Fallen Heroes | Jean Vanier

The news that an internal investigation by l’Arche International has concluded that its late founder, Jean Vanier, sexually abused at least six women and was an associate of the disgraced priest, Thomas Phlippe, has been met with horror and profound sadness. 

The horror is because we have yet another revelation of abuse in the Catholic Church by someone whose work for the disabled made him a hero to many. But there have been so many such revelations that even as we register the terrible sin, we are tempted to breathe a sigh of relief: the abuser was a layman, not a priest or religious; none of the abused was a child or disabled. How easily we forget what a dreadful experience it must have been for those who were abused and how they are condemned to live with its consequences for the rest of their lives. Have we become so accustomed to cases of abuse that we no longer see them for what they really are but try to find ways of downplaying their significance or arguing for a ‘less worse’ scenario? The most we can say is that l’Arche itself seems to have acted with commendable frankness and transparency, but facts remain facts. Jean Vanier’s name has been tarnished for ever. He is a hero no more; the halo has slipped.

I think that is why the news has also been greeted with more than ordinary sadness. Despite the abuse, Vanier did a lot of good — more than most of us will achieve in our lifetimes. We need to remember that, as well as the bad things; but, of course, we want our heroes to be flawless, and in the Catholic Church we are keen to make saints of our heroes. When we see they are neither, we are disappointed, maybe even feel a little foolish. I was once at a meeting where Jean Vanier spoke. What he said was inspiring, but I felt uncomfortable at the way he was being treated. At any moment, I thought, someone is going to genuflect before him. Happily, no-one did, but it was clear that no-one was going to challenge anything he said, either. Every word was received as incontrovertible wisdom. The sense of santo subito in the room was palpable.

Where does all that leave us now? In community we shall be praying, first and foremost, for those who have been abused; for l’Arche, its communities and supporters as they face the fall-out from the report; for forgiveness for Jean Vanier himself; and for ourselves and all who admired the work Jean Vanier did. That last may surprise you, but I think that in mourning his fall from grace and the suffering inflicted on others by his actions, we are also mourning for ourselves. We have lost an icon and our trust has been dented. More than that, we have been confronted with something we usually prefer not to admit or have difficulty fully understanding. We, like him, are a mixture of good and bad. We hope the good outweighs the bad, but sin is a brutal fact in our lives which Lent will bring into sharp focus. We may like to think we would never murder anyone, commit abuse or steal, but we are all capable of evil and can never be sure that we won’t fall into sin — especially those sins we like to think we are safe from.

Sunday’s Mass readings (Leviticus 19. 1–2, 17–18; 1 Corinthians 3. 16–23; Matthew 5. 38–48) speak to us of the holiness of God, the sacredness of the human body, and our need to emulate God’s love and compassion. There is more than enough there for us to reflect on and to stimulate prayer for forgiveness and healing. They seem to me to encapsulate Jean Vanier’s vision for l’Arche and for a more compassionate society. It would be a tragedy if, because of the hurt that has been done and the scandal now attaching to his name, the work of l’Arche were to be discredited and more were to suffer. Let’s pray it may not be so.


14 thoughts on “Fallen Heroes | Jean Vanier”

  1. I have to join you in sadness, shock and revulsion. I have his latest book “We need one another” waiting to be read. Given to me by my Spiritual Director, who has used his writing and insights to inspire some of those who he guides.

    I am not going to say anything about abuse, being that the Anglican Churches have nothing to be proud off in that respect, but hopefully, those who have been abused will be given the support and love that they so patently need and deserve.

    I am preaching on the “Transfiguration” tomorrow, and as we fast approach Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season of preparation, penitence, prayer and reflection I will have in mind those who have suffered, but also for the man himself, who despite these revelations, also deserves to be prayed for. I am hoping for a transfiguration in us that enables us to see things more clearly than in the mirror, dimly.

  2. This is beautifully written and speaks much truth. Many of us grieve today, as we face the shock and the incredulity of the news about Jean Vanier. You are right I think, to worry about the way we put people on a pedestal. Right, too, to suggest we must not forget the work that he did, and the truth of much that he wrote. He was a man of great compassion and great vision. But I grieve too, for the people who will use this revelation as yet another reason not to espouse our wonderfully rich faith. It is yet another barrier. So I join willingly in your suggested prayers. God bless you in your ministry.

  3. Of course, Jean Vanier is dead, so cannot speak to these charges, either to refute or beg forgiveness. If they are true, and I have no reason to believe or not believe the findings, not having read the investigative reports, we can only hope he repented of his sins and took them to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Little comfort for his victims, though. Little comfort for the rest of us because when someone’s sins are made public we all suffer ridicule for continuing to support the Catholic Church.

    We are all sinners to one degree or another and whether we care to admit it or not even our seemingly (in our own view) small sins impact others. I do find it odd, though, that this has come to light only days away from Ash Wednesday. It seems Lent and Advent are the popular liturgical seasons to slag the Church publicly, in general.

  4. Thank you for addressing this news/tragedy on many levels. It’s heartbreaking. I join you in praying for healing. Lord, you set us free. Help us respond as we should, live as we should.

  5. So,so sad, and so humbling. I think the present day almost ‘worship’ of famous human icons is at the root of it. Let’s not despair. God is still there in His Heaven.

  6. God bless you, Sister, for grasping this nettle. A voice of steady calm in the midst of crashing breakers. This news is one of the saddest in a long line of sad stories.

  7. Once again I recall the words that C.S. Lewis put into the mouth of the senior devil Screwtape: “nowhere do we tempt so successfully as at the very steps of the altar”.

  8. This has been sad news indeed and at first I confess unbelievable. Jean Vanier had many insights which have been helpful in enhancing the quality of human relationships. Speaking personally it confirms in me a thought that was also brought to mind by the revelations about former bishop Peter Ball. I have mistaken Christianity for attendance or affiliation with the church. Looking back I realise how church going has been for me a substitute for living a self examined life. That time is passing. The illusion fades. Maybe it is about growing up and should have happened long ago.

  9. I’m surprised no one has mentioned that internal investigations into matters such as this should have long ago become a thing of the past. Their reports can neither be believed nor disbelieved, so are useless. They need to arrange an independent external investigation.

  10. Why doesn’t the Catholic church change it’s views on celibacy? What frustration must be caused to so many men in the Catholic church. I fail to see why they hold to this so called doctrine when the first Pope was married !

    • Jean Vanier was a Catholic layman, not a priest. Celibacy of the clergy is a discipline, not a doctrine, and some priests and many deacons are married. If you look online, you will find masses of arguments for and against celibacy of the clergy, but that would take us too far from the subject of this post.

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