A horrible revelation in today’s Globe: Ian Brown reports that the saintly Jean Vanier, adored founder of the L’Arche communities for the intellectually disabled, was a serial sexual abuser of at least six women who came to work there.
I worked at a L’Arche community in France in 1979, a powerful, inspiring, life-changing experience which is the subject of my latest memoir.
The truth came out some years ago about Père Thomas, the long-dead priest who inspired Vanier to found L’Arche – that he was a sexual abuser. That was shocking enough. But it was felt by everyone I spoke to, especially my friends who worked at L’Arche for many years and knew Jean well, that he might have suspected or even known and turned a blind eye but was not implicated himself. There was not a hint of accusation against him.
But recently, there were accusations. Apparently his affairs began as far back as 1970, in the first years of L’Arche, but of course then women had no rights, no way to be heard. It took decades before the accusations surfaced.
It’s alleged Jean made sexual advances to a nun and told her, “It is Jesus who loves you through me.”
I do remember, several times, especially after the revelations about Père Thomas, asking about Vanier’s sexuality which seemed to be non-existent. Is he gay? I asked, and was assured no, he’d had no relationships, was simply a spiritual man busy doing vital work.
This does not take away from the tremendous good L’Arche has done and will continue to do throughout the world. But it must be shattering to the many hundreds of idealistic people who’ve devoted their lives to the work of a man they revered, who turns out to have been a sham.
And selfishly, this is devastating news for me, with a manuscript about my time working at L’Arche trying to find a publisher. I write in the book about the time I met Jean, his charisma and warmth. And the fact is, no matter who he was underneath, he had tremendous, magical charisma and warmth.
But I do also write about how the community I worked in, and I assume all the others at that time, did not deal with sexuality, they simply ignored the risks. I was a young woman living and working with men who might have had intellectual disabilities but who had the bodies and needs of men. There was little direction on how to deal with any situations that might arise, and arise they did.
My daughter just wrote, “Ugh. Fucking men.” I am angry when men are lumped together as a category, and I defend them. But not today.