’s famous statement about all power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely rings true to all students of history. Great men, he also claimed, are nearly all bad men, meaning corrupted by the misuse of authority.
The Roman emperors declared themselves gods and Napoleon pronounced himself an emperor. In recent times, we had an American president who in his election campaign announced that he couldn’t lose and in his version of the power game he is still asserting his “victory.”
The stories of Vanier and McCarrick alert us to be wary of do-gooders who reveal themselves as full of positive intentions and bonhomie but whose characters are seriously flawed.
L’Arche has continued to grow, counting a network of close to 150 communities in 35 countries throughout the world. Their focus continues, according to its own website, “to build authentic communities involving differently-abled people.”
Gerry OShea blogs at wemustbetalking.com
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